Sticking the Landing

Last week I was a guest on The Diane Rehm Show, where I took part in a panel on Paul Auster’s 2009 novel, Invisible. Audio and a transcript of the full hour are available online, but the very brief version is that while all of us—Rehm, George Washington University creative writing teacher Lisa Page, the Washington Post‘s Neely Tucker, and myself—are all admirers of the book, we split on our feelings about its closing pages. They found it frustrating, if not comically bad; one caller got in a funny line that Auster has a way of writing the best three-fourths of a novel you’ll ever read before he disappoints you.

But I like the ending; I did when I first read the book as I was reviewing it, and I do now, having read it a second time. To summarize what’s led up to this contentious chapter (spoilers from here on out): Invisible is mostly set in 1967 and concerns Rudolf Born, a shady and increasingly malicious man with a history of intelligence work who’s unsettled the life of Adam Walker, a Columbia University undergrad. Born has dangled a few mundane temptations involving sex and money Adam’s way, but Adam grows increasingly suspicious about his benefactor. Born’s dangerousness is confirmed when he kills an assailant on the street and (Adam believes) needlessly stabs him a dozen more times. To exact a kind of revenge, Adam attempts to derail Born’s plans to marry a woman in France. The marriage doesn’t happen, but not especially thanks to Adam’s efforts; wise to Adam’s scheming, Born pulls a few strings and has the young meddler sent back to the States.

The troublesome final pages of the book are made up of a series of diary entries by Cecile, Born’s almost-daughter-in-law, as she visits Born in his haunt on Quillia, a mythical Caribbean island. “Haunt” seems to be the appropriate word here—Born, 35 years after his run-ins with Adam, is a broken man, Kurtz-like in his isolation, living in a stone house on top of a mount. It takes an hour to reach the place on foot; as if to stress its otherworldliness, the place is called Moon Hill. Born has lost none of his imperiousness, but Cecile tells us he’s turned ugly: He has:

a great medicine ball of a stomach now, a with most of the hair gone from his head, his skull reminded me of a volleyball. A ridiculous image, I know, but the mind is always churning forth its quirky nonsense, and that was what I saw when he stood up and approached me: a man composed of two spheres, a medicine ball and a volleyball. He is much bigger, then, but not whalelike, not blubbery or drooping with flab—just large.

Ridiculous indeed: Born claims to be “in perfect health,” proposes marriage to Cecile (whom he hasn’t contacted in more than 30 years), suggests she help write a fictionalized version of his memoirs, all but says he had her father killed, and sings the praises of the Cold War. Repulsed, Cecile gets out quick; annoyed, a few readers wondered why this story couldn’t resolve less absurdly. But I don’t think Auster’s goal was ever to bring Born’s evil to some sort of clean resolution—he just wants to stress its persistence, and make Born an allegory for modern-day imperialism and war-mongering without being too noisy about it. “War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul,” Born says very early in the novel, and Invisible is a surreal, noirish vision of what happens to a person who truly believes such a thing.

So the stranger the better, but the strangeness of Invisible‘s closing pages are in keeping with the increasing grotesqueness of Born’s character. By the end, he’s gleeful at the prospect of mass death:

Drowned cities, obliterated continents, the end of everything. You’ll still be alive, Cecile. You’ll get to see it happen, and then you’ll drown. You’ll drown with all the others, all the billions of others, and that will be the end. How I envy you, Cecile. You’ll be there to see the end of everything.

How much more contemptuous can somebody get than to cheer on the end of the world? Had Born made such proclamations in the early pages of the novel, Invisible would be an immediate turnoff; who wants to read a novel about somebody so sociopathic? But Auster gets to that point carefully. To say that war is the purest expression of the human soul isn’t particularly appealing either, but it’s an intriguing worldview—one that pulls us in as much as it does Adam. When we first meet Born, we’re stand-ins for Adam, sucked in and eager to know more. By the end we’re stand-ins for Cecile, wise to Born’s warped vision, and eager to escape it. That’s a clean ending, for Auster or anybody else.

