Getting Away With It

Joseph O’Neill considers Philip Roth‘s late novels in the Atlantic (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; have been collected in a new volume from the Library of America):

Much of the action in these novels takes the form of the claims and counterclaims and rationalizations and cross-examinations and mea culpas and shame-on-yous pronounced by the disputants or bystanders. Consequently, the characters deliver long, brilliantly penetrating monologues that contradict the verbal and psychological realism with which their worlds are otherwise presented. How does Roth get away with it? You could say that the problem doesn’t even arise in the Zuckerman books—after all, if Nathan Zuckerman in his writing takes liberties with reported speech, that is a matter for him, not Philip Roth, to answer for. (Clever author, to eat his cake and have it too.) You could also defend the inconsistency pragmatically: the characters’ implausible oral powers of advocacy are a price you happily pay for the writing’s overall true-to-lifeness.

Aside from some mild chiding of Deception, O’Neill’s essay is pretty much hagiography, forgiving him for a multitude of alleged shortcomings—in this case the thin line between his autobiography and his fiction. (Fine by me. I believe Roth’s revival started not with Sabbath’s Theater but earlier, with Operation Shylock.)

Links: The Meta Angels of Our Nature

The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, lists 61 essential postmodern reads. Lists are designed to be argued over, so there’s no real point in interrogating all the selections. One thing, though: Reading Percival Everett‘s I Am Not Sidney Poitier a few weeks back, I didn’t think for a moment about whether it was “postmodern” or not. At the risk of invoking some ungainly term like “post-postmodern,” it may be that the postmodern novel is just something that happened, not something that’s happening—a method of wrestling with an increasingly mediated existence in the years before mediated existences became commonplace, before a ten-year-old kid could embed video and songs on a MySpace page and make virtual friends with some stranger in Bali. A lot of the stuff on the list, like I Am Not Sidney Poitier, seems more like metafiction than postmodernism, which aren’t synonymous terms. At any rate, I’m sure one of those ten-year-olds will grow up to write a novel that sorts it all out for us.

Scott McLemee considers the new biography of Saul Bellow‘s ill-fated colleague, Isaac Rosenfeld.

A book on Flannery O’Connor‘s Catholicism is in the works.

And a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth might be.

Also in the works: A documentary about bad writing. The trailer features George Saunders delivering one of the smartest and most succinct explanations of what bad writing is that I’ve heard.

The Ransom Center has an online exhibit of artifacts from Norman Mailer‘s coverage of Apollo 11.

And Ted Gioia considers whether the moon landing was science fiction writers’ finest hour, and one from which it never quite recovered.

There’s too much damn fiction from Montana writers coming out. (Though I did enjoy Kevin Canty‘s new collection, Where the Money Went.)

Lionel Shriver: “I probably had more reading stamina and much loftier literary tastes at the age of 16 than I do now.”

“I am a man in my mid-50’s and starting to feel the weight of the years. I am wondering if there are some good books for me to read that address my station in life. I have never read any Updike or Roth, but I have the impression these authors address the concerns of the aging male. Do you have recommendations?

The Elegant Variation has just wrapped up a four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill.

Museums dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are celebrating anniversaries.

H.L. Mencken once inscribed a book for Carl Van Vechten with a list of the kinds of alcohol he drank during the three years he was writing it. It’s a long list.

Links: The “Intergalactically Challenging Jacket” and More

The summer issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is dedicated to travel, excerpting Paul Theroux‘s Dark Star Safari, Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead, Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life, and Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, among many other writers around the world and throughout history. The journal’s Web site features James Franco reading that Kerouac excerpt in an appropriately slackerish way. The most entertaining piece, though, not online, is a 1935 article from Pravda describing the despairing life of American cities, which are sad and largely empty of people. Contrary to popular belief in the Soviet Union, the authors write, in New York and Chicago “brokers don’t run down the sidewalks knocking over American citizens; they simmer, invisible to the public, in their stock exchanges, making all kinds of shady deals in those monumental buildings.” The West Coast is no better: It’s home to the “American film industry, which releases around a thousand well-made but egregiously tasteless and idiotically stupid films per year.”

