An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham‘s] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

The Beauty of the City

My review of Ward Just‘s new novel, Rodin’s Debutante, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. I’ve riffed plenty on Just before, and I was certainly happy to see him return to Chicago, where he grew up and where he set one of his best novels, 2004’s An Unfinished Season. Writing about the book let me touch on the love-hate relationship that so many Chicago writers have with the city, and one thing I tried to point out is that Rodin’s Debutante is remarkable for being more on the hate side of the ledger: “The strange yet admirable thing about Rodin’s Debutante, the seventeenth novel by Ward Just, is that its Chicago is the broken nose without the loveliness. Though its characters swan through the city’s elite social circles, it’s clear they’re only play-acting at sophistication.”

For the 50s-era Chicago Just writes about, the corruption is thoroughgoing, from South Side medical clinics to North Side art aficionados. A drifter who appears in a tony North Shore town early on is meant to stress that danger and anxiety are everywhere, even in the places where the well-off try to escape it. I wish I had more room to discuss how Just takes the things that Chicago writers commonly admire about the city—its hardworking people, its ambitious skyline—and turns them inside out, darkens them. A scene describing City Hall gets at some of that, satirizing the typical paeans to the city’s architecture:

Bert…crossed the county line into Chicago, home at last, the familiar streets, the racket, the city’s mighty industrial groad. Farther on, pausing at a stoplight, City Hall loomed large. The building was one of the least distinguished of the Loop, a coal bucket of a building, but appearances were deceiving because the coal bucket concealed the Hope Diamond—a political apparatus so costly, so exquisite, so multifaceted, so blinding in its flash of fire, that it had secured tenure for scores of Illinois political scientists over the years. And still they had not driven a stake into the heart of things. What they did not know about the politics of the city would fill Wrigley Field. Of course no one knew it all; in its dash and complexity it resembled the Dark Continent. God knows there were ghosts aplenty in Chicago but the city was beautifully reconciled, its books immaculate. You walked into City Hall and you knew exactly what had to be done, where the payments went and to whom and what was expected in return. That was the beauty of the city, its clarity—and balance.

The novel also reminded me that I ought to read Herman Melville‘s Omoo, which is referred to a handful of times in the novel: The headmaster of a second-tier boys’ school is greatly admired for his lecture on the book, much to the consternation of the lawyerly parents. (“The navigator was secretive and sly. Was this Melville a red?”) But even without reading it, Just’s reason for mentioning the book seems clear: “The entire Pacific Ocean was not sufficient to quench his thirst for experience and the knowledge that came with it. There was always something fresh beyond the horizon line and a vessel at sea was a world unto itself.” Sticking to Chicago and its piddling lake, you might as well be landlocked; if you want to be around grownups, make haste for the coasts.

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.”

Failed State

The Daily Caller brings word that Christopher Hitchens has an article in the latest issue of City Journal bemoaning the lack of a great novel set in Washington, D.C. (The Daily Caller piece recommends William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist as a candidate, due to its thread of noble humanism, before the author equates pro-choice advocates with angry demons that require exorcising. Writing a great Washington novel requires getting one’s head around that kind of logic, which may help explain why the job is so difficult.) The City Journal article isn’t online, but Hitchens has registered this complaint before. Writing in the Washington Post in 1989, he held his nose while reading Allen Drury‘s Advise and Consent and damned the whole genre:

Verisimilitude…is probably not worth having. It is best to treat Washington as an idea rather than a place. In different ways, authors as various as Richard Condon and Christopher Buckley have written successful and enjoyable novels by getting this point and opting for the willing suspension of disbelief. Jeffrey Archer, who can’t write, has at least tried the same tactic, though he sets too much store by “researched” descriptions of situation rooms, Pentagon offices and other arcana. Paragraphs that tell you the exact time that so-and-so stepped out of a Foggy Bottom elevator belong in pulp journalism not pulp fiction.

In 1995 he was at it again, demolishing Charles McCarry‘s Shelley’s Heart by riffing on the Washington novel’s flaws: “Most ‘Washington novels’ still have the same cast: a President (inescapable), a British ambassador, a prominent hostess, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator…. [S]enators have ‘manes,’ rooms are filled with smoke, party allegiances are strong and distinct, regional characteristics are heavily stressed among members of Congress, and newspapers are ruthlessly committed to breaking stories at any cost.”

