Words Fail

Ha Jin wrote a dull novel about an atrocity, but the unsettling thing about Nanjing Requiem is that it almost seems engineered to be dull. Negative reviews of the book (and there are plenty) have tended to point out that Jin is a nonnative writer in English, and critics have cited plenty of examples of awkward phrasing in the novel. But that’s not really the book’s problem—accepting his style is a pact you make with Jin whenever you read him, and Nanjing Requiem‘s flaws aren’t a matter of an ungainly phrase or two. The flatness of his prose, when it works, acquires force over time. A Free Life, for instance, was richer for being so plainspoken; it echoed its hero’s simple, stubborn effort to establish a home with his family in America.

But A Free Life was a straightforward novel about assimilation in peaceful suburbia. Nanjing Requiem is a novel about the slaughter of thousands of Chinese by Japanese soldiers, which makes a bit of dialogue like this harder to process:

“What happened?” I asked.

“Some Japs broke into the deserted building where we stayed last night, and they cut down my dad and brothers. Then they stripped my mom and me and started torturing us. I screamed, so they punched me again and again until I lost my voice and blacked out. When I came to, I saw my mom’s body in the room. She couldn’t take it anymore and hit her head on the doorjamb and killed herself.”

Nanjing Requiem is full of tell-don’t-show writing like this, in which events that expose humanity at its most pitiless and cruel is presented in a flat register. The teenage girl describing her horrors isn’t suffering from shellshock, or at least the trauma isn’t signaled as such; this is just how Jin’s characters speak. And because these events are conveyed through dialogue, they’re stripped of more precise detail. Cut down—in what way? Started torturing us—well, how?

But that’s the issue. If I demand such details in the fiction I read, that’s my problem, not Jin’s, right? Nanjing Requiem, as the title suggests, is meant to be more of a tribute than a dramatization, a book designed to honor the dead instead of giving adjectival, metaphorical, novelistic shape to them. That approach is understandable, because stories about the Rape of Nanking have a ways of attracting melodrama. Iris Chang‘s 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, did much to bring word about the massacre to U.S. readers, but her suicide seven years later has made her into something beyond a mere journalist or historian—I hesitate to use the word “martyr,” but it’s not entirely off. There’s a statue in her honor, and I can’t think of another journalist who’s been paid tribute with a soggy ballad:

That soggy ballad exists in part because there’s a dispute about the facts as Chang reported them—the tune reflects an urge to elevate her (and thus her reporting) above criticism. (I claim no expertise on the fine points on the matter, but it’s not hard to find people intemperately arguing over the details.) There’s similar melodrama in the 2009 film John Rabe, about the so-called “good Nazi,” the head of Siemens’ Nanking outpost who helped protect thousands of Chinese in the aftermath of the attacks. It’s formally well-made, but leaves you cold—the string swells, explosions, and cliched secondary roles (loose-cannon doctor, dutiful wife, romantic subplot) make it seem like a story we’ve seen before, Schindler lite:

Nanjing Requiem reads like a retort to such squabbling—to be neither a researched work that attempts to settle the facts once and for all, nor a novel with the usual comforts of fictional narrative. The novel’s arc, to the extent it has one, focuses on Minnie Vautrin, the dean of the Nanking women’s college that took in thousands of refugees. She’s the filter for the tragedy, but the story is doubly filtered through the novel’s narrator, Anling, an assistant at the school.

That’s where the book’s problem lies, I think—fair as it is to avoid a blood-soaked narrative about the attacks, or to put Rabe or Vautrin on pedestals, Anling herself never becomes a compelling character in her own right. Her personal drama involves her son marrying a Japanese woman, but this hardly registers as drama at all—that relationship takes place offstage, and when Anling learns they have a child, her response is prim and nonplussed. “The hostility between the two countries would cast a long shadow on their marriage,” Anling thinks. Jin has claimed a place and a moment for his novel, and established how it shouldn’t be written about—he writes with solemn respect for the dead, as it should be with requiems. But a studious avoidance of melodrama seems to have stripped a sense of life among those he’s imagined to tell the story.

Links: Venting

Edith Wharton‘s birthplace is now a Starbucks.