Speaking of Theroux, he recalls hanging out at Michael Jackson‘s Neverland, and talking with the late pop star on the phone in the wee hours about, among other things, his reading habits: “‘Somerset Maugham,’ he said quickly, and then, pausing at each name: ‘Whitman. Hemingway. Twain.'”

Jennifer Weiner
on studying under Toni Morrison: “Toni Morrison used to read her students’ work out loud, and hearing her read it made me believe that it was good (of course, Toni Morrison being Toni Morrison, she could have been reading my grocery list and I would have thought, ‘Genius!’ She’s one of the world’s all-time great readers).”

Edgar Allan Poe, supernatural detective.

The sad, long struggle of Kaye Gibbons.

Ernest Hemingway‘s grandson has reworked Papa’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, in a way that “attempts to give the impression of a work which is not completed but which is nevertheless readable.”

The second issue of Wag’s Revue is now online, with an interview with T.C. Boyle as its centerpiece. Excerpt: “I do not reveal much of myself, either publicly or in the work. I may have no problem wearing an intergalactically challenging jacket on TV and cracking jokes with the best of them or investing everything I have in a performance of a story, either live or recorded, but all of that is simply a way of rubbing up against the public world while all the while keeping the private world private.”

Joseph O’Neill ponders the president reading Netherland: “I suppose you flatter yourself that the story is the history of the United States. That’s the weird, disorienting feeling you get.”

And, apropos of nothing in particular except that anybody who follows the Washington Nationals badly needs a laugh, this is great.

A Room of Her Own

Joseph O’Neill‘s fine piece on Flannery O’Connor in the June issue of The Atlantic—ostensibly a review of Brad Gooch’s biography but more an appreciation of its subject—stresses the idea that O’Connor was a deeply lucky writer. This isn’t a notion that’s immediately clear reading either O’Connor’s fiction, stuffed as it is with strange, sometimes menacing people, or Gooch’s book, where the shadow of her too-soon death hovers over nearly page. (Gooch is too dignified to make a big noise about that and he doesn’t have to; it’s simply clear that as O’Connor grows more successful, there are fewer and fewer pages left in the biography.) Her life had its struggles, O’Neill acknowledges, not least the lupus that eventually killed her. But the stuff that tends to make aspiring writers neurotic? It was hardly an issue:

She was famous and revered by her early 30s. (“How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty!” wrote John Updike. He was seven years younger than O’Connor.) She never lacked for a prestigious mentor (Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren) or for helpful friends. She never had to take a job. From 1951, she lived at Andalusia, the Georgia property (500 acres of fields and 1,000 acres of woods) co-owned and farmed by her mother, Regina, which turned out to be the perfect habitat for her imagination. Her personal needs were few: she seemingly never wanted, and therefore was never distracted by, children or by her lack thereof. Ditto, pretty much, lovers.

O’Neill overromanticizes things a bit; Regina, at least in Gooch’s description, could be smothering, and on more than a couple of occasions Andalusia seems prison-like. But there’s no question that most of the roadblocks that fiction writers confront weren’t there for O’Connor; indeed, she didn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to the them, as if ignoring them magically made them disappear. There may be a lesson in that for writers—something about how concentrating on the work and not the career ladder is the most sensible way to go. But that makes it sound easy, assuming that a writer today can casually access O’Connor’s cool, smirking temperament, let alone her talent.

Teaching and Learning the 9/11 Novel

James Mulholland, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, recently finished teaching a class called “Literature and Culture After 9/11.” Many of the books he taught were some of the best-known works of fiction addressing the attacks. On the list of required texts:

Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Poetry after 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
David Simpson, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration

Music was also a part of the mix, including Bruce Springsteen‘s The Rising and John AdamsOn the Transmigration of Souls, as well as documentaries, news stories, essays, magazine pieces, memorial Web sites, and more. The full list of materials on the syllabus alone is a retort to the idea that we don’t yet have enough material to start talking about a “9/11 literature.”