Clearly Hitchens hasn’t found any worthy candidates in the 15 years since his New York Review of Books piece, and he’s not alone in his frustration, though a few candidates have cropped up. I’d be interested to see if he’s spent any time with Ward Just‘s Echo House, a George Pelecanos novel or two, or even Frederick Reussrecent A Geography of Secrets. I’ll update once I get my hands on a copy of the City Journal article. Of course, I welcome recommendations in the comments of worthy D.C. novels, or thoughts about what such a book requires to be “great.”

Overlooked and Underappreciated

Earlier this week A.N. Devers asked her followers on Twitter to weigh in on great American novelists who are overlooked in some way. She was inspired to do so by a piece in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke calling out unconscious gender bias among book critics, but the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist hashtag quickly acquired a mix of male and female writers: The final list of authors she assembled includes J.F. Powers, Pervical Everett, and John Crowley in addition to Dawn Powell, Kathryn Davis, and Joy Williams.

It wasn’t such a bad way to kill a few minutes, and because I had D.C. novelists on my mind lately, I put in a word, yet again, for Ward Just. This got a response from Janice Harayda, former Cleveland Plain Dealer books editor and founder of One-Minute Book Reviews, who wondered if a writer who tends to get lots of praise lavished on him by the likes of the Washington Post can really be considered overlooked.

I responded that a writer can still be overlooked even if he or she gets stacks of positive press—once again, there’s little evidence that reviews sell books—and that Just was something of an unusual case. For all that positive press, he’s never won a major award, and though his style and themes (Henry James-ian, thinky but accessible, interested in both political and personal affairs) suggest he could’ve had John Updike‘s audience, he rarely comes up in conversation, online or otherwise. I wouldn’t make it a rallying cry or anything, but sometimes older white-guy authors fail to get the readers they deserve too; the marketplace is full of injustices, and they’re not exclusively a function of gender.

In any event, I tried to compress all that in a tweet, to which Harayda responded that authors like Just aren’t so much “overlooked” as “underappreciated.” The distinction between the two terms wasn’t quite clear to me, so I dropped Harayda a line asking if she could take a moment to clarify. She did better than that, both explaining the difference between the terms and challenging some of the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist responses. Here’s Harayda:

What troubled me about some of the Twitter suggestions was this: Until about 20 years or so ago, entire groups of people truly were overlooked by the publishing industry: gays, blacks, and Latinos and other ethnic groups. In some cases, they had almost no voice, because they couldn’t get published. Black women are one example. The breakthrough for them came with the publication of Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale in 1995. Until that sold well, black female writers of popular fiction simply could not get published. At all. I’m not exaggerating. A year or so before Waiting to Exhale came out, I covered a Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention as background for a 7-part series for the Plain Dealer on how romance novels were changing. And it was heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the black women there. The only firm that would publish them was a small press that was started because nobody else would take on black female romance novelists. The major publishers were telling black female writers of popular fiction things like—this is a direct quote—“Black people don’t read.”

Apart from issues such as race or sex, entire classes of novels are routinely “overlooked” in important areas like prize-giving—for example, comic novels, which have always been taken less seriously than tragedies even if they’re just as good. Let’s face it: Would P.G. Wodehouse stand a chance at a Man Booker Prize? And variations on this principle are still affecting writers. Virtually every week at the Plain Dealer I saw good novels that weren’t going to get reviewed, by us or most other places, just because there wasn’t space.

Contrast such situations to that of some of the people mentioned on Twitter yesterday, such as J.P. Marquand and J.F. Powers. They are both good writers, and, yes, may deserve more readers today. But Marquand won a Pulitzer and Powers, a National Book Award. Is this really being “overlooked”? If so, it feeds into the Manichean view that grips publishing today: You’re a peacock or a you’re feather duster. There’s less and less middle ground. Your books are bestsellers or you’re “overlooked,” a duality works against authors. You mentioned Ward Just, who has had a distinguished career without gaining the stature or sales of Updike. I believe you that he deserves more readers. But if the reception Just has had amounts to being “overlooked,” many writers would kill for it. And it doesn’t seem to me that Just is overlooked because his books haven’t had Updike’s sales or nobody talks about him for the Nobel. Everybody doesn’t have to hit it big in all categories. To my mind, the people who are “overlooked” are not those who have won big prizes, but those who never had a chance at them either because they couldn’t get published or because they wrote books of high literary merit in categories unfashionable with prize judges or readers.

Point taken—Just, like many others on the list, isn’t suffering so much from a poverty of attention as a lack of readers to match that attention. Though I’m not sure what changes that. Maybe it doesn’t require changing. What if the appetite for realist Catholic fiction by J.F. Powers is precisely at the level it ought to be today, even if it’s less than it once was? Is Powers then “overlooked,” or are his books simply meeting their market?

