Mailer’s Last Stand

The new issue of PEN America includes a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the 1986 PEN Congress, which was organized by Norman Mailer and brought in dozens of top-shelf writers: Czeslaw Milosz, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Susan Sontag, E.L. Doctorow, Mario Vargas Llosa, and so on. On the evidence of a pair of excerpts available online, squabbling was the order of the day during the conference: Saul Bellow and Günter Grass got into a brief slapfight about poverty in America, while during the closing session Mailer labored to explain why so only 16 of the 117 participants in the congress were women. Many notable female invitees turned him down, he explained, then climbed upon a high horse:

But you are all middle-class women, as I am a middle-class man, and in the middle class—if I may finish—the center of activity is obligatory excellence. There’s no excuse for the middle class if they don’t become progressively more excellent. I will take full responsibility for the list we ended up with. And I’ll take it without bitterness but with the whimsy, in my own heart, that there were six months for everyone to complain, and you did choose the week of the congress to come down. [SHOUTS FROM THE FLOOR.]

In New York magazine, Rhonda Koenig shed a little more light on how petty the discussions could get (including some parrying between Mailer and Koenig herself). Much of it seems to have been reflective of the Cold War politics of the time—when Updike praised the sweet corner mailbox provided for him by the U.S. Postal Service, Doctorow worried about the missile silo nearby, and just about everybody was unhappy that secretary of state George Shultz was invited to speak. And Koenig captures the congress’ raucous collapse:

As some women began leaving, shouting as they went, Mailer called after them “You can leave with the surrogate literary pope’s blessing, and “Thank you for your courtesy.” Norman Mailer had blown it yet again. Though all his remarks were correct, they weren’t the right ones to hurl at an audience of frazzled, indignant women, especially not by someone with Mailer’s history of sexual swagger and woman-baiting. Well, as Vargas Llosa rather sweetly put it, “Perhaps one good thing that comes from these conferences is that we see great writers are human, too.”

Ceaselessly Into the Past

Washington City Paper is running my review of Tom Carson‘s new novel, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, a 600-plus-page comic tale whose protagonist, Pamela, gets a front-row seat to some of the key events and figures of World War II and the Cold War. Though the title suggests a kind of sequel to The Great Gatsby, the two books are about as similar to each other as Julie Andrews‘ “My Favorite Things” and John Coltrane‘s:

Right, about Gatsby. Though he expands on some of the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel—Daisy becomes a junkie, Nick Carraway becomes an adman and then a monk—it’d be off-target to call Carson’s book a sequel. Carson makes no attempt to ventriloquize Fitzgerald’s writing; he’s clearly not interested in its concision. The spirit of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is closer to that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which provides another rich mine of pun fodder for Carson. Yet Pamela’s voice is Huckish only in its defiance and common sense, not its sound. Carson riffs on his inspirations, but he never echoes them. Why bother? As Twain would say, we’ve been there before.

Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter has a closer kinship to Carson’s previous novel, 2003’s Gilligan’s Wake, which displays the same style of furious, pun-heavy riffing. (At least in the early pages; I haven’t finished it, but eagerly intend to.) Last month on the blog Work-in-Progress, Carson wrote about some of the connections between Wake, Gatsby, and the new novel:

This isn’t even my first trip to F. Scott’s attic. I’d borrowed Daisy Buchanan to star in an episode of my novel Gilligan’s Wake back in 2003 and didn’t want to try the same trick twice. But then a sentence I’d written fairly idly in the spiteful voice of the future “Lovey” Howell, Daisy’s imaginary crony in the Jazz Age — “Of course, her daughter, Pamela Buchanan, became a writer, and I suppose that’s as good a way as any to fritter away your life when you’re too homely to catch a man” — started insisting it was an embryo. The next thing I knew, my grown-up Pam was sharing a laugh with Jack Kennedy after her bestselling book Glory Be got beaten out for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize by JFK’s Profiles in Courage.

In plenty of people’s eyes, this kind of bricolage is literary and for that matter historical parasitism. That’s a legitimate take. I’ve never had any interest myself in reading, say, Lo’s Diary. Maybe one reason Nabokov never learned to drive was that he just didn’t want to deal with pathetic or obnoxious hitchhikers. On the flip side — and I’m leaving myself out of this comparison, just noting the extremes –who’d want to tell Tom Stoppard that writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead betrayed his lack of originality?

The test of any idea is what you do with it.

True. And though the novel has its flaws—it gets saggy in places, and some of the gags get wearying—but Carson unquestionably has written something wholly original.