Jeffrey Eugenides on his novel in progress: “You have to come up with a new song for every book. For now, I’ve got the song for this book. And that’s when it becomes fun. That’s why you don’t want to finish too quickly. Because the part that’s fun comes between the discovery of the song and the singing of the last note.”

Justin Cronin
: “I went to Iowa in the ’80s [and] Raymond Carver was the patron saint of all that we did, but I realized that that did not suit me particularly well. What made me want to be a writer in the first place were big, fat, epic stories that you could get yourself completely lost in.”

Northern Illinois University Press recently launched an imprint, Switchgrass Books, dedicated to Midwestern fiction.

A film version of Ha Jin‘s Waiting may soon begin shooting in China.

The Library of America’s new blog looks at fictionalizations of the life of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you’ve bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end.”

On a not-unrelated note: Celebrating John Barth‘s The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th anniversary. (I read it as a teenager and stopping about 200 pages in, but I don’t recall why I quit; I vividly recall loving it.)

Watching the World Cup with Aleksandar Hemon.

On the difficult task of editing Mark Twain‘s autobiography: “So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing…”

A reader realizes that Tom Rachman‘s entertaining book about a floundering English-language newspaper in Rome, The Imperfectionists makes more sense if you treat it as a collection of linked stories and not, as the cover suggests, a novel.

Finally, a list that exposes the silliness of lists.

Links: If You Really Want to Hear About It

Even if it means I’m forced to change the name of this blog, I have no insights to offer regarding the news that J.D. Salinger has died. Scanning my shelves for copies of his books, I discovered something that may be true for you as well. The books aren’t with me; they’re probably tucked in the shelves of the basement of my parents’ house. Salinger was something that meant a lot to me as a teenager, but I didn’t carry him with me into adulthood, and I can no more articulate his literary worth than I can explain my tween affection for The A-Team and Oran “Juice” Jones. Scanning through the short-story archives that the New Yorker has placed online did jog a few memories, though—“For Esme—With Love and Squalor,” for instance, is a reminder of how far a writer can get by making cynicism and precocity collide.

“Oh my, here am I relegated to a classroom“: What happened when you told Salinger how much you enjoyed teaching his work to high-schoolers.

Before his death, the closest thing to a new Salinger book was an effort to put his final short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” between hard covers. The publisher is now free to explain why the plan fell apart.

The classist in me always found the WASP-y focus of Louis Auchincloss‘ work deeply unappealing, but Terry Teachout argues for the brilliance of the late author’s 1964 novel, The Rector of Justin.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archives of Andre Dubus.

Investigating Philip K. Dick‘s final years in Orange County.

Handicapping a literary Super Bowl between Louisiana (Truman Capote, Walker Percy) and Indiana (Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Dreiser).

American writers may be helping Indian literature fall into a rut.

But at least one Indian interviewer figures the country can learn from Raymond Carver. (via HTMLGiant)

A new biography on the final years of Mark Twain‘s life squashes rumors that he was a pedophile. Also: a close study of Twain’s politics. (via Reason magazine)

Ha Jin: “On the one hand, it is a miserable life, because there’s so much anxiety. But on the other hand, if I don’t write, I feel ill.”

The Exclamatory Mood

New York magazine’s profile of Ha Jin closes with this comment from him:

I don’t want to write standard American-English idioms. I want something that sounds slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Try harder, seemed to be the message from many of the major review outlets following the publication of his 2007 novel, A Free Life; the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Yorker all delivered polite but firmly negative reviews. That last review, written by John Updike, makes a particular point of Jin’s foreign-but-accessible language, suggesting that its squareness is a detriment. “Some expressions feel translated from the Mandarin,” Updike writes, then adds that “the novel rarely gathers the kind of momentum that lets us overlook its language.”

I’ve defended A Free Life a few times before, and my basic argument is that a) the book’s momentum is in the small, sometime pyrrhic victories that come along with succeeding as an immigrant family in the United States, not in explosive dramas that the critics seemed to expect (perhaps thanks to weaker assimilation novels), and b) Jin’s language bolsters this momentum. His new collection, A Good Fall, will likely meet the same criticism as the novel, since its focus again is on the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States. But it’s just as strong in many ways. A lot of that, I think, has to do with exclamation points.

