Last of the Summer Reading

Four books I’ve reviewed in the past month, each recommendable to some degree:

Amy Waldman, The Submission (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): Waldman’s debut has been eagerly covered as a “9/11 novel” because the plot’s driver is a competition for a 9/11 memorial. But the attacks are covered only glancingly here, and The Submission is more a media critique than anything—Waldman is at her best when she focuses on the ways that cable news and partisan newspapers steer public opinion, and the ways that nonpartisan coverage gets manipulated for its own ends.

Steven Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): It’s been a good year for victory-lap short-story collections, including Charles Baxter‘s Gryphon, Edith Pearlman‘s Binocular Vision, and this one from Millhauser. Certain themes emerge when his stories are placed in such close proximity—the uncertainty of childhood, the power magic both real and conjured, the authority of collective voices (“we” is the protagonist in a number of these stories). But it’s his precision that’s most impressive, particularly in “August Eschenberg,” which, fittingly, is about a young man obsessed with clockwork automatons.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility ( Gatsby-esque, as a few critics have said, but not just because it’s about the high life in pre-World War II New York. Like Gatsby, Towles’ debut chronicles one man’s hubris from a certain remove, filtered through an outsider’s impressions. Katey Kontent’s voice emphasizes sass and attitude, and Towles’ plot always seems to be busily up to something (now we’re skeet shooting with the gentry! now we’re launching a dishy magazine! now we’re changing the subject when somebody mentions the Anschluss!). But when Towles lets Katey stop and breathe a little, she’s a fine observer of the ways that money, or the need to accrue lots of it, shade character.

George Pelecanos, The Cut (Barnes & Noble Review): Following a string of standalone novels that have ranged from excellent (2006’s The Night Gardener) to rote (2009’s The Way Home), The Cut reads like Pelecanos has finally found a comfortable groove. In Spero Lucas he has a young PI he can work with for a while, and he allows himself more room to discuss how Washington, D.C., has changed since he began chronicling the city in the early 90s. (Though as USA Today reports, his next novel is set in 1972.)

Real Life Rock

Last week, critic D.G. Myers moved his litblog, A Commonplace Blog, to the website of Commentary magazine. Soon after, we got to squabbling over Dana Spiotta‘s excellent new novel, Stone Arabia. We’re both fans of the book, so we’re not disputing whether the book is any good or not. Where we split is in a small matter about how rock music is represented in it, and, in a larger matter, how much the book is an inheritor of postmodern fiction.

Myers used Stone Arabia—which focuses in part on Nik Worth, a musician who’s turned his back on early success to make music in almost total seclusion—as a launchpad for discussing rock novels, a category that’s surprisingly low in quality. I think Don DeLillo‘s 1973 novel, Great Jones Street, is an exception, though, and Nik’s character bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, a Dylanesque musician who rejects his stardom. Myers was having none of that: Great Jones Street “stinks” for the same reason End Zone stinks, he tweeted: “it is not about football as the game is played at Kyle Field, but a wild, wacky football which is more metaphor than reality.”

But in terms of metaphor and reality, I don’t think Stone Arabia considers rock music much differently than End Zone considers football, and I said as much—Nik’s character may be realistic, but his (and the novel’s) vision of rock music is off the grid. “It doesn’t follow that his music is ‘fake,’ even if his life is,” Myers responded, and I think we both learned that Twitter has its limits for arguing about books. In calling Nik’s vision of music a funhouse-mirror one, I don’t mean to suggest that the book is unrealistic, or that Nik’s motivations for his self-assigned obscurity don’t have real emotional underpinnings. Just that he’s less a rock musician than he is an outsider artist: In constructing fake albums with fake vinyl or real albums with anti-pop music on them, Nik is following in the footsteps of Mingering Mike or Jandek, acts who earned their cults as much through obsessive crafting of personas than through any actual music they produced.