After reading the syllabus, I sent a handful of questions about the course to Mulholland. He not only answered them, he presented them to his class and made them a part of the discussion. (“I think they were intrigued by the idea of an outside audience for what we were doing in class,” Mulholland wrote me.) Below are my questions, along with responses, sent via e-mail, from both him and his students.

I imagine that many of the students in your course were barely teenagers on Sept. 11, 2001. How engaged are they with the idea that 9/11 “changed everything,” if it’s always been part of their cultural consciousness?


They were barely teenagers; most of them were in middle school during the attacks. This is what surprised me most when I began teaching the course. On the first day of class, I asked them each to compose a single-paged response that described to me where they were on September 11th, 2001. I thought of this exercise as a way for them to position themselves in the course from the outset. I also rather smugly thought of it as a way to get through what I perceived as their inevitable desire to emote about the events of 9/11. Two things surprised me. First, their stories were all extremely similar. Nearly every student (out of 35) reported that they were in school, saw the worried look on teachers faces and heard them mumbling to each other. Many claimed they saw the attacks reported on television after teachers wheeled televisions into class. Many said they were not truly worried until they saw the faces of their parents when they came to pick them up. I was unprepared for how uniform their experiences had been, since I fully expected it to be like my friends who had a variety of close and proximate encounters with 9/11 and a variety of emotionally complex responses. (I was a graduate student at Rutgers University in NJ in 2001 and had a number of friends who lived in NY.)

The second and perhaps most surprising element of their personal experiences was how articulate they could be about them. Claims of this generation as the most narcissistic, which often circulate through academia, seemed completely eradicated by the poise and intelligence of their emotional responses. Some of this I think you see in their responses. In particular, I had a number of students from NY (two of whom were in school near WTC) and others who had friends or family friends affected by the event. Questions about the proximity to the event, who has ownership of it, who is affected most became some of the most contentious, difficult, and rewarding—they told me—discussions of the entire class. They showed an enormous personal sophistication about their place, and their generation’s role, in defining the memory of 9/11. I offered to them the idea that they were the inheritors of 9/11 memories and they took that up.


It is not the event that changed everything, but people who changed everything. We have made things symbolic that might not have been otherwise.

Even if I hadn’t taken this class, I would still feel this: September 11th increased a national sense of paranoia. With the shift in presidents, that paranoia is put at ease, as though Bush’s strong association with the event (as president at the time) affects the way we feel about 9/11 itself. The change in office allows for a new space for thinking ahead, to the future, instead of back to a point when political figures became a representation of larger national concerns and fears.

Instead, now we are relying on this literature [of 9/11] to shape how we feel about the event. We were at the “coming of age” period of our lives. We were absorbing information, but without the means to make our own opinions about it. We had little sense of what we thought about it, except for what people told us.

Some of us were thinking about how it affected us, but others were wondering about it’s affect on the larger populace. Many of us were concerned for ourselves, for our own confusion, and how uncomfortable 9/11 made us feel. We were not concerned with 9/11 “changing everything,” except for how it changed our own surroundings.

Nonetheless, many things did change, but those changes didn’t necessarily affect us. Some of us were profoundly affected by these events. Others felt like there was a continuation of American habits after 9/11 that made no distinction about before and after the event. It’s obviously different for everyone.

The memory of 9/11 will affect us more than anything else, but we are the last of that generation. People younger than us probably will get more out of information and representations than experiencing the actual event itself.

The generations “after us” will not have a memory of the event, so how are they even going to know if 9/11 changed anything or not? They’ll have no reference point, no experience from direct memory. (Yet the event seems so prevalent in art and culture that we seem to be “holding onto” the event, without judgment of how we do so.) Why are we associating this event with enormous changes in symbolic and cultural change? This is one of the questions we’re trying to address in this class. There is always going to be some amount of change, and yet 9/11 has seemed to be a moment of enormous change and this class in part acknowledges and investigates that. 9/11 is a significant change but not the only one.

Ultimately, however, we are concerned that we are being grouped together, which makes personal meaning difficult to create and removes the possibility of specific judgments. We are very conscious now that we cannot generalize; we are reluctant to speak for our age group about responding to 9/11.