Ordinary People

Martin Greenberg and Paula Fox‘s essay in the New York Review of Books on Howard Norman’s 2010 novel, What Is Left the Daughter, was nice to see, though I don’t know if it’ll do much to make a sale. More to the point, the piece seems to skirt much of what makes Norman an interesting writer. What Greenberg and Fox largely admire in the novel is its hardscrabble, workaday milieu—the residents of a coastal town in Newfoundland going about their business until some bad news involving love and murder intrudes. As they put it, “Norman blends the ordinary with the ordinary … throughout the novel so that the ordinary, deepening, acquires more than ordinary weight.”

This makes sense if you define “ordinary,” as Greenberg and Fox seem to, as relating to working-class folk and their simple ways. In discussing this “ordinary” aspect of the novel, the authors are riffing on a passage in which the narrator, Wyatt, takes a job fishing junk out of Halifax’s port. As they point out, a lot of funny things end up in the water, and the job has a funny name (“detritus gaffer”). But, as is often the case in this novel (and 1994’s The Bird Artist, this novel’s close cousin), a grimness and gallows humor usually accompanies such scenes. Wyatt writes about something else he found in the water, an object Greenberg and Fox neglect to mention:

[W]e’ve had one suicide, too, floating face-down near the mouth of the harbor. Fishing line had twisted his fishing pole around his leg like a splint. That sight was hard to take… We held the poor fellow against the hull of our boat with gaffing hooks, used the walkie-talkie, and waited there until the harbor police took over. We knew it was a suicide because the next morning an article in the Mail said he—his name was Russell Leminster—had left a note to that effect. “Who knows,” Evie said, “what goes through someone’s mind, eh? Maybe he felt a sense of order was important, so he went fishing first. Then came the next thing.”

What Norman is routinely drawing your attention to within this ordinariness is strangeness, usually of a mordant sort. In Daughter, that’s built into Wyatt’s character, who tells us on page four that, “My own mother, Katherine, and my father, Joseph, leapt from separate bridges in Halifax on the same evening.” It’s in a newspaper headline on the event (“LOCAL BOY ORPHANED BY BRIDGES”) and in the fact that his mother died with a collection of 58 radios. It’s in his cousin Tilda’s interest not only in becoming a “professional mourner” but in her compulsion to memorize obituaries and compose her own fictional ones. When violence explodes out of a setting like this, it feels strange as well—fated, almost magical. As the murder central to the novel occurs, Wyatt recalls that “things then seemed to happen in a dream—I mean, in the way a dream can tamper with all common sense, make you feel you’re both participating in something and watching at some remove.”

The Bird Artist, which shares Daughter‘s setting and a central character who’s an earnest, heartsick young man, might be a better example of the storm-clouded mood Norman is capable of conjuring. Though we know that novel’s central murder on page one, its drama comes from its intense, willful characters and the unusual work of its residents; the narrator and source of the book’s title is skilled at drawing and painting birds, and undergoes intense training via correspondence from an impossible-to-please teacher. The drama is also part of the novel’s language itself, rich not just with unusual professions and names but details about classical music and lists of birds (puffins, auks, cormorants, water pipits, three-toed woodpeckers, diver ducks, harlequins, grey jays, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and on and on.)

Strange, but not comical. And not melodramatic either, though Norman’s plots involving love and murder could easily accommodate the latter. Norman’s precision with language helps him avoid that concern, as does his precision with time. He routinely gives precise dates for signature events in both novels: “So there I was, a spectacle for every Haligonian to pity, victim of a SORDID LOVE TRIANGLE, orphaned all of a single hour, on August 27, 1941, between six and seven o’clock…” At first it seems gimmicky, an attempt to apply a patina of history-book authenticity to the narrative. But in both novels, dates are anchors, reminders that there is indeed a real world these characters occupy, however detached their minds and actions might drift from it.