Nik himself acknowledges the Henry Darger-esque quality of his pursuit: Oceans of concocted diaries, reviews, and ephemera, like a set of liner notes written by “Mickey Murray, Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music.” Nik is obviously in on his own joke, but that doesn’t make the joke any less obscure. As his niece prepares to film a documentary about him, she writes that it will be “about a life spent making music and art outside the mainstream. Way outside. It is a celebration of a devoted unrepentant eccentric…. Garageland will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.”

Which is to say that Spiotta treats Nik’s career in rock music as more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality. Its central conflict is the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise, the novel’s narrator, who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. And to better address that tension, Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook: The way the narrative deliberately breaks down, with Denise scratching out chapter titles and starting over, or the way Denise fixates on how tragic events are mediated.

That’s not to say that Stone Arabia is strictly a DeLillo-esque novel (though he delivered a rare blurb for her first novel, 2001’s Lightning Field, and he’s thanked in the acknowledgments of Stone Arabia). But like DeLillo, she’s aware of how a subculture can be used metaphorically. In the case of Nik Worth, his fake career represents not just a commentary on selling out but on how we all concoct personas. Spiotta’s achievement is in drawing out how frustrating and heartbreaking such concoctions can be.

Q&A: Evan Hughes, Literary Brooklyn

In his new book, Literary Brooklyn, Evan Hughes takes a close look at a handful of writers who have defined the borough, from (naturally) Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Paula Fox, Paul Auster, and more. Brooklyn’s current status as a literary hub has made it an attractive target for jokes, but Hughes resists both overhyping the place or indulging its critics. “[A] lot of people living in Brooklyn now might look back with nostalgia at the current era of creative ferment,” he writes, and the book’s mix of urban and literary history goes a long way toward explaining why the city has been so consistently attractive to novelists and poets.

If you happen to be in or near Brooklyn, there are a few upcoming events connected to the book. The launch party is August 16 (tomorrow night) at powerHouse Arena, and on August 26 Hughes and Nelson George will host a walking tour of literary spots in Brooklyn followed by a discussion of the book at Greenlight Bookstore. (More dates are on the book’s events page.)

Hughes answered questions about the book via email.

What is your personal relationship with Brooklyn, and how did it lead you to write this book?

I live in Brooklyn now, in Fort Greene, and I first moved there in 1998, after college. When I arrived, I knew only a little about its literary tradition and culture. It was a happy accident that Brooklyn is where I found a cheap apartment. (My own ugly place in Carroll Gardens for $750 a month—those were the days.) The discount from Manhattan is a common first impulse for writers to move to Brooklyn, and it has been for a long time, though the gap in expense has narrowed. But then, so often, a deeper relationship with the place takes hold. And when I get curious about a place, which I quickly did about Brooklyn, I want to know, What are the great novels or poems or memoirs about this place? Who are the key writers? And what portrait of the place have they created over time? Given not only Brooklyn’s rise to literary prominence but also its rich literary past, I was surprised to see that no one had written a book to address those questions about Brooklyn, to trace its history through its literature.

Literary Brooklyn seems to argue that the collected work of Brooklyn writers serves as a kind of imperfect but representative sample of the whole of American literature—Brooklyn is less like Manhattan and “more like America,” as you put it. Certainly there’s plenty about urban life, race, and assimilation in the books you discuss. But are there larger literary trends that Brooklyn doesn’t attend to?

That’s a good question. I can think of a couple examples. Brooklyn has more breathing room than Manhattan, crucially, but it’s still an urban place. Although Marianne Moore, say, wrote marvelously precise poems about animals and plants, Brooklyn lit as a whole is less focused on the natural world than is the literature of the plains states or the South or Texas, for instance. Also, Brooklyn fiction doesn’t have much in the vein of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton; it’s longer on grit and shorter on the society novel. Then again, you could say the same a number of major American cities, like Chicago; perhaps Manhattan is again more the exception than the rule (Washington Square, The Age of Innocence).

The first chapter of the book focuses on Walt Whitman, who wrote in the mid- to late 1800s, and chapter two leaps ahead to Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer wasn’t published in the United States until 1961. What was happening on Brooklyn’s literary front from the beginning of the 20th Century through the World War I era, when Miller began writing in earnest? Or is it more correct to ask about what wasn’t happening?