The graphic-novel adaptation of 9/11 attracted criticism from some for diminishing the importance of the event. Have your students responded to that book (and Spiegelman’s “No Towers”) in a way that’s any different from the novels you’ve included?


They responded remarkably differently. Our discussion of the graphic adaptation focused a great deal on what the formal and generic transformation meant for the information in the report. They were extremely suspicious of the idea that the adaptation was meant to make the Commission’s findings more accessible. (This surprised me since it was a gesture that I thought would meet with their acclaim.) They also were uncertain about the graphic quality of the drawing in the Commission Report adaptation. Many felt like it was exploitative and utilized too many of the features of action cartoons. Others argued that visual drawings, rather than printed text, put us in the position to imagine that which we did not want to imagine—to visualize the final moments on the plane for example.

For Speigelman, they struggled less with the politics (another surprise) than the formal complexity of the work. The layering of panels and the multiple time periods of In the Shadow of No Towers made discussing this work slow and laborious. Spiegelman so expertly draws the chaotic paranoia of 9/11 and I believe they experienced it again.

Both of these responses lead me to think that they were more comfortable with the novel as a genre, which means that novels of 9/11 were correspondingly more understandable to them. Nonetheless, elements of the novels we read for class troubled all of the students.


There was, we think, a conflict between the intent and the perception. In general, we tend to be skeptical of the translation and of the spirit to use the visual form to popularize the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report.

Our discussion of the novel allows for a satirical effect that creates a rare emotional space. One of the distinguishing features of the graphic narratives is that they make few attempts at photorealism and so viewers need to work a bit harder to place themselves into the experience of seeing the graphic narrative. In this way it is similar to reading printed text, but through a different lens.

This different experience is difficult to determine. What about the graphic diminishes the experience of the event? Is it that it slips into memory, that it is being forgotten? What seems so uncomfortable about the graphic novel is that doesn’t fit a clear genre, so that it diminishes the experience of 9/11 only to the degree that a viewer lets it be diminished. Some of us feel like the use of comics makes the event seem cartoonish and fictional, which feels distressing. Comics were supposed to be an escape. Others, however, felt like visual modes were used to describe historical events all the time and so they felt that the use of comics didn’t change the experience by trivializing it. Others felt like 9/11 was an enormously visual event, and so assimilating it to the techniques of the graphic novel made it feel too similar.

The novels you included employ very diverse styles and tones—Kalfus is irreverent, DeLillo is coldly philosophical about the event while O’Neill is more warmly so. In teaching these novels, are you looking for commonalities between the books or discussing the different perspectives they have on the event?


As I mentioned above, there were elements of each novel that troubled my students. Some were surprising, others were not. Kalfus’s irreverence charmed them, but there were limits, such as the public sex scene at the end. I could not get them to come to solid conclusion/positions about what technique was being employed there. Foer’s characterization of Oskar Schell engaged and repelled students equally, though the end of the work was utterly heart-breaking, as Foer no doubt intended, for nearly everyone in the class. Oskar became a very personal character, and my students responded to him as if he was a living human being. My students readily adapted to the experimental form of Foer’s work, and dwelled less on it than on Oskar (again, a surprise to me). Netherland enthralled them, and we had a phone interview in class with O’Neill (one of my students happened to know him) that only intensified that reaction.

Throughout my teaching I was looking for thematic and formal continuities between the works. The one work that I personally disliked, DeLillo’s Falling Man, was a work that they made new for me. They made me find a number of interesting formal angles—such as the representation of dialogue—that had utterly eluded me. Our attention to different formal experiments in each novel was paralled by a discussion of feeling—of each novels attempts to engage with the emotions, affect, and sentimentality of its various characters in response to 9/11. I wanted them to be able to trace the ways that novelists offered formally different solutions to the same fundamental artistic problems: how do we represent 9/11 in literature? What is the meaning of the varied emotional reactions to 9/11?


One element that we consistently noticed during the class was the emphasis on relationships that were broken through terror. There is a strong connection between the private life and public events in these novels.