Norman has a beautiful nonfiction piece in the new Conjunctions—an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir—that’s also anchored in a particular date: “Radio From the Cities” takes place on December 8, 1980, the day John Lennon was killed. Norman was in the Northwest Territories, recording folktales told by the locals, and that night he grieved with members of a local Beatles cover band called Nanook the Gook. As in his novels, the setting here is drab and a bit forbidding—it’s snowing hard that night—but Norman can bring a mystical feel to a fact-based story too. A radio host’s weather report, we learn, “included recriminations”—notices on who in town might have offended a spirit named Sedna, who brought on the ill weather. The excerpt ends with a folktale that captures the mood of the place better than any bit of reportage would, but the mood emerges in the cold facts of the story too. When the radio brings the news about Lennon, Norman writes, “I imagined then this radio message physically manifesting itself as a net and floating out in the air into eternity.” Tuning into shortwave stations, he notes that “the death of John Lennon was being talked about in so many languages it was mind-boggling. It was a murder translated everywhere.” An ordinary moment, but, in his hands, not.

Links: Unstructured Play

Robert Coover: “A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”

Visiting the Orlando house where Jack Kerouac drafted The Dharma Bums.

Is blogging dying? (via) When people say this it’s a safe bet that what’s really being said is, “Blogging is dead as a way to make money.”

A reference librarian at Gallaudet University, a premier school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., on the deaf protagonist of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness—or at least muteness—appears to be a device that allows him to work as a “blank slate” on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses—or lack thereof—to their needs.”

Tales from Norman Mailer‘s Brooklyn lair.

Rachel Syme asks what would constitute a revival of 90s books. You could make a small shelf of what you might call alt-rock lit, including Pagan Kennedy‘s The Exes; Bruce ThomasThe Big Wheel, a roman a clef about his bandmate Elvis Costello; and, of course, Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity, increasingly an artifact from the time when record stores were cultural hubs.

Nelson Algren to a student: “Reading this was like trying to nap when somebody is pushing a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window.” Related: Chicago magazine’s Whet Moser unearths a 1988 feature on Algren chronicling his last days in Sag Harbor, where he lived—not particularly happily—in the orbit of Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and Betty Friedan.

[Paul] Auster has even published six of his novels in Danish before they appeared in his native English.”

Victoria Best writes on how Willa Cather‘s books were co-opted by critics for their own purposes, and adds some excellent additional thoughts on the role of the critic in general.

Mark McGurl versus Elif Batuman on MFA programs, with additional thoughts from D.G. Myers and Seth Abramson. Questions of historical accuracy and needless snark aside, I’m struck by this bit from McGurl: “[P]art of my motive for adopting this position [that postwar fiction is the richest and most multifaceted body of fiction available], at first, was that no one else has ever wanted to occupy it. Some instinct told me that praise would, in this case, be a more powerful critical instrument than blame, troubling my colleagues in creative writing (What, he doesn’t hate us? What’s up with that?) just as much as it would the members of my own uncreative tribe, the literary scholars, for whom contempt for the discipline of creative writing had become lazily automatic.” McGurl later expresses actual respect and admiration for the stuff, but to say you like something because it is “rhetorically strategic” to, even in part, seems disingenuous. (I haven’t read The Program Era, so I don’t know if that attitude works its way into the pages of the book itself.)

Richard Ford: “Michigan is the place we think of when we think about work in America. It’s where people stick a thermometer when they want to take the temperature of the economy and understand how people are getting along.” Recommendations of great Michigan fiction welcome. (via)

David Foster Wallace‘s Kenyon College commencement speech inspired many of the graduates who were there. It may have done a little something for Mel Gibson too.

Dismal-Science Fiction

Responding to the news that Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement has been nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award (a British science fiction prize) Ron Hogan has taken a look at the science fiction elements in that book and a couple of other Powers novels. Generosity is something of a slam-dunk on that front, as Hogan points out: “Not only does the science of Generosity have the abstract potential to change lives, the exploration of that science DOES change the lives of the characters involved,” Hogan writes.