Most writers are trained to avoid exclamations—it suggests that you’re an adolescent, or that you’re using an easy way to emphasize the drama of a particular scene without thinking it through. It’s generally bad form in journalism—even in opinion pieces it looks like over-editorializing, like you’ve lost your grip—and as an editor I was trained to strike it out unless it’s absolutely necessary. (It rarely is.) But for Jin, exclamations are ways to stress the awkwardness that his characters feel with the culture they navigate. “Heavens, they would never stop fighting!” thinks the narrator of “In the Crossfire,” who is referreeing a squabble between his wife and his mother, who’s visiting from China. The exclamation mirrors the dialogue of many of Jin’s characters, who often strain to make their voices heard, so they’re prone to blurting things: “Baloney!” “Nuts!” “I don’t want to live anymore!” “How worried I was!”

Unquestionably, the style can be a little square. But they also serve Jin’s conflicts well, because they stress how clear-cut the conflicts are in the eyes of his characters, and how irrational that perspective can be sometimes. In “An English Professor,” a Chinese-born English teacher, Rusheng, sends off materials for his tenure evaluation, then realizes his cover letter ends with a typo: “Respectly.” “Oh, how silly the error looked on paper!” he thinks, and no sentence could better encompass his panic over being mocked as a dumb foreigner who has no right to teach English; it’s a retreat into the stiff language of school-primer stories in which kids learn how to talk to each other over minor problems. Except in this case, in the mind of the story’s protagonist, the potential for embarrassment is enormous.

At the end of the story, it turns out there’s nothing to worry about, and Rusheng’s tenure application is approved. Realistically, it was ridiculous for him to think a typo could ruin his entire academic career. (Oh, how silly!) But the panic Jin describes is genuine, and so is the release Rusheng feels afterward. He celebrates with his wife by bowderizing the words to “Born to Be Wild”: “Born to be happy! Born to succeed!” he sings. “Born to be tenured! Born to stand out!” It’s cringe-worthy behavior, but it neatly exposes at once his discomfort with language and his joy at having proof he’s mastered it. It is, as Jin intended, slightly foreign and absolutely accessible. It’s a feeling of exultation, something to shout about, and any feat of writerly indirection in that moment would be a lie.

Improved U.S.-China (Lit) Relations

Scholars at three universities—Iowa State University, Arizona State University, and Sichuan University in China—recently launched Project Yao, a database of American literature translated into Chinese. ASU English professor Joe Lockard explains the appeal of the idea:

“Why, for example, are there so many translations of Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’ into Chinese? Since 1930 there have been five Hiawatha translations. What do such translations inform us about the global representation of native peoples in the United States?

“Have there been more recent translations of the work of Native American authors into Chinese? Is the translation economy shifting to acknowledge ethnic self-representation? These are the sorts of questions that one can begin to address by using the Project Yao database.”

The database only includes works of American literature published before 1920, so it’s no guide for what contemporary American writers are being read in China. And the database only covers translations published in China from 1999 on, so it’s not yet a very panoramic snapshot of how the country’s changing political climate affected what got translated. But it’s a fascinating start, and if nothing else shows how the hunger for the likes of Jack London and Theodore Dreiser remains undiminished. (Surprisingly, only one work of Mark Twain‘s appears in the database, and even then it’s just a short story.)

According to a 2007 interview with Ha Jin in Guernica, American writers apparently fell in and out of favor rapidly. So when a work by Ernest Hemingway became available, he took advantage of it:

When I was an undergrad in my junior year suddenly American literature became very popular. But at the time many of the books were not available. One book, The Old Man and the Sea, because it was a short book and was written in clear, very lucid, English, had a bilingual edition made just for the English students in China, so a lot of people knew that book. As a result, Chinese readers talked about Hemingway. In that story there’s a fight between a man and a shark. You can conquer but not defeat a man. We were taught a lot of Marxist morals. But this kind of Hemingway American mentality, at least as expressed in that small novel, was fresh to the young people at the time, so we all somehow believed in it. But when I was working on The Bridegroom, I was much older by then, I really wanted to give some comic touches instead of tragic. That’s why I made the narrator unable to remember Hemingway’s name.

