Two Reviews

Coming off my recent back-and-forth with Jennifer Howard about Henry AdamsDemocracy, it was fun to think about Thomas Mallon‘s new novel, Watergate, which I reviewed for the Barnes & Noble Review. Mallon has a long view on D.C. political history—his 1994 novel Henry and Clara is sparked by the Lincoln assassination and 2008’s Fellow Travelers is set in the McCarthy era—and Watergate benefits from that knowingness. The novel doesn’t sensationalize the events of the break-in, the way a lot of historical novelists might be tempted to; in fact, it barely depicts them. What Mallon focuses on is much the same thing Adams did: The internal scheming and positioning that define the federal city’s culture.

Watergate isn’t hurting for attention—at least not from where I sit inside the Beltway. It would be a slightly more fair world, though, if Lia Purpura‘s new essay collection, Rough Likeness, picked up some of the same heat. (I reviewed it for the Minnapolis Star-Tribune.) It’s a collection of 18 short lyric essays on subjects that have little in common except Purpura’s interest in studying them with an electron microsope’s intensity: buzzards, tools, advice columns, a sign on a bridge, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Against ‘Gunmetal,'” an essay about cliche, is one of the best things I’ve read in the young year, and since it’s available online I feel less bad about quoting it at length; here she’s questioning why that particular gray we call gunmetal gray has earned that militaristic adjective:

It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on: A burnt-spoon sky. Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell . . . It’s the color of a cataract (which very like “promontory” is not much in use, ever-nailed as both are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Colloidal and swirly as milk in tea. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why “gunmetal?” If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? The throwback quality’s engaging, authentic—the forging, the shine, the added bluing, the blacking, the browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest you know something about guns; enough at least to toss a likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they reach a car, after school: I call shotgun!—not side saddle! not the seat next to my mom).

Purpura talks a little more about the book in the video below:

Failed State, Part 2

Christopher Hitchens‘ essay on the lack of great Washington novels, mentioned here a couple weeks back, is now online at City Journal‘s website. Hitchens’ argument is similar to ones he’s made in previous articles about D.C. fiction: “[T]he fact is that Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes this time. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” His touchstones are similar as well: Henry AdamsDemocracy, Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent, and various novels by his former mentor Gore Vidal. (The article’s tone is casual, but Hitchens still can’t resist throwing a couple of elbows Vidal’s way.)

Hitchens does move the story forward, though, by (rightfully) drawing attention to Thomas Mallon‘s very good novel about McCarthy-era attempts to cleanse the Federal government of homosexuals, Fellow Travellers, and Ward Just, who is “possibly chief among those who have depicted the nation’s capital as the bureaucratic and constipated place that it in fact is.” Which is to say that faint praise is obviously the fuel of any conversation about Washington novels. Proof? Hitchens mentions that none of the big male late-20th century American fiction writers (Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow) bothered to write about the place. I can’t think of many examples to the contrary (aside from a memorable D.C. sequence early in Roth’s The Plot Against America), but Bellow did at least consider writing about the city in the early 70s. As he told a Life interviewer at the time, he was waffling between writing about the District or another much-maligned town:

His next book probably will concern either Washington, D.C. or, of all the gristly places, Gary, Ind. “On and off I’ve been writing a little something about Gary,” he says, “having to do with the way white workers are getting prosperous and going off into the dunes and farmlands, leaving the city a vast black slum. Will it explode? I don’t know. That’s prophecy, which isn’t my business.”

Links: Go Tell It on the Mountain

At the Rumpus, Eric B. Martin writes, “if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws.” Why can’t reviews of all books just do the second thing? When somebody shouts “Read this book!” from a hilltop, who finds that alone convincing?

Adam Langer, whose next book is about the publishing industry, on the strangest thing about publishing: “That sometimes it’s easier to lie and get away with it, than to get away with telling the truth.”

Southern Methodist University Press is at risk of closing due to budgetary concerns. Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell (the press’ closing would be “a body blow to American literature”), Richard Russo, and others have registered their displeasure.

Richard Price on what to do when Hollywood comes calling about adapting your work for the screen: “Take the money and run.”

“I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them.”

Shalom Auslander works a stomach-churning but not inaccurate metaphor to describe the experience of writing.

Current events have a way of leading back to The Grapes of Wrath.

Percival Everett‘s entertaining comic novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, picks up the annual Believer Book Award.

D.G. Myers, bullish on litblogging: “For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves ‘fre­quently and at length with contemporary work.'”

The case for slow reading.

Philip Roth and Judy Blume are inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

In related news, Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah: “I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down.”

Thomas Mallon takes the helm of the creative writing program at the George Washington University, just a couple of months after the school announced that Edward P. Jones has joined the English department faculty.

On Saturday, Al “Red Dog” Weber, who is 84, will impersonate Ernest Hemingway at a book festival in Laguna Hills, California. How will you be channeling Papa, Mr. Weber? “A lot of rum, honey. I’m going to be bombed out of my gourd and in perfect character.”

About Those Fakes…

Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller may be responsible for the hokiest lede to ever appear in a Pulitzer-winning story, but she’s pretty good when it comes to literary affairs, and she has a thorough piece on the latest round of fake memoirs. Among those quoted is D.C.-based novelist and critic Thomas Mallon:

The current crop of faked memoirs and fib-filled autobiographies may emanate from the complications of the Internet era, Mallon says. “As George Orwell noted, people write as an assertion of the ego. And when people fabricate memoirs, it’s an homage to the fact that writers still have stature in the culture.” Ironically, though, “the Web has made authorship a much less exclusive club. You can self-publish now so easily.”

And we may only be at the threshold of the Internet’s effect on literary originality, Mallon warns. “We’re not that far into it, and we just don’t know. It’s still very unsettled.”