The connections aren’t always so clear in other Powers’ novels, but Hogan brings up some interesting points in relation to 2006’s The Echo Maker and 1988’s Prisoner’s Dilemma—the latter of which reveals “Powers’ fascination with the mind’s role in defining our experience of reality, and the ways we seek to identify and push against the limitations of that experience.” That may be a loose definition of science fiction in general, but Powers is more concerned about the scientific details of “mind,” “reality,” and “experience” than many novelists. (The proof of that might be in the way publications turn the genre term into a pun when writing about Powers; the Nation‘s review of The Echo Maker was titled “Science Fiction,” and the New Yorker‘s review of Generosity was subtitled “The scientific fictions of Richard Powers.”)

Powers’ fixation on such details isn’t always to his credit: Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of two Powers novels I couldn’t finish, and as Hogan points out, the novel’s “characters read like templates rather than people.” A better turned example of Hogan’s argument might be Powers’ 1998 novel, Gain, which alternates between the history of Clare Corp., a small soap company that becomes a multinational chemical conglomerate, and a middle-aged woman whose ovarian cancer may be connected to the company’s products. There’s plenty of chemistry and oncology in the novel, enough to justify at least another punning “science fiction” tag, but the discipline Powers is mostly interested in in Gain, is economics, and its power to shape our mind, reality, and experience.

Laura Bodey, the hero of the novel and its cancer patient, is “a woman who has heard, yet has not heard,” Powers writes early on—somebody aware of what she needs to be as a mother, (ex) spouse, worker, and citizen, but disinterested in the larger forces that will ultimately affect her. When she hears a couple of farmers discussing details about agribusiness in the supermarket, she tunes it out; uncomfortable even with the question “paper or plastic?” in the checkout line, she punts and responds, “Whatever is easiest.” Still, Powers never makes Laura out to be either a Midwestern rube or a puppet controlled by larger geopolitical forces, though it’s clear that going in either direction would be easy. As the book’s reviewer for the Washington Post, (science fiction writer) Thomas Disch, put it, “Laura’s suffering as she soldiers through her prescribed regimen of chemotherapy is evoked in unsparing detail, but it is not blamed on Big Medicine. All the misery in the book is just part of daily life and death, and the moments of transcendence, while often spectacularly beautiful, are just that—moments.”

But though Powers declines to render Laura as a victim, her experience isn’t wholly disconnected from Clare Corp.’s work. As the novel progresses, Laura becomes increasingly aware of the company’s control over her life, the way it knows her better than she knows herself:

Who told them to make all these things? But she knows the answer to that one. They’ve counted every receipt, more carefully than she ever has. And wasn’t she born wanting what they were born wanting to give her? Every thought, every pleasure, freed up by these little simplicities, the most obvious of them already worlds beyond her competence.

The kicker to that passage reveals Powers’ understanding that however much we might resent these toxic chemicals and craven obsession with balance sheets, we are generally willing to succumb to it. Imagining that the corporation might invent a treatment called Cancer-Be-Gone, Laura thinks, “She’d sell just about anything but the kids to get it. If the cure lasted for only, say, ten years, at the end of which the vendor wanted the most unthinkable item in trade, she’d still sign.” He may have written no stronger argument for the way science changes lives.

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham‘s] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

God, Money, Gators

The first story in Karen Russell‘s debut collection, 2006’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” a tale set in Swamplandia!, a down-on-its-heels Florida amusement park. The surface of the story is gothic—dead mom, absent father, abduction, dreams of ghostly possession—but its essence is a simple tale about sisterhood. Ava and Ossie Bigtree, 12 and 16 respectively, separate and connect over men, and much of what makes their experience so compelling is its otherworldly setting—a fairy-tale land with everything twee and magical erased. Swamplandia! feels not just like a different place but a different planet, normalized only by the unsettling sibling rivalry within it.

Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, expands the Bigtree saga, and it preserves many of the peculiar elements of the original story—the beautiful but intimidating fecundity of the Florida swamps and the tales of possession especially. But it’s also a conventional novel for all that: Swamplandia! has the familiar structure of an immigrant narrative or assimilation novel. Russell has to diminish the strangeness of Swamplandia! to make it fit that shape; the park is now feels less like a netherworld and more like a peculiar, debt-struck foreign country. And as its characters leave the park they call home, they chase the same question that frames a lot of assimilation novels: Is it better, in an new land, to chase spirituality or money?

