Links: Move it to the Exits

Now it can be told: The inspiration for the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter in Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad (i.e., the PowerPoint chapter) was Semisonic’s “Closing Time.”

Speaking of: Trying to write a novel and raise a kid simultaneously? Jennifer Egan and Darin Strauss are here to help. (Well, in Manhattan to help. For one evening, on September 14.)

Alyson Hagy considers the appealing strangeness of Sherwood Anderson‘s “Paper Pills.” (Winesburg, Ohio was a series of “grotesques,” after all.)

Alice Walker keeps (or at least once kept) a pile of leaves by her writing desk: “She rustles them when she does her writing, because it makes her feel closer to nature as she works.”

When Hawthorne met Melville.

Oscar Hijuelos on inserting himself as a character in his most recent novel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

Ron Currie Jr. on reading Infinite Jest: “By the time I’d finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.”

The quintessential Jamesian sentence.

“I think that Shteyngart is part of a whole sweeping movement of young Jewish writers who are bringing a new multicultural picture to American Jewish fiction.”

Ben Fountain remembers the Dallas poet Robert Trammell.

Detailed writing advice from Maxwell Perkins (to be portrayed by Sean Penn on film at some future date) to Ernest Hemingway: “I’m glad you’re going to write some stories. All you have to do is to follow your own judgement, or instinct + disregard what is said, + convey the absolute bottom quality of each person, situation + thing. Isn’t that simple!!

Zombies With Brains

One of my favorite novels of last year was Ron Currie Jr.‘s Everything Matters!, an ambitious story about faith, family, and the apocalypse. (He expanded on those points in an e-mail Q&A here last year.) That book is now out in paperback, and he’s working on his next novel. It’s a zombie tale, though he insists to Time Out New York that he’s not jumping on a bandwagon:

Obviously, it’s a trend right now, and it’s certainly not a trend that I’m trying to chase, but I’ve always been really fascinated by zombie stories. But I believe I’m treating them in a way that I’ve never seen before; making a real effort to explain zombie psychology. The assumption, I think, at least with the modern Romero-type zombie, is that there is no psychology there. But I disagree. I think there is—it’s not terribly complex, but it is terribly compelling. The common notion is that the zombie wants to devour and destroy and kill, and I disagree. I think the zombie wants to turn the whole world [into zombies]. Zombies hold their own God within them, and they want to turn everything into it.

Currie mentioned his zombie fixation in a 2008 essay on apocalyptic fiction, in which he wrote, “the kid in me still loves nothing more than a good old-fashioned zombie yarn.” The piece also sheds a little light on some of the models for Everything Matters!, like Kurt Vonnegut‘s Galapagos and George Saunders‘ story “Bounty,” both of which look for the humor in end-of-the-world tales. As he writes, “Like much of Vonnegut’s work, Galapagos is hilarious but in an acutely uncomfortable way; as one reviewer said famously, we laugh in self-defence.”

Favorite Books of 2009

At some point today, barring technological and editorial hiccups, my end-of-the-year piece should appear on the website of Washington City Paper, including my top-ten list and a few brief thoughts on what e-books might mean for print books. I’ll likely be offline when the article goes live (following City Paper‘s coverage of the gun at the snowball fight should keep you busy in the meantime), but there’s no reason not to offer the list proper now. Update: Here’s the article. So:

1. Zoe Heller, The Believers
2. Ron Currie Jr., Everything Matters!
3. David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music
4. Peter Stephan Jungk, Crossing the Hudson
5. Pervical Everett, I Am Not Sidney Poitier
6. Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
7. Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement
8. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
9. Yiyun Li, The Vagrants
10. Ward Just, Exiles in the Garden

All have their flaws (though The Believers has fewer than even most good books), and heaven knows this isn’t an exact science: There are a few books that could easily have made it on the list were I in a different mood while compiling it: Jayne Anne PhillipsLark & Termite, Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, Wells Tower‘s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Paul Auster‘s Invisible, and the reissue of Don Carpenter‘s Hard Rain Falling. And as usual, I could offer a much longer list of disappointments and failures, topped off by Pete Dexter‘s Spooner, Victor LaValle‘s Big Machine, and Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. What I can’t do is pull out some kind of common theme about the year’s best books, as I have in the past. I’m content to admire the books I liked for what they are, and hope that 2010 has better ones.

With that, I’m pretty much wrapped up for 2009. I may step in here once or twice before the new year, but I’m more likely to be on Twitter to the extent I’ll spend much time online at all. In the meantime, here’s hoping you have safe travels and good company in the final days of this year. Talk to you soon.

Q & A: Ron Currie Jr.

Ron Currie Jr.‘s second book, Everything Matters!, is one of the more appealingly strange novels I’ve read recently. Imagining a world that’s slated to end on June 15, 2010 (at 3:44 p.m. EST), it deals heavily in disaster stories, the nature of God, and the alternate realities. It engages with the notion of how much control we have over our fate (the title’s exclamation point might easily be replaced with a question mark). It’s also rich with tonal shifts, shifting from broad comedy to a very sober description of the loss of a parent and back to satirical jabs that place Mike Huckabee as the sitting president during the end of the world.