Links: Archive Search

Virginia Quarterly Review looks back on its early history with Wallace Stegner, including some manuscript scans.

Speaking of: Stegner’s daughter-in-law, novelist Lynn Stegner, is working on an anthology about what it means to grow up in the West with another writer, Russell Rowland. You say you haven’t read anything by Rowland? Don’t be so sure.

Peter Osnos visits a Beijing bookstore and looks approvingly on the many Western books available to him. “The neuralgic issue of censorship is confined to a substantial but specific range of books both in Chinese and from abroad,” Osnos writes. He and Ha Jin need to have a chat.

Mark Twain‘s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, has announced that 2010 will be the “Year of Twain,” marking the centennial of his death and 175th birthday. A dedicated Web site will cover all the exciting events happening next year; for now, you’ll have to settle for the Oak Ridge Boys, who hit town August 22.

Litchfield, New Hampshire, is still squabbling over how to put what stories on its reading lists after parents pitched a fit over the likes of David Sedaris and Laura Lippman appearing in the curriculum. “The stories are not appropriate ‘for developing minds that are very impressionable,'” a parent tells the Nashua Telegraph. One can only imagine the impression that high-school students get from watching their parents wring their hands in public.

Elsewhere in New Hampshire, parents are concerned about John Irving‘s A Prayer for Owen Meany. So, maybe just be careful about bringing books into New Hampshire for a while.

“I see from this paper’s letters section that various well-meaning but clueless liberals are upset by my recent assertion that Ernest Hemingway was on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.”

Somebody posing as Jay Murray Siskind, a professor in Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace for the journal Modernism/Modernity. The joke was so funny that pretty much nobody got it for five years.

Wired‘s interactive map to Thomas Pynchon‘s Los Angeles has gone global.

And Andrew Sean Greer figures you can stop asking him about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button any time now.

Links: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

John Callaway, longtime host of Chicago Tonight, the news program of the city’s PBS station, died this week. Among the videos on the tribute page is an interview with John Updike, circa Terrorist.

Jim Thompson discusses his path of going from bartending in Finland to publishing his new novel, Snow Angels

Austin-based hip-hop producer David Williams makes a valid point: “You know what’s a shame about calling your band The Airborne Toxic Event? If that band’s fans haven’t read Don DeLillo, they’re just gonna think, ‘Fart.'” Discussions of Saul Bellow and Walter Benjamin ensue.

On a related note, DeLillo’s next novel comes out next year.

Ha Jin discusses writing in English as his second language.

There’s something charming about the fact that one of the people leading the charge to preserve Ernest Hemingway‘s home in Cuba is Bob Vila.

A group of Ohio University students have made a film version of Russell Banks‘ 1981 collection of interlinked stories, Trailerpark.

Parents in Litchfield, New Hampshire, are outraged that stories by Stephen King, Laura Lippman, David Sedaris, and Ernest Hemingway are being taught in high school. The story ends with a hell of a kicker: “The parents objected to satirist Sedaris’ ‘I Like Guys’ because they do not want their children learning about homosexuality in school.”

Oh, and a couple of school-board members are still blowing a gasket over Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan.

Short Subject

The Chicago Reader, one of my old employers, has just put out its latest books issue, which includes a feature on Bich Minh Nguyen, whose first novel, Short Girls, comes out in July. (Her husband, Porter Shreve, published a fine, funny novel about life in D.C. in 1976, When the White House Was Ours, last year.) The novel centers on two Vietnamese-American sisters—height is a recurring theme, as the title suggests—and the Reader story points out that it wasn’t until Nguyen went to college and discovered Maxine Hong Kingston that she felt her own heritage was worthy subject matter:

Nguyen was a shy, serious student, terrified of being singled out. She read voraciously. “It was a great way to escape the world of my family for my own mind,” she says. Inspired by the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, she wrote stories for her own amusement, about pioneer and British girls—always white. “I thought that’s what you write, that’s what people read,” she says.