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.

Genuinely Good and Genuinely Political

Writing at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, asks if there are any “genuinely good, genuinely political novels” available. He sets the baseline for a genuinely bad political novel by mentioning Ralph Nader‘s new book, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!. But lacking any strict definitions of what “good” and “political” mean, the commenters were free to run rampant. And so they have—as I write this, there are 202 comments.

I’m responsible for one of them comments, pitching Ward Just, though I’m pretty sure he’s not the writer Farrell is looking for. Just is a keen observer of political personalities and of what public service does to a person’s (OK, a man’s) sense of ethics, but I haven’t read anything he’s written that forwarded a political argument. That’s a difficult, if not impossible thing to do in a way that isn’t awkward: Caleb Crain quotes Stendahl in the New York Review of Books as saying, “politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.” Crain breaks out the quote in the context of his review of Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The short-story collection isn’t overtly political when it comes to its setting, Pakistan, but does suggest that the wealthiest classes there have grown only more hubristic as time goes by. Is that still a political work?

Two-hundred-odd comments aren’t going to resolve the matter, but the discussion did take an interesting turn into whether science fiction is the best available source in fiction for political ideas, for better or for worse. The author who seems to come up most often on that front is Ursula K. Le Guin, who apparently wouldn’t disagree with the commenters’ claims about her work. As she told an interviewer last year:

The world is so weird that (as the Magical Realists showed us) the only way to describe it is by accepting its weirdness – we begin to understand it by accepting the fact that we can’t understand it. … And fantasy and sf are good tools, the best tools, for getting perspective on the big social and political stuff (think of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”), and for figuring out what might be changed in our society – for better or worse – and what change might involve (think of “The Handmaid’s Tale”).

In any event, the thread is worth a look, especially given that it appears to still be going strong after three days.

Ward Just in the Second Pass

A piece I wrote about the two versions of Ward Just‘s story collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert is up at the Second Pass. Let’s look at a clip:

Just, before turning to fiction, covered Vietnam for the Washington Post and Newsweek, and writing for such establishment outlets naturally pitted him against the New Journalists who made splatter paintings out of facts. (The narrator of Just’s 1983 story “About Boston” dines with a newspaperman who says that “nouvelle cuisine reminded him of the nouveau journalism — a colorful plate, agreeably subtle, wonderfully presented with inspired combinations, and underdone. . . . A triumph of style over substance.”) The disclaimer, though, can also be read as a kind of endorsement of the New Journalism philosophy. If the facts have a way of misleading, as the last sentence says, then in these nine stories Just is attempting to better capture Washington through fiction. Dispensing with facts permitted him to talk openly about the town. If it was only as a journalist that he could speak truth to power, in this book he aspired to speak the truth about it.

To be an advocate for Just is to be a little lonely, excited over something that on the surface seems impossibly dry—I imagine it’s what being a fan of the Fall is like. Fact is, Just’s favorite characters are politicians and journalists, two relatively dull tribes of people. And he’s routinely refused to apply familiar stereotypes to either of them, making them seem more powerful (or more comfortable with their power) than they actually are. The second version of Flaubert is as good place to start as any, as is 1997’s Echo House or 2004’s An Unfinished Season, the first Just novel I read and the one that prompted me to dig deep into his bibliography.

Links: Dirty Old Men

Playboy will publish an excerpt of Vladimir Nabokov‘s final work, an unfinished novella titled The Original of Laura. Don’t look so shocked: The magazine interviewed him in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway: KGB spy?

The Second Pass takes a look at ten books that need to be tossed out of the canon. First up, Don DeLillo‘s White Noise: “DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic.” I’m not buying the “polemic” bit, and who said he was shooting for realism anyhow?

The Iowa Review has a new editor.

Politico rings up Ward Just for a quote about the death of Robert McNamara.

Eudora Welty‘s estate pulled her name out of the running for the renaming of her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women.

The Atlantic has a modest proposal: Give tax breaks to publishers who support new and little-known writers. M.A. Orthofer retorts, “don’t ‘not-for-profit’ publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?”

John Updike‘s longtime home in Beverly Farms, Mass., sold last month for $2.5 million.

Jim Harrison has a pretty fancy house too, though his actual writing room looks like a cubicle in an abandoned real-estate brokerage.

George Pelecanos doesn’t know jack about writing about shotguns, according to a Field & Stream gunblogger: “Pelecanos in particular will put characters in a tense armed standoff, then have someone say ‘I can shoot you before you have time to rack that pump.’ In real life the immediate reply would be ‘Boom.'”