“I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that one,” Currie wrote me when I asked about that particular plot point. At its core, though, the novel is a surprisingly heartfelt story about family, following its protagonist, Junior (the “fourth-smartest person in the history of the world”), as he tries to serve the best interests of his dying father and of his brother, Rodney, who recovers from an early cocaine addiction to become a star player for the Chicago Cubs. Currie answered a few more questions about the novel via e-mail.

All sorts of apocalyptic stories get referenced in your novel, from the Challenger disaster to nuclear catastrophes. How much time did you spend with apocalyptic-themed novels, movies, and stories while working on this book?

It’s an obsession of mine that has been more or less lifelong, so it wasn’t necessarily a question of what I was reading/viewing while working on Everything Matters! Pointing to any one thing as the primary cause of this obsession is tough—is it just a case of innate, hardwired interest, a mystery of genetics, or does it have more to do with growing up under the nuclear canopy of the Cold War’s latter stages? All I know for certain is to this day I’m still fascinated by dystopian or apocalyptic scenarios, so I’m a big fan of writers like Vonnegut, Orwell and Huxley, George Saunders. And I’ll drop just about anything to watch one of those “this is how the world may end” shows on television. Judging by the popularity and ubiquitousness of these programs, I’m not alone in my fixation.

You’ve gotten dinged in a couple of outlets for the book’s title—one argument being that any novel could profitably be titled “Everything Matters.” Did you struggle with the title for the book?

No, not really. I anticipated that some people wouldn’t like it, just as I anticipated that a certain type of reader and critic would choke on the book’s earnestness. Which is fine. I’m pretty weary of the hyperirony that seems to have taken over just about every form of popular culture—it’s so obvious, and easy, and too often only half-funny, which is not funny enough to justify its existence—and to an extent I conceived of the book as an antidote. The title is reflective of that: declarative, straightforward, earnest. Your usual highbrow title—the kind that seem designed to actually obscure what the book is about—wouldn’t have worked here.

The omniscient narrators who speak to Junior have shifting degrees of control throughout the novel—early on they take a “stance of supportive neutrality” but later play a more active role in the story’s events. Were you concerned that such a shift would seem arbitarary instead of playful? Or should we read the voices speaking to Junior as representive of the fickleness of God?

A careful read reveals that the omniscient voice is somewhat unreliable, and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. At the beginning of the book, for example, they claim they know nothing for certain about the future except for the inevitability of the comet impacting the Earth. But later on in the story they reveal, conclusively and repeatedly, that this is not true. And as you note, they pledge not to interfere in the events of Junior’s life, but are moved, eventually, to break this promise.

Often, the disasters you describe in the novel are mediated: We see the Challenger explosion through the TV coverage of it, nuclear catastrophe through a TV special on Nostradamus, a plot point about a standoff at a Social Security office through news reports on it. And that seems pitted against the very visceral, intimate reality of Junior’s personal “disaster”—the loss of his father. Do you feel that we’ve become desensitized to life-and-death matters, because they’re pushed at us so frequently?

Not at all. In fact, I think the opposite is true: we believe we’re desensitized and tough, because violence and death pervade our media, but there’s a big difference between seeing someone catch a bullet on TV, and the puke-inducing adrenal response of witnessing in person, or being a part of, a real act of violence. Anyone who’s spent time in the world’s poorer corners, where life as a commodity is severely devalued, can’t help but be a little taken aback by how sheltered and safe we are here. Recently at the college in the town where I live, a couple of students were roughed up by security guards after a party got out of hand. One of the kids ended up with a nosebleed, and the following day hundreds of students turned out at a rally wearing red shirts to—I shit you not—symbolize the blood that had been spilled. It only takes experiencing one act of genuine brutality to put the kibosh on such sensitive overreaction, but clearly none of these kids has been there.

The novel includes a line from a Flaming Lips song as an epigraph, and there’s also a reference to the song “Race for the Prize.” (At least, I’m assuming it’s a reference—the themes of the song and that part of the book are similar.) What role did the band’s music play for you while working on the book?

The same role that all the music I love plays in the writing of my books—I’ve learned a ton about how to tell a story in prose from listening to great music. I wanted the epigraph to be longer, because that entire song (“In the Morning of the Magicians”) perfectly captures Junior’s dilemma: the question of how important our love and industry are in the face of the Universe’s infinite indifference. That the Flaming Lips were able to do in three minutes what took me three hundred pages sort of illustrates how much storytellers can learn from good songs.

You, like the central characters in the novel, are Maine natives, but the Chicago Cubs play a critical role in the plot of the novel. Have you spent much time in the city, or were the long-suffering Cubs just another “disaster” that fit well into the book’s theme?

Ah, the poor Cubbies. They’re a little harder to like these days, what with the clubhouse full of whackjobs Pinella is charged with corralling, but I still pull for them. In fact, I think every real baseball fan would be pleased to see them win the Series (except maybe Cardinals fans). I’ve spent a little time in Chicago, and I love it there—all the bustle and excitement of New York, except tinged with that midwestern agreeableness.