Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Inspirational Verse

[H]e was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers with made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against some foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.

— Saul Bellow, Herzog

Saul Bellow’s Tears

Today would have been the 94th birthday of Saul Bellow, a fact that sent me on a wild goose chase for an online version of John Hankiewicz‘s lovely two-page graphic tribute, “A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).” (No luck, but it’s in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti, and well worth tracking down.) Instead, I did find a piece the Rumpus recently published reprinting excerpts of a tribute to Bellow by Herbert Gold titled “A Genius for Grief.” The segments suggest that the overall piece, originally published in News From the Republic of Letters, paints Bellow as a bit of a despairing soul:

Until I came to live in San Francisco, our friendship went through ups and downs, with periods of intense intimacy; that is, Saul confided his troubles, I listened and felt warm about being invited in. Occasionally he stayed with me in New York and gave me the difficult gratification of hinting that I stood between him and some desperate act at the high window. These threats didn’t interfere with his intent sessions bent over the notebooks with their ruled lines upon which his fountain pen tracked his imagination and indignation. I learned that folks don’t usually kill themselves in the middle of composing the suicide note.

I’m not well-schooled enough in Bellow’s biography to know if he had serious issues with depression. But a 1978 interview with Henrietta Buckmaster, published in Conversations With Saul Bellow, suggests that, even if he wasn’t, he gave a lot of thought to a uniquely American kind of despair:

We Americans are in a peculiar position when it comes to brainwashing, because we’ve been spared the worst in modern history—we’ve been spared the holocaust—both wars—we’ve been spared totalitarianism, the forced labor camps, the police regimes and all the rest of that. We are the avant garde of safety, comfort, affluence, security. We’re also witnesses to the horrible effects that safety, comfort, affluence, privilege can have. I sometimes think we’re stuck somewhere in the middle. We no longer have nature and history to punch us in the nose. Other nations could depend on that punch in the nose to keep them realistic. I think we’ve lost that principle of realism in the United States—if we ever had it. Most of us are spoiled and blundering, and we believe, in a very shallow way, in the goodness of our intentions….

[T]here is a comfort for our despair, I think. It’s better than the despair Europe wallowed in.

Interviewer: Meanwhile, things go on and life somehow remains, I think, a remarkable commodity.

Well, life is the only thing we know, isn’t it?

Links: Collectors

Naoko Mayuzumi, who’s generously compiled a bibliography of Haruki Murakami‘s Japanese translations of American writers, recently wrote in with news of a new translation, based on Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. The page has been updated accordingly.

This blog isn’t available on the Kindle. The main reason I’m not signing up is that I think that free is a perfectly fine price to put on what I what I’m slinging here. But it’s not the only reason.

Telegraph classical music critic Michael White considers the recent death of composer Nicholas Maw by pulling out a 2002 feature on Maw’s opera based on William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice, with some comments by Styron.

Jeffrey Eugenides thinks that Saul Bellow‘s Herzog is a great cure for writer’s block, but given that it’s going to be a while before he finishes a follow-up to Middlesex, it’s probably best to take his advice with a grain of salt.

Critical Distance, an new effort to create a repository of thoughful reconsiderations of recent American fiction, launched yesterday with founder Dan Green‘s essay on Russell BanksAffliction. I’ll have more to say on this project soon-ish.

The summer issue of Bookforum is available online, including an interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

If you’re looking for a group summer reading project, your ship has just come in.

Knockemstiff author Donald Ray Pollock gave thanks for the $35,000 prize he received at the PEN Literary Awards earlier this week. “It was good timing,” he said. “I’m getting ready to get out of grad school and there are no jobs right now.”