As it happens, her next book is a historical novel based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Reader‘s books issue, which has the Asian-American experience as a theme, also has a piece on Ha Jin‘s most recent book, his essay collection The Writer as Migrant, and notes that Jin has a new story collection, A Good Fall, out in November.

What Did You Write During the Class War, Daddy?

What does Walter Benn Michaels want? In a frustrating essay in Bookforum, he argues that in recent years American literature has fallen down on the job, mainly because it has failed to get into the business of “criticizing the primacy of markets.” Instead writing novels about, say, the widening income gap, we’ve written much-praised novels that spend too much time looking backward to slavery or the Holocaust—Beloved, The Plot Against America, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are particular failings for Michaels on this front, while American Psycho is praised for at least working off the premise that this country is sickened by its consumerism.

Setting aside for a moment the implied argument that what American literature really needs is a good novel about the widening income gap, the maddening thing about Michaels’ piece is the author’s seemingly arbitrary decisions about what books get to be considered as worthy. If he wants to say that historical novels, by definition, fail to look at the present, that’s fine as far as it goes. (Though The Plot Against America had plenty to say about present-day anti-Semitism and propagandistic administrations.) But, strangely, memoirs are wiped off the table because their stories are not about society but individuals. Margaret Thatcher is quoted to exemplify the problem here; Michaels cites her saying, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” So a book like Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior would be too shallow, concerned as it is with just one family; apparently so would Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family (while we’re talking about nonfiction), even though it’s one of the best-researched, most granular portraits of the effects of that widening income gap you’ll ever read—and it was written during the boom years, which according to Michaels caused this current failing in American letters. (I’m sure LeBlanc will be disappointed to hear that during that all those years of reporting in the Bronx she was just playing into Maggie’s hands.)

But The Woman Warrior has a double failing for being a story about immigrants, according to Michaels:

And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages.

Here, I’d love to shove a copy of Ha Jin‘s A Free Life in Michaels’ hands; though he may be obligated to dismiss it for being an immigrant story, it is a story about money for the mortgage. It may not be the Great American Class War Novel he’s dreaming of, but he’s never going to find it if he keeps paging through novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. (Presumably the latter’s portrayal of Newark in American Pastoral didn’t scratch the itch for Michaels in the way he’d prefer.) He’s also not going to find it if he keeps moving the goal posts.

If you’re in New York tonight, you’ll be able to catch a discussion about all this, featuring Michaels, critic-novelist Dale Peck, novelist Susan Straight, and journalist David Simon. Simon’s Great American TV Show, The Wire, is praised by Michaels at the end of his essay, so I have to imagine that at some point during the conversation Richard Price‘s Clockers will come up—the novel was, as Simon has said many times, a key inspiration for The Wire, and a better argument for the book Michaels is looking for than American Psycho. One question I hope somebody asks: Would anything change if we had more novels of the kind Michaels wants? (Assuming, of course, there’s been any drop-off in them.) Would we have better public policy? A better society? Simon, I suspect, would say no—in numerous interviews he’s shied away from any big statements about the show’s impact. Novels simply don’t change the world in that way. Some time back I asked Price about the legacy of Clockers, and he figured the book mainly affected how his books were shelved:

Q: What do you think is Clockers’ legacy?

A: There are a lot of books about the urban world where Clockers will come up in the blurbs. “Not since Clockers….” Or something like that. The only thing I don’t like is that because I stay with writing about the cities, and use the police for access to a world that otherwise I would not be privy to, I don’t like crime books, and I don’t ever want to see my stuff in the crime section. I don’t want to be genre-ized.

So before we get into too many high-flown statements about what responsibility fiction has to society, it’s worth considering whether fiction has any capacity to transform it.

English Into Arabic

Last fall I made a brief mention of Kalima, an effort by the United Arab Emirates to translate books from English into Arabic. At the time, the organization was working in conjunction with the National Book Festival to scout for suggestions of great American literature to include in its series. On the evidence of a recent press release, they made some pretty impressive choices. Below are Kalima’s picks:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Not all Americans, you’ll notice—the release mentions seven authors total from the U.S. were included. A little googling reveals that Publishers Lunch has reported a few more recent rights purchases by Kalima, including Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Robinson’s Housekeeping