Not much of note was being published, but that’s not to say that nothing was being written, and it’s not to say that no books arose, indirectly, from that period. There were pockets of wealth, largely in manufacturing, but there wasn’t much of a leisure class with the time to pursue the arts and the connections that were often needed to get published. But that era saw a massive influx of immigrants from Europe, particularly Jewish immigration, that reshaped Brooklyn’s demographics and gave rise to important literature. Alfred Kazin, Daniel Fuchs, and Bernard Malamud were children of that immigrant wave, and in their work they often wrote about the experience of their own families of origin.

You mention a couple of Brooklyn writers in passing, including Gilbert Sorrentino and John Dos Passos, who didn’t quite rise to the level of his own chapter or chapter section. What criteria did an author need to meet to merit a fuller treatment? Were there writers who almost but didn’t quite make the cut?

You just mentioned two I would have liked to discuss at more length. There were tough choices, as probably there always are in writing a book. I focused mostly on authors who have not only lived in Brooklyn but also written about it, giving evidence of their relationship with the place. The book is urban history as well as literary biography, so part of my aim was to tell a story that captures the major trends that have shaped the place, and shaped the rest of urban America. So in some cases if I felt a certain theme or historical development was well-covered by discussing the life of work of one author, I would cover another similar writer more briefly.

The overall arc of the book suggests that Brooklyn’s literary culture slowly shifted from a proudly unschooled, outsiderish tribe—you point out that “Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Hart Crane together had not one semester of college”—to one more connected with “liberal brownstoners” and the Manhattan publishing world. How has that changed the tone and style of Brooklyn-based fiction? Is it now a more whitebread, “classy” creature that would exclude the likes of a Hubert Selby Jr.?

I think Selby might have a hard time getting published now; it wasn’t easy then, either. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publication owed a lot to the bravery of Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who also endured censorship battles to bring Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s work to American readers. And there are writers in Brooklyn today who consider themselves autodidacts and outsiders—and the hard time many of them are having breaking through to larger audiences is the same hard time that Whitman had. It’s part of what we mean when we say “outsiders,” right? When we talk in a decade or five about the Brooklyn writers of today, we might be talking about a different cast than we talk about now. Also, in certain respects Brooklyn’s literary culture is much more inclusive than it was in the past. You have many more women being published now than in the past, and more non-white writers as well.

If it’s true that Brooklyn was a sanctuary for artists looking for cheap rent, how likely do you think it is that we’ll see the ascendance of a literary Staten Island or a literary Queens (something that’s already happening, on the evidence of recent books by Sam Lipsyte and Ha Jin)? What is Brooklyn’s expense doing to its status as a literary hub?

It’s certainly possible we’ll continue to see more literary activity in the other “outer boroughs,” but I think Brooklyn has the advantage of a century and a half of a storied literary past. That attracts literary types. And so do Brooklyn’s trademark brownstone streetscapes where, as L. J. Davis observed, “the 19th century city is surprisingly intact.” But the rising cost of living in Brooklyn is a threat when it comes to drawing writers, no doubt about it. A place that a lot of people want to be is a place that’s more expensive, and writers, as you may have heard, do not typically make a lot of money. I don’t think, however, that the vitality of Brooklyn as a subject is going anywhere. Whether Brooklyn is becoming a better or worse place to live is a matter of spirited and sometimes acrimonious debate, but I think it’s more a question for the newspaper than a question for the novel. Literature can thrive on prosperity and it can thrive on terrible struggle—and on the tension between the two.

“My diligently constructed narrative”

Francisco Goldman‘s new book, Say Her Name, covers real people and events—it’s about a novelist and journalist named Francisco Goldman, whose wife, Aura Estrada, died in a bodysurfing accident in 2007. Say Her Name is presented as a novel, though; the dust jacket calls it the “novel of Aura.” So what makes it fiction? “I didn’t do everything the character does,” Goldman told Publishers Weekly. “I didn’t quit my job. I didn’t live off Aura’s savings.” His answer to the question to the Paris Review is a little more complicated:

I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction. I am not claiming that there is not some other side to Aura that I missed. And there is the way I portray myself: a factual account of the kind of widower I was would give a completely different impression. I was a really superb widower.