Carolyn Cooke’s Privileged Lives

Carolyn Cooke‘s debut novel, Daughters of the Revolution, deserves a fairer shake than what it got in the Washington Post from Jonathan Yardley, who wrote that it “is almost wholly without redeeming qualities.” Yardley’s argument, in essence, is that the book is failure as a prep-school novel in the manner of Louis AuchinclossThe Rector of Justin. Cooke, Yardley writes, neglects substance for the sake of taking shots at WASP patriarchy, deals in heavy-handed lectures about identity politics, and “has a fetish for names that belabor the obvious” such as calling the troubled school at the book’s center the Goode School and giving its self-satisfied headmaster the nickname God.

But given that Daughters of the Revolution features a character who has her nipple grafted onto her forehead after it was bitten off by her abusive husband, Auchincloss may not exactly be the appropriate reference point for this book. (Also: Left unexplained in Yardley’s review is why God’s name belabors the obvious while the name of the hero of Rector, Justin Martyr, doesn’t.) (See comment below.) In any event, Cooke’s episodic, impressionistic novel isn’t concerned with prep-school life per se. What she wants to explore is how the constrictions of such places shape a person years after she’s left it, in how much of its tutelage she accepts or rejects.

Central to that discussion is EV, the character Cooke follows the most closely and engagingly. EV knows life under the Goode School’s shadow: Her late father was an alumnus and her mother was once romantically entangled with God. Across the years the book covers—the early 60s to 2005—EV escapes New England, endures bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad neighbors, ultimately arriving at sense of independence: “Now she knew: I can say yes; I can say no.” Key to that feeling, Cooke argues, is her learning when to embrace Goode’s lessons and when to reject them. In one chapter she spends a summer delving into Moby-Dick, “which turned out to contain some fairly urgent dispatches”—she quotes passages from it relating to integrity, individuality, and backbone as she pursues a lazy fling. But just as meaningful to her is the cache of pornography she discovers in her great-aunt’s home after she dies. “I learned the structure, the shape of the sexual story. The magazines called to me more strongly than Moby-Dick, which I’d been assigned for a course called Leviathans of Literature: Scaling the Immense American Novel.”

The ridiculous course title suggests what Cooke is up to—she isn’t using her characters to annihilate the entries in the canon, just the way the canon becomes puffed up by a sense of privilege. The contradictions inherent in “appropriate” learning is something the other lead female character, Carole, gets at when she recalls her experience as the first black female student at Goode: “My whole consciousness was black and poor and female every second of every day. The experience damaged, sharpened, and defined me, and I would not trade it for anything.”

God, too, is often ridiculous, priding himself on his progressiveness while blinkered to his prejudices. (“What do women want? Women on the syllabus when they haven’t read what’s on the syllabus. Birth-control pills! Hup! They want to be lesbians! They don’t know what they want; they’re ungrateful, hostile and sexed-up. We have been notoriously liberal and fair-minded.”) Yet God isn’t solely set up for mockery. He has an interior life throughout the novel, and he’s increasingly willing to question his assurances—if only to himself. “How sternly he had believed in himself! He had put that fire into every boy he could; he’d taught them that these poems, these rhythms, these meters, these themes, these characters were better than all the rest. How did he know? Who had told him? What if he’d been wrong?”

The tragedy of the novel isn’t that prep schools or privilege ruin lives, or anything so didactic. The tragedy is God’s incapacity to acknowledge his privilege to anybody but himself, and then only obliquely. Daughters of the Revolution reveals the consequences of that incapacity.

National Characters

Thomas C. Foster‘s Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America has an easygoing, folksy vibe that’s hard to get mad at but harder to enjoy as it goes along. A professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint, Foster whittled down the whole of American literature to a shortlist of books, mostly fiction, that cover a lot of ground in terms of history and diversity—he recently discussed his culling strategy with the Atlantic. But the final selections pretty much stick to warhorses like Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Cather, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, etc.

That’s fine in itself; any book that presumes to create a canon has to reckon with those writers in some way or another anyhow. What’s frustrating is the way Foster turns so many of the books selected to into exemplars of big-hearted, roughage-eating, old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble, jus’-plain-folks American-ness. A book qualified for the list, Foster writes in the introduction, if it spoke to the idea of change, by which he means “something that helps develop the national character, that defines but also in some way directs who and, possibly more importantly, what we are.” He didn’t want novels that moralized or had a specific lecture to deliver (he avoided Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle for that reason). But his choices promote, if not a value system, then at least a kind of mythology—American literature as a thoroughly wholesome body of work. Hawthorne shows us that “we are a people who are going someplace, and that place is not behind us.” Thoreau says, “Wait a minute, they say, have you tried meeting nature on its own terms? Actually looked at it? Smelled it? Listened to its racket—and its silence?” Whitman “teaches us to become Americans—open, positive, assertive, confident, forward-looking, unafraid, boisterous, contentious, passionate.” Moby-Dick is “big sprawling, brilliant, occasionally chaotic, impassioned, violent, generous, tragic, mirthful, so various that it cannot be pinned down. Sound like anyplace you know?” Sam Spade is “pure American. Tough. Unafraid. Good with his fists or his gun. Adept at street lingo and wisecracks.”

