Links: Another Day

Rohan Maitzen has a lovely stemwinder in Open Letters Monthly about her experience reading Gone With the Wind for the thirty-second time. Her conclusion is blunt, and she’s not alone in coming to it: “[I]t rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values. Punishing Scarlett for rebelling against her identity as a ‘lady,’ it endorses racism and romanticizes slavery. For all its undeniable narrative power, its passion, drama, and pathos, it is, morally, an appalling book.” But she takes a thoughtful and entertaining path to get to that point.

Sue Miller on her new novel, The Lake Shore Limited, makes a comment that may be relevant to the discussion about sentiment here a few days back: “I teetered between two opposing modes of writing: the mode that wanted to make the story emotionally compelling, to make you cry, and the other mode, which was to leave the story open, in some sense, and to make it ask more than it resolved for you.”

If publishers are having a hard time figuring out how to make money off e-books, they have a kindred spirit in Johannes Gutenberg, who died bankrupt.

Coming soon: A book-length appreciation of John Carpenter‘s cult classic They Live by Jonathan Lethem.

Myla Goldberg: “Certain issues stick with authors whether or not they want them to. Memory might be mine.”

Remembering Thomas Wolfe, born 110 years ago today.

Scenes from the first international conference of the John Updike Society, where the author’s childhood friends recalled his disinterest in tying his shoes and odd use of a basketball.

Paying tribute to Mark Twain on a Swiss trail.

Theodore Dreiser‘s “Library of American Realism.”

Ishmael Reed
on why colleges shouldn’t teach The Wire.

“Here I am, a guy who has written seven novels about life in my 20th and 21st century (and has had five agents sell none of them), and I find less than seven contemporary novels worth reading about my time on earth.” Can’t imagine why…

Things That Are Older Are More Meaningful Than Things That Are Not So Old, or, Ten Things That Contemporary Fiction Must Be, Have, Do, Provide, or Resemble to Regain its Cultural Relevance, According to Lee Siegel

What I was able to extract from Siegel’s essay in the New York Observer:

1. “ineffable private and public clarity”

2. “really alive”

3. “vibrant experience”

4. “mischief”

5. “embracing more and more of the world with your will”

6. “urgently alive”

7. “existential urgency and intensity”

8. “illumined the ordinary events of ordinary lives”

9. “relevant and alive”

10. “Dreiser”


The Un-manned

My review of Joshua Ferris‘ second novel, The Unnamed, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The opening:

Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed” is a hero’s journey tale with the heroism scoured clean off it. Its protagonist, Tim Farnsworth, suffers from an affliction in which he walks involuntarily for miles on end, and his constant motion wreaks havoc on his body and, in a way, conventional storytelling. Instead of adventure there is only movement. Instead of revelation there’s only unknowing.

This strategy isn’t automatically a bad thing, but Ferris bungles it; The Unnamed continuously hints that it might have a coherent point about marriage, or illness, or modern life, but the author moves on as soon as something begins to come together. “Must be a metaphor—otherwise just a cheap device,” I scribbled in the margin of one of the opening pages following another one of Farnsworth’s involuntary walks.

It’s ultimately worse than that—the walking is so persistent and so divorced from meaning that if it’s a device, it’s just a device to fill pages. As I mention in the review, Ferris does have a thing or two to say about what it means to fulfill the cultural definition of “manliness,” and how much shaming can be involved when a man doesn’t. His exhausted wife, Jane, thinks “he was a baby and not her husband”; his sullen daughter, Becka, describes life with him as “more or less like she was babysitting him”; and his (exclusively) alpha-male coworkers at a high-powered law firm engage in games of one-upmanship designed to humiliate whoever fails to step up. Tim, feeling punished for his affliction, has a nightmare about having his pants pulled down by a coworker in court, and in one of the novel’s more brutal scenes he’s mocked over the phone by two coworkers determined to stifle his role at the firm. They do childishly, hinting that Tim has recovered his previous reputation and then yanking their kindness away:

“And where did you get the genius—”

Tim thought he heard the start of a guffaw just as Masserly’s voice cut out. His end had gone mute again. Or so it seemed. Sometimes lawyers made phone calls with one finger poised over mute so they could bad-mouth the opposition.

“Did you just hit mute again? Is someone in the office with you?”

“Mute? Look, I was asking where you got the insight to write a motion for summary judgment in Keibler when there’s Horvath. It’s genius. But you know Horvath chapter and verse the way you make implicit the differ—”

There might have been another guffaw, but the line went dead.

And yet, like so much of the novel, the power of the scene is sapped by a lack of clarity and consistency. Ferris never makes clear whether Tim’s idea about a summary judgment is or isn’t worth mocking. (Either way, that scene would’ve been more effective.) And soon enough, Ferris is on to something else that he never quite works through—a murder-mystery subplot, some business about bees that probably should’ve been cut in the final edits, a schizophrenia that afflicts Tim in the closing chapters.

The humiliated man isn’t a character who gets a lot of traction in fiction. There are plenty of wusses, sure, but not as many guys who work through the shame of failing to measure up, the way that the sadly declining George Hurstwood did in Theodore Dreiser‘s Sister Carrie. It’s not so much that I hoped Ferris would write a humiliated-man novel that it seemed like the most promising of the weak options he introduced.

In the February issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason argues [sub req’d] that The Unnamed is largely a failure at the sentence level, that its impact is blunted by language that’s at once showy and imprecise. There’s some of that—“Overcast was riveted to the sky as gray to a battleship” may be the most forced line I’ve read in a novel recently. But the novel’s problems are more structural than rhetorical. The isolation that Tim both suffers and chooses speaks little to the work and family issues that Ferris introduces, and eventually they’re simply abandoned. Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, in his admiring review of the novel, writes that “Ferris is interested in the blast radius around the sickness.” If only. The sickness, by novel’s end, is limited exclusively to the guy doing the walking. An implosion doesn’t have a blast radius.

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.