Jewish-American Lit 101

I’ve been killing fair bit of time clicking around the online companion to Josh Lambert‘s book American Jewish Fiction: The JPS Guide—the database includes publication information on a raft of books dating back to 1867. (That would be the year that Nathan Meyer‘s Differences was published. I haven’t heard of it, but Lambert points out that it’s available online.) Though the site has little in the way of commentary, it’s still interesting to see some of the connections between authors and publication dates; Saul Bellow‘s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, appeared the same year as John Updike‘s Bech: A Book, in temperament flipsides of the same coin and reflecting a surge of interest in Jewish themes. Or, as Lambert put it regarding Bech: “By the late 1960s, Jewish writers so dominated the field of American literature that non-Jews began to get jealous.”

The book itself, which I haven’t seen, includes comments by Lambert on 125 books. A few months back he explained his process of arriving at that number. Much of his time was spent talking with Jewish literature scholars, but he also cast a wider net:

Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary’s epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.

Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent of American Jewish fiction–that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples–books like Millhauser’s and Caspary’s are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.

Mr. Sammler’s Panic

If chatter about particular novels is any kind of bellwether for the state of the world, we’re in a bad way—there have been plenty of references lately to The Grapes of Wrath and, dispiritingly, Atlas Shrugged. (If you want to romanticize the second novel’s grim brand of self-righteousness, congratulations—you’ll have a bank on your side.) But lately I’ve been more curious about what seems to be a spike in conversation about Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Last summer Myron Magnet wrote a lengthy piece on the novel’s perspective on run-down late-’60s Manhattan for City Journal; more recently, the Berkshire Review used the novel as a launchpad to discuss the construction of Lincoln Center, while both Andrew Seal and D.G. Myers smartly wrestled with the misogyny and racism baked into the novel’s protagonist, Artur Sammler. The book appeared to be symbolic of new sense that the center isn’t holding, but maybe we didn’t want to consider the matter too directly—better to read about the worries of 1968 through Bellow’s rambling intellectual than through, say, a history book like Mark Kurlansky‘s 1968.

All of which is to say that the all the discussion did what good discussions are supposed to do—it compelled me to read the book. To go from the Bellow I’d read just a couple of months ago, The Adventures of Augie March, to Sammler isn’t just to fast-forward a couple of decades in Bellow’s life—it’s like being yanked from a busy city street into a cavernous library, from life to thought. Sammler’s existence is as interior as March’s is exterior; when the Holocaust survivor steps outside it’s as a detached observer who’s had too much of people. He scrutinizes the world too much for the world to have any patience for him, Bellow seems to say, and Bellow’s chosen punishment for Sammler is what’s sparked all the discussion about racism. Early in the novel, Sammler is cornered by a black pickpocket who he’s been staring at on the bus too long; the thief exposes himself to Sammler, and it’s a vision he can’t quite shake.

It gets ugly, the way Sammler processes race, and women as well. (He’s bizarrely obsessed with how women smell.) Toward the end of the novel Sammler cops to his own shallowness, but only in the context of others’ shallowness. The names below aren’t meaningful if you haven’t read the book, but Bellow’s treatment suggests how Sammler packages the people he interacts with:

[A]t the moment of launching from this planet to another something was ended, finalities were demanded, summaries…. Thus Wallace, on the day of destiny for his father, roared and snored in the Cessna snapping photographs. Thus Shula, hiding from Sammler, was undoubtedly going to hunt for treasure, for the alleged abortion dollars. Thus Angela, making more experiments in sensuality, in sexology, smearing all with her female fluids. Thus Eisen with his art, the Negro with his penis. And in the series, but not finally, himself with his condensed views. Eliminating the superfluous. Identifying the necessary.

It may be similarly reductionist to say that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is simply a novel about fear of social change, but that’s largely what seems to drive Sammler into his interior life. The big stuff like his near-death during the Holocaust or the carnage he sees reporting on the Six Day War—the big stuff he can handle. It’s all the little changes in money and sex and race that baffle the man, which makes the novel an interesting read if you’re living, as you are, in the middle of a cultural inflection point, where much of what we’ve understood about our economy, our work, and how we get and process information, is being blown up. Bellow is brilliant at exposing the thoughts that shuttle around a busy mind in the midst of that; the bad news for the reader is that we’re not going to like every thought that moves around.