And so on. Enough of this and it’s more than tempting to jump ship for Henry Miller, a sleazier Roth novel, or the literature of a different country altogether. It’s unfortunate that the tone and conclusions of so many of the book’s essays feel reverse-engineeered from a Morning in America ad, because Foster can be a great close reader, and when he’s deep in the text his bromides become blessedly irrelevant. His essay on John Dos Passos draws a straight line from the U.S.A. trilogy back to Whitman, he tidily lays out the targets of satire of The Crying of Lot 49, and his piece on The Great Gatsby shows how its narration, imagery, and themes of disillusionment work together to create its vision of Jazz Age decadence. But in the last paragraph of the Gatsby essay Foster backslides from criticism and into homiletics: “So what’s the deal with a bunch of seedy people with challenged ethics? I hate to bring this up, but they’re us.”

It’s the “us” in that sentence I find grating. Was Fitzgerald trying to speak so broadly about “us,” or was his audience the individual reader, the “I” who can find his or her own greed and narcissism mirrored in its pages? The “us” and “we” that Foster regularly intones is the occupational hazard of making a list of books that “shape” an entire nation—the idea of a work being widely admired is conflated with the idea of a work having a single message to deliver or its making a common statement about a whole group of people. Foster took pains to avoid books with a message, but in the process he often lapses into celebrating books for having a narrow social utility. The selections model a scruffy patriotism, civic right-thinking, esteem, and uplift—though Foster’s no Pollyanna, he has a way of pitching even novels like The Grapes of Wrath as exemplars of stick-to-it-ive-ness. (It may say something that one of his chief examples of antiauthoritarian literature is The Cat in the Hat.) The books’ themes are stretched to fit across an entire country, but if there’s any broad statement to be made about “us,” it’s that we don’t live in a country like that, and we resist finding value in a literature like that.

The Ten Great Authors of 1963

Researching a review of David Stacton‘s reissued 1961 novel about John Wilkes Booth, The Judges of the Secret Court, I pulled up a 1963 Time article about the future of American literature. In “The Sustaining Stream,” the magazine’s editors (its articles didn’t carry bylines then) placed Stacton on a top-ten list of promising novelists that included Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Richard Condon, John Knowles, John Updike, Philip Roth, H.L. Humes, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud.

You’ll see the pattern instantly, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the recent discussion of Esquire‘s list of 75 books every man should read, which included precisely one book by a woman. (Weirdly, this is a rebooted dustup: The article first appeared in 2008, prompting the blog Jezebel to create an alternative list at the time.) Perhaps sensing a slight potential cause for concern, Time did include Harper Lee on its list of additional authors of note.

But casual sexism in the early 60s about literary greatness isn’t much of shock; what’s more interesting about the piece is how it works as a piece of journalism. On the evidence of the article’s length (3,000 words), a list of writers deemed by Time to be important was something of an event (when the Huffington Post assembles a list of important writers, it’s a day that ends in “Y”), and at least a few of the included writers felt compelled to comment for it. Ellison voices his frustration with his never-finished second novel: “Some days I don’t even finish a page, and often that’s no good. But I’m not depressed about it. I like what I’ve done, mainly.” And the writers felt comfortable taking swipes at each other: Updike calls Roth’s Letting Go “overblown,” and Stacton says of Updike, “I wish he could find something important to say.”

Stacton was speaking like somebody with nothing to lose: As John Crowley explains in his introduction to the new edition of The Judges of the Secret Court, Stacton had written nine literary novels as well as “some crime and Western paperbacks under his own name,” but none had sold well. The Time appearance did help him get an American publisher for his novel about Horatio Nelson, but according to Crowley it sold only 5,000 copies. Stacton kept writing until he died in 1968, but he’s remained pretty much unknown since.

Crowley’s theory about Stacton’s obscurity is that he wrote trim, somber historical novels at a time when historical novels were supposed to be weighty and swashbuckling. “‘Colorful’ was the indispensable adjective,” Crowley writes. “Stacton, in a literal sense, is quite often colorless: his is a world of grays and sables and pallid dimness. Instead of acting, many of his characters only pretend to act; they brood or are brooded on by the author.”

Fair enough. The Judges of the Secret Court is the only Stacton novel I’ve read, and it’s as brooding as Crowley suggests. Indeed, its major flaw is that his portrait of Booth’s madness following Lincoln’s assassination is so intense that the novel loses much of its energy after Booth dies—there’s still a third of a book left, but with no one character nearly as interesting. Stacton’s approach may have made it hard for him to get an audience 50 years ago, when (if Crowley’s right) a successful novel about the Lincoln assassination would say more about dead statesmen and heroic investigators than triggermen and kangaroo courts. But a half-century of growing cynicism about statesmen, along with an increased interest in triggermen, makes Stacton’s novel feel almost contemporary. We’re ready for him now.