The novel as a form lends itself to multiple perspectives. Each novel seems to show a negative side of the aftermath of 9/11; the difficulties of people coping with the trauma and how that trauma affects others around them. Often there are children involved, so that each novel seems fascinated by the effect of 9/11 on kids. The games that these children are described to play become symbolic and highly disturbing. The novels themselves seem intent on imitating the events of 9/11.

All of these novels are structurally all over the place. There is a large amount of formal experimentation and they all have this in common. (“Mustache. No Mustache. Mustache.”) They also show that there is not a single response to 9/11. Each has a different sense of how 9/11 impacts culture. Novels are one place where you can experiment, more so than in poetry. They also show that life carried on after 9/11, that it didn’t change everything.

What inspired you to teach this course? When did you feel like there were enough works out there to start teaching “9/11 literature”?


I think two things inspired me to teach this course. The first was the first time I read the 9/11 Commission Report. I can’t recall when this was—it was not immediately—but when I did I noticed that the opening paragraph reads like a novel. Since I study the origins of the English novel in my academic work, I found the Report’s harnessing of novelistic fictional techniques fascinating. It was trying to tell a story in a way that was familiar to its audience.

From here I had the idea of tracing the intersections of literature and 9/11. I started collecting materials, and soon after listened to a radio show called the “Rise of 9/11 Literature” on NPR. On this show, Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame, claimed that he thought it would be fifty years before there would be a great novel of 9/11. It was an axiom that everyone on the panel seemed to agree with; novelists, it seems, need time to sort through and assimilate the experience.

Which made me wonder why. Since I teach literature as a precise register of historical change, I wondered who had already written about 9/11. Who was writing now? What was their literature like? Was it inauthentic because it was an almost immediate response?

I knew of some of these writers already, say Jay McInerney, and the danger of using 9/11 as a sad addition to one’s book. It seemed to have brought nothing but spite from critics. Nonetheless, I thought I would collect everything I could.

But what ultimately motivated me to propose this class was the utter lack of other classes. When I began to search for syllabi of English classes on 9/11 literature, I found nothing. Not a single class. There were classes in history, sociology, political science. But not one English class. It seemed impossible to me that I couldn’t find anything, and the simple absence propelled me to create the course.

What have your students responded to most strongly? What provokes disagreement and debate?


As I mentioned in question 1, some of the most difficult moments occurred when students decided to take possession of the experience by testifying to their proximity to the event. This is still ultimately inpenetrable in terms of its authenticity; to have been in NY or directly affected by 9/11 gives a credibility that exceeds any other that I can think of in the United States today.

These debates did not happen very often, no doubt because my students were very sophisticated in the ways they discuss the personal effect of 9/11. I would argue now that this results from the fact they have lived this condition for nearly their entire adult lives.

There were localized moments when there were contentious discussions about specific pieces of literature, or theories (David Simpson’s 9/11: Culture of Commemoration divided the class, before ultimately uniting them in an attempt to develop of own theory of what commemorating 9/11 might mean.) But the politics of 9/11 was a point of consistent, if subdued, tension. I had a number of students who were politically radical. I had a number of students who deeply held strong feelings of American patriotism. I tried to make the class about art and literature rather than history and politics, knowing full well that these four categories always intersect. But there were evident moments when the class became quiet over a forceful political opinion—most often about the Bush administration and the aftermath of 9/11. (This became most apparent when a student did a class presentation on conspiracy theories about the “real” actors behind 9/11.) Interestingly, these discussions never became argumentative; I think that the weight and significance of discussing 9/11 always motivated my students to be responsible, think the best of other people, and look for points of contact while civilly disagreeing. I did not expect this when I began the class, fully imagining how I would negotiate the contentious politics and emotional exhaustion that came from discussing 9/11 for thirteen straight weeks. This moment never came; I happily can say that the students were sad when the classes ended because the material interested them. Rather than exhausted they were energized by the material.


The notion of aesthetics comes up a great deal, along with the tension between artistic aesthetics and sentimentality.

There have repeatedly been issues of ownership: do we own this topic now? Does expertise or experience matter for ownership of this class? We have managed to put this material in the realm of theory, to conceptualize it, so now we have managed to get past this tension? Or do we switch from the sense that 9/11 is too violent to discuss to another way of avoiding responsibility by conceptualizing it.