It’s hard to tell, taking those quotes together, whether Goldman played loosely with the facts or is just such an honorable stickler for accuracy that he’s more comfortable calling his memories a fiction. The book itself suggests that something closer to the latter is going on. “She died because I was being myself, an eternal adolescent, a niñote. She died because, bursting with love, I decided to join her in the water. But all of that is also an evasion of the TRUTH, against which my diligently constructed narrative collapses like a huge wave of nothing…. The utter freakishness and meaningless of it—there is the TRUTH.” The all-caps fact of the matter, for Goldman, wouldn’t fill a page; he wants to find meaning in all this, which means getting into the imprecise business of memory and feeling.

Yet however justified Goldman is in calling Say Her Name a novel, it still feels like a memoir, both for practical reasons (the real names, the lack of an any-resemblance-to-persons-living-or-dead legal boilerplate that accompanies works of fiction) and structural ones—it has the arc of somebody acknowledging and then working through his grief. That disconnect has understandably frustrated critics. “The result is somehow the worst of two worlds, a memoir you can’t trust and a novel that lacks complexity and reach,” wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “[T]he incongruity distracts; questions disrupt the novel’s dream,” Kassten Alonso wrote in the Oregonian. “At what point does the fabrication of even picaresque or piddling details outweigh major plot drivers cemented in fact?”

I suspect Alonso means to say “picayune,” but “picaresque” is actually a handy word here, because it helps get at why it’s frustrating to think about Say Her Name as a novel, which has a little to do with what we expect out of memoirs too. The book is messy, alternating short chapters with long ones, heart-in-throat proclamations of grief with plainspoken details; it shifts back and forth in time, and its foreshadowing can be awkward. “Aura put her quilt away in the closet and came back into the bedroom and finished packing for her death,” he writes, and that “packing for her death” grates—it’s a needless bit of overdramatization. Every good book finds its own rhythm; Say Her Name starts out hyperventilating and has a hard time settling down.

So there’s something seductive, even calming about the book’s latter pages, which detail the circumstances of Aura’s death. There, things do settle down: Because it’s the climax the book has been working toward, there’s a clarity to those scenes, as if it were easier for Goldman to account for the moment of his heartbreak than to deal with everything that’s happened since. The 250 or so pages leading up to it are indeed a sort of picaresque novel—episodes about random meetings, romance, fights, family, and travel. The closing pages thrust its lead character into a reality that, however “constructed,” make it a different book entirely.

That makes Say Her Name a frustrating book, but it might have been more frustrating had Goldman gone ahead and called it a memoir, because the book doesn’t play by the rules that grief memoirs are expected to abide by. In books like Darin StraussHalf a Life and Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (and her forthcoming Blue Nights), all excellent memoirs, the tone is prim and straightforward—the raw, heaving emotion that accompanies losing someone isn’t addressed head-on so much as it erupts out of the Strunk & White precision of its sentences. Even in a book like Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye, which is longer and more digressive, thinking takes priority over feeling—in describing her search for the right ways to think about her mother’s death, she asks the reader to work to notice all the emotional flailing underneath.

Goldman is having none of that—he simply lets his feelings fly open, from moment to moment, unafraid to let himself come off as foolish or Aura appear childish. (One of the book’s narrative arcs is Aura’s growing as a writer, tracking her literary history from adolescent diary entries to more mature MFA work.) The disorder of much of the narrative doesn’t make it any more charming, a glimpse into the blasted mind of a grieving husband or some such—a messy story is a messy story, in fact or in fiction. But it does have the benefit of sincerity, however fictionalized, and the benefit of Goldman’s willingness to question how much of the grieving process has to do with all-caps truth and how much with the narratives we invent to get through it. Any book that wrestles with that question will be hard to categorize.