Some Housekeeping Notes

1. Ron Slate, who runs the thoughtful blog Above the Seawall, invited me and 11 other writers to recommend a recent work of fiction. I wrote about Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, The New Republic, which you may have heard is not new—she tabled the book for more than a decade, and many critics have dinged it for growing musty in that time. Me too. But it would be unfortunate if the novel simply became “that novel about journalism and terrorism back then that doesn’t have anything to say about journalism and terrorism right now.” A snip:

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism resembles less Islamic radicalism than Irish republicanism; the SOBs and its semilegitimate political wing, O Crème de Barbear (referred to with the intentionally revolting term the Creamies) evoke the IRA and Sinn Fein. And even the most cynical, seen-it-all reporter would have a hard time embracing Shriver’s argument that the media perpetuates terrorism as a kind of act of job preservation. The New Republic is an artifact from a time when we could look at both journalism and terrorism more callously — as if the former would always be there and the latter might affect us, but not too terribly much.

Yet personality crises never get old, and the novel’s strength is in Edgar’s character reinvention, his reckoning with second selves past and present. We’re reminded often that Kellogg was the stereotypical fat kid as child, until he obsessively pursued a fitness regimen upon which his sense of confidence hinges. It’s a shallow way to frame your sense of well being, and Edgar will slowly grow aware of that. But he also knows that perception is often reality: “[P]eople will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one.”

2. If you’re in the D.C. area, on Saturday, April 21, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, where I’ll be interviewing novelist Howard Norman about his work. I highly recommend his 1994 novel, The Bird Artist, and I hope we’ll touch on his most recent novel, What Is Left the Daughter, as well as his forthcoming memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. (I wrote a bit about Norman here last May.)

3. The following day, April 22, I’ll be at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, taking part in a panel about “The Future of the Book Review.” Yes, it has one. I’ll be joined by Washington Post reviewer Dennis Drabelle and biographer David O. Stewart, founder of the new-ish literary website, the Washington Independent Review of Books. Hope to see you there.

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: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”