Russell brings a lot of imagination to setting up the question. Ava’s initial spiritual journey is more eerie than churchy, in keeping with the novel’s Through the Looking-Glass epigraph: She travels deep into the swamp to find Ossie, who she believes has eloped with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, a young man who died during the Great Depression on a dredging ship. “This would be a different kind of voyage, I thought, and felt a little yellow slurry of excitement,” Ava writes. “Sister hunting. Ghost seeking.” As for money: Their brother, Kiwi (nonexistent in the short story), has shoved off for the mainland in an attempt to earn enough to save Swamplandia! He botches it at first, doing scutwork at the World of Darkness, a hell-themed, anti-Disney amusement park. He’s scorned by his colleagues (who nickname him Margaret Mead, as if his role as anthropologist/interloper weren’t clear enough), and he routinely proves himself inept at grasping basic social norms.

You feel for Kiwi, but for much of the novel there’s little doubt which path Russell thinks is more worth taking. Ava, who makes the most direct pleas for the reader’s sympathy, is contemptuous of any effort to become a part of the commercial mainstream. Mainlanders “lived like cutlery in drawers,” she says. When Kiwi expresses an early interest in moving to the mainland and attending high school, she thinks he “wanted to give up our whole future for—what? A sack of cafeteria fries? A school locker?” The World of Darkness is an “exotic invasive species of business.” Better to be in Swamplandia!, run-down as it is, because the place is full of charm and drama (and memories of the siblings’ late mother), not to mention feisty alligators. “THE ALLIGATOR IS AN ANACHRONISM THAT CAN EAT YOU,” says a sign appealing to tourists at the park.

Russell only takes her critique so far, though. What ensues isn’t a study of Kiwi’s defeat at the hands of capitalism, or of the consequences of succeeding within it, but a split-the-difference cop-out: Kiwi’s tale evokes a Horatio Alger story. Those books are often thought of as fables about how you succeed by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but they don’t quite work that way; as Russell Nye writes in The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, they’re about young men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and climb the ladder, sure, but who ultimately succeed thanks to a chance opportunity. Alger’s notion of fiction as a moral guide doesn’t seem especially appealing to Russell (or any 21st century fiction writer), so it’s hard to figure what she wants to say when the story takes an Algerish twist and (spoiler) Kiwi saves the life of a young girl who just happens to be the daughter of the CEO of the corporation that runs the World of Darkness. Maybe it’s that success in a foreign land is too rare to bother addressing honestly, which would be fine if mainland society were the only thing in Swamplandia! getting satirized. But Kiwi becomes the butt of the joke too, and that’s odd: For all his ineptitude, Kiwi is a sympathetic character, somebody who enters mainland society because he clearly sees the decrepitude of where he’s being raised. Ultimately he feels like little more than a comic bungler, which gets problematic when Russell wants us to feel genuine disappointment as Kiwi discovers what his father has been doing on the mainland to save the family park.

Ultimately, Kiwi seems leveraged for the sake of plot mechanics, as a way to legitimize the way he winds up reconnecting with both her sisters. And as for them, the spiritual questions Russell raises (What would it mean to inhabit a life with a ghost? Where can you actually connect with them? How much of that connection is in our heads? If the siblings could bond with their mother, would that be a good or a bad thing? What do you believe in, if not the underworld?) get short shrift. Ava and Ossie become disillusioned; they are rescued; they reunite with family. That these last points are rushed through feels like a missed opportunity: Russell renders Swamplandia!, the World of Darkness, and the crises they represent so clearly in the opening that it’s frustrating to watch them dissipate in the final pages. “The show really must go on,” Ava tells us in the closing paragraph, but there’s no show left to perform; just a mainland limbo the Bigtrees are left to muddle through.