Links: Remember When

While assembling this post, I’ve been listening to the Saul Bellow episode in Yaddo’s Yaddocast series (h/t TEV), and it’s a nice 20-minute primer on the writer’s life and thought. The lineup for podcasts and interviews is impressive: Not just writers but artists like Martin Puryear, Aaron Copland, Philip Guston, and more.

Edmund White
has a thoughtful appreciation of Glenway Wescott in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. It’s not online, unfortunately, but the New York Times catches up with White and his newfound acclaim as a dramatist.

D.C. restaurant/bookstore/Democrat-apparatchik-hangout Busboys & Poets enjoyed an uptick in book-sale revenue of more than 800 percent just before President Obama’s inauguration.

Tomorrow night Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate debuts an hourlong documentary it produced about Wallace Stegner. No word if it’ll get wider play, but the Web site for the program includes transcripts with interviewees, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas McGuane, and Carl Brandt.

I’ve just finished Laila Lalami‘s debut novel, Secret Son, a carefully turned story about a young man who’s shuttled up and down the class ladder in contemporary Casablanca after he learns the identity of his father. Lalami’s characterizations and descriptions have depth and grit—it thoughtfully maps the city’s slums, palatial hotels, and extremist hangouts. But it’s more a story about class than place, and in showing how the poor are often victim of circumstance it has the wide-open feeling of a fable. (Which is a long way of saying she earns the right to invoke The Great Gatsby in the early pages.) I bring this up mainly because I was pleased to learn that she’ll be appearing on a pair of panels in D.C. next month about Arab literature. Mark your calendars.

Many of the discussions following John Updike‘s death have brought up the question of who’s left?—what real competitors did Updike really have who can claim the role of great American novelist? Philip Roth‘s name gets bandied about the most. But the list of others mentioned rarely seems to include Joyce Carol Oates, which surprises me. Her work mirrors his in many ways: Both covered small-town life, both were fixated on both intimate relationships and history, both were prolific as fiction writers and critics. Oates, in her appreciation of Updike for the New Yorker, is more demure about their connection. I’m also surprised they weren’t closer friends.

And while I don’t think anybody needs more Updike-related links, I do think it’s important to note that he was admired by both stoners and snappy dressers.

The Best of the 50s

Over the Christmas weekend the Louisville Courier-Journal ran a nice piece by Scott Timberg about our collective fascination with 50s America. Mad Men and Revolutionary Road are the obvious pegs, but the piece smartly spends more time exploring some of the reasons why that decade is so romanticized today. (Timberg’s main sources on this point are Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey and Nixonland author Rick Perlstein, but I’d argue the real expert on the matter is Stephanie Coontz, whose book The Way We Never Were is a fascinating debunking of Ozzie & Harriet mythologizing.)

It’s striking to see, reading the article, how crucial books were in exposing and perhaps changing they way mainstream Americans behaved back then, and I’m hard-pressed to argue that they have the same impact today. Has Susan Faludi done as much as The Feminine Mystique? Does anything by Michael Pollan have enough force to change policy the way Silent Spring did? Why didn’t a book like, say, David Simon and Edward Burns’ The Corner shine a spotlight on urban poverty the way The Other America did?

Timberg’s story also introduces me to a book I badly need to be acquainted with. In arguing that the “’50s were crucial years for American fiction, with important work from Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor as well as the outlaw energies of the Beats and Norman Mailer,” Timberg calls on Morris Dickstein, author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970. Arguing that we have a “selective cultural memory” about that decade, he tells Timberg:

“Even more than the 1960s, this is a period too often reduced to stereotypes,” he writes, “and its culture has been seen by some literary scholars and art historians as little more than a reflex of the Cold War, repressive, patriotic, and militantly small-minded. … The postwar period, especially the 1950s, has been simplified into everything the ’60s generation rebelled against.”