As the class has progressed we have developed different media have taken us away from the visceral response to more conceptual questions.

The syllabus itself feels like a narrative. We begin with personal stories and then return to cultural and emotional materials. We have wondered throughout if 9/11 is an event in our conscious lives—that we feel?—or a historical event that has already been archived. We have been following a trend from how we witness to how we cope. We begin to collect a sense of what the terrain is.

We wondered as well if the art we study in this class is an act of documenting history or exploiting it. Is it dehumanizing 9/11 to talk about its art and literature? This becomes most apparent in the graphic moments when we explored the idea of “falling” people or photographs of limbs at Ground Zero.

The discussion of the 9/11 Commission Report and its graphic adaptation was especially emotional and contentious. We asked whether this adaptation was appropriate: did it make the event seem trivial? Was it too violent? What is the reliability of a report that is written like fiction or presented as a cartoon?

We also debated what David Simpson has called the “culture of commemoration.” Who’s to say who the heroes of 9/11 were? Are the victims and firefighters and terrorists heroes? What are the international ramifications and response to 9/11? What is the connection between 9/11 for the rest of the world beyond the United States?

Most of our debates thus far concerned the ability of art to capture the emotions and impact of the event, and the philosophical meaning of trying to do so. How does the culture of 9/11 make us feel?

Links: Government Work

Propaganda alert:, a Web site of the State Department, is publishing essays from the latest edition of its eJournal USA, which this month focuses on multicultural aspects of American literature. Among those included are Ha Jin (whose excellent essay collection The Writer as Migrant is excerpted), Marie Arana, Gerald Early, and Akhil Sharma.

Responding the Stuart Everscelebration of American English in the Guardian, D.G. Myers has a few thoughts on how the language shifts depending on whether you’re in the South or whether you’re Philip Roth.

Harriet E. Wilson, author of what’s presumed to be the first novel by an African American woman, 1859’s Our Nig, was recently learned to be a hair-product entrepreneur.

Wyatt Mason follows up on the Joseph O’Neill firmament kerfuffle not once but twice.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan studies how John Updike invented Rabbit Angstrom’s middle-class nobility: “Harry’s education extends no further than high school, his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, and yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure, and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size.”

Lastly, if your reading choices are largely dictated by the number of awards a book has pulled in, this should come in handy.

God Bless (Cliche-Ridden) America

Could folks living in the U.K. please make up their mind about how they feel about American writers? Just the other day, Joseph O’Neill was all but dismissing American fiction as a spent force, but this morning the Guardian‘s Stuart Evers writes about realizing that most of his shelf space is filled with books by Yanks:

American fiction fascinates because of the country it seeks to depict: its vastness, its extremes of landscape and temperatures, its hundreds of races, its gulfs between wealth and poverty. When permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl called American fiction “insular” he was right: when you’ve got so many stories to tell at home, why would you look abroad?

Fair enough. But as much as I support Evers’ enthusiasm, I get the feeling he’s got a wrong, or at least narrow, idea of what American writing is. To show how much he prefers American English over British English, he comes up with a representative sentence from each:

Mary fills up at the gas station, then drives her Chevy Impala to Roy’s Diner.

Mary fills up at the petrol station, then drives her Nissan Micra to Roy’s Rolls.

Sure, the British sentence is a little drab, but the American one is a cavalcade of cliches. Gas stations, Chevys, and diners might be nice to work with if it’s 1932 and your name is James M. Cain, but Evers’ sentence doesn’t prove that American English is somehow better—only that we pulled off noir a lot better than his countrymen did. The notion that American stories are all about the open road and some troublesome dame is a deeply ingrained one; foreigners believe it the same way they believe that Chicago is an interesting city because it’s where Michael Jordan played basketball. Reducing the country’s fictional product to a handful of notions risks marginalizing it—and validating O’Neill’s argument. Not that either writer has the power to wreck an entire country’s literary output. Perhaps it’s enough to be thankful that the British are still concerned about it.

