Links: Gag Rule

Shalom Auslander answers most of the questions in his Q&A with the Rumpus with jokes. Which makes moment when he (more or less) doesn’t, in response to a question about the connection between comedy and morals, interesting: “Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny)…. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness—its preachiness—and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.” I’m a fan of Hope: A Tragedy, though it deserves a fuller treatment than that linked blurb.

Caitlin Flanagan bids Joan Didion farewell.

Lorrie Moore considers the Roches, who “sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.” (Suzzy Roche has just published a novel.)

Robert McCrum on skimming novels.

Madison Smartt Bell offers a brief survey of New York City in fiction: “I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon.” (Thomas Caplan‘s 1987 novel, Parallelogram, which I hadn’t heard of, sounds interesting—proof, Bell says, “that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book.”

Jonathan Lethem: “Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away. I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.”

“The best rock novels I’ve read are more embodied with rock than overtly about rock.” (Related.)

Darin Strauss on when to start stories, drawing on an assertion by one of his former teachers that “story equals trouble.”

On the New Yorker provocateur Wolcott Gibbs.

Spin magazine is pursuing a Tweet-heavy reviewing strategy. I’m not panicking: It might work for book reviewing if somebody were skilled enough to do it well. As Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts noted in a recent interview, what gets taken away in reviewing is often replaced with something else. What’s changed (maybe) is some of the the economic incentive for long reviewing: “[Y]ou take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure.”

Pico Iyer‘s essay on long sentences has one bum sentence, a short one: “If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us,” he writes. This seems to imply that there was once a time when people didn’t oversimplify debates by reducing them to simple sentences—or a time when people didn’t try to oversell points by inserting them in brocaded ones. If books are shelters from “the bombardment of the moment”—and that’s not all they ought to be—it won’t be the length of the sentences that matter.

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.