Augie March Would Not Like to Be Your Facebook Friend

Review deadlines have slackened for me in the past few weeks, so I’ve been spending a few days taking care of a huge blind spot in my reading: Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March. I’m not sure how I’ve gotten along without it; in fact, it’s a little embarrassing to think that I’ve made any general statement about how class is portrayed in American literature without knowing Bellow’s big, beautiful book. March stumbles through life—in essence, the novel is a catalog of his screw-ups in work, family, and relationships—but he navigates it with his eyes wide open, and Bellow’s sentences overflow with astute observations about how your upbringing and your class and your temperament peg you in life, regardless of tax bracket.

March is an autodidact, and though his reading of the Great Books hasn’t improved his station, it’s allowed him to know it, which isn’t a small thing. That’s what he’s speaking to in the monologue below, as he talks to a friend about his experience working for an eccentric millionaire to research an inchoate tome about wealth and spiritual happiness. (Tentative title: The Needle’s Eye.) The passage below floored me, not just because it exemplifies Bellow’s famously sinuous sentences, but because it speaks so powerfully to the present moment, when there’s an ever-increasing amount of data and a greater concern about what good it is. Information overload has always been with us, yet nobody articulates its emotional impact quite like March:

“I thought if I knew more my problem would be simplified, and maybe I should complete my formal education. But since I’ve been working for Robey I have reached the conclusion that I couldn’t utilize even ten percent of what I already knew. I’ll give you an example. I read about King Arthur’s Round Table when I was a kid, but what am I ever going to do about it? My heart was touched by sacrifice and pure attempts, so what should I do? Or take the Gospels. How are you supposed to put them to use? Why, they’re not utilizable! And then you go and pile on top of that more advice and information. Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous. Anyway, there’s too much of everything of this kind, that’s come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track of, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me? I haven’t got that much head to master it all. I get carried away. It doesn’t give my feelings enough of a chance if I have to store up and become like an encyclopedia. Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that inside the walls of his own being. And all great experience would only take place within the walls of his being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all achievement would stay within those walls. And all glamour too. And even hate, monstrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would be only a terrible, hideous dream about existing. It’s better to dig ditches and hit other guys with your shovel than die in the walls.”

Division Street America

My old hometown, Chicago, seems much on everybody’s mind lately. One of its greatest journalists, Studs Terkel, died last weekend, and it’ll host some kind of big political event this evening. I’ve had a hard time not thinking about the place—when the National Book Critics Circle recently asked its members to recommend books that speak to this particular political moment, Mike Royko‘s Boss was the first to spring to mind.

So novelist Jon Fasman‘s portrait of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood is worth a look—partly because it’s a literary story, looking at the neighborhood through Saul Bellow‘s eyes. But also because it captures the kind of tight-knit ethnic enclaves that make it seem less like a Big City and a little more livable:

My early memories are full of characters I would come to recognize (or at least call) Bellovian: Jewish wiseguys, street-smart autodidacts like my grandfather, an orphan raised in military school who became first a professional saxophonist and then a lawyer, who taught me how to play poker when I was 6. My grandfather also read voraciously; when he came across an unfamiliar word he wrote it on the book’s inside flap, then looked it up and used it as soon as he could. My grandmother could curse in Yiddish and quote Browning from memory with equal felicity. Art and commerce coexisted, rather than competing, in these people and in their milieu. Augie, Einhorn and Maurice spoke in their accents: adenoidal Midwestern with an unerasable Yiddish twang.


If you live in the D.C. area and you’re glutton for even more Election Day coverage than you’re probably already taking in, please swing by the Web site for my employer, Washington City Paper, which will be covering local and national affairs throughout the day. (In theory I’ll be riffing on the Maryland slots vote, but we’re all playing it by ear, pretty much.) If you have news about the election that you’d like to Twitter us about, tag them as #dcvotes and they’ll show up on our homepage.