Joseph O’Neill, Careful With His Words

The Telegraph has a wide-ranging interview with Netherland author Joseph O’Neill, in which he expounds on his disappointment with not receiving a Man Booker nomination (“I can honestly say I wasn’t that disappointed although the sales would have been nice”), and delivers a slight dig against his semi-peers in American fiction (the “cupboard is slightly bare when it comes to American writers under the age of 65.”). He also explains why it took him so long to write the novel:

One of the reasons that Netherland took seven years to write is that its author spent ages poring and re-poring over each sentence. In a previous interview, he said he was unsure about the book until he came up with the phrase “invertebrate time”, which, he said, even Shakespeare would have used. “Oh for God’s sake, did I say that?” He looks mortified as perhaps he should. “But you do take pleasure from the word combinations, and that was probably one of them. You know what I was driving at there – the mixing of the metaphors … it’s very Elizabethan.”

But perhaps O’Neill wasn’t quite as careful with those words as he says. Harper’s critic Wyatt Mason brings up an interesting exchange he had with a novelist about Netherland regarding the finery of the book’s prose. Mason’s friend calls shenanigans on this passage:

Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of the gravel.

A discussion of the definition and proper usage of “firmament” ensues, and it’s worth reading the whole thing instead of summarizing it. Mason writes that he’ll pick up the conversation again today; it should make for an interesting close reading, something that doesn’t happen often enough online.

Links: Home and Abroad

A museum dedicated to the life and work of Pearl S. Buck is set to open in her hometown of Zhenjiang, China. Among the papers that will be presented there for an upcoming conference on Buck: One written by Black Eyed Peas’ (his Wikipedia page notes that the Pearl S. Buck Foundation found him a home after his father abandoned him).

Massachusetts now has an official state novel.

If you’re going to Don DeLillo‘s reading at Skidmore College on Tuesday, could you please ask him about his weird statement to the New Yorker‘s book blog about his blogging for the Onion?

Joseph O’Neill
on the cratering of the financial markets, one of the subjects he takes on in his novel Netherland:

“There’s no visible sign of national disaster here. But I think there is this state of complete disorientation about what the future holds among ordinary people, and that disorientation seems to penetrate the expert sectors too. The same happened after 9/11 – the Government didn’t know what it was doing, and again it seems to have no idea. It’s an alarming state of affairs. As for the bailout? I have a friend who is a day trader, fantastic with numbers, and he thinks the necessary figure is more like $4 trillion (£2.27 trillion).”

Netherland Discussion at TPM

Talking Points Memo has chosen Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland as the first novel featured in its book club. Great idea: I finished the book a couple of weeks back, and I was deeply impressed with how steadily the book balances a clear-eyed picture of New York’s crudeness and chaos alongside such elegant writing. Mobsters and cricket; seedy hotels and top-tier brokers—O’Neill’s city is full of contrasts, but he never presents it as an easy tale-of-two-cities squabble. O’Neill pulls that off partly by refusing to invent cookie-cutter portraits of immigrants and ethnic enclaves—you’ll run into a lot of novels these days (especially New York-set novels), that revel in using such people as comic relief or as cheap reiterations of the Magical Black Man. O’Neill’s characters, by contrast, are ambitious, emotional, self-contradictory, given to statements of ethnic pride, but never strictly for the sake of character detailing.

At any rate, the matter of American-ness in an increasingly global world is very much on O’Neill’s mind in his opening post, in which he questions what globalization might spell for the American novel:

[T]hese days you don’t have to station yourself in America, or even take a particular interest in the American consumer, in order to prosper on an ‘American’ scale. As a result, the traditional preoccupation of American novelists–in essence, to do some kind of justice to the American dream narrative, with all of its assumptions and concerns–threatens to become as anachronistic as Chuck’s plan to Americanize cricket. To what extent, then, is the American narrative viewpoint, globally dominant since World War II, now losing its preeminence?

Given the lively (if often gassy) responses in the comments, it’s a subject folks want to engage in. Joining in on the discussion for the remainder of the week will be Dale Peck, Kurt Andersen, Mia Carter, and Will Buckley. Should be fun. (via)