Category Archives: Books – Contemporary

Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

15 Views of Orlando – RELEASE PARTY!!!

The above subject heading uses three total exclamation points, which–in the words of my old mentor Jeanne Leiby–is the lifetime total allowed to a writer. And man, I used them all at once.

But the subject certainly calls for some exclamation points.

If you didn’t know (i.e. you don’t ever talk to me, or you don’t follow my facebook status updates, or you just randomly stumbled upon this blog), I’ve got a brand-new book coming out: it’s an anthology called 15 Views of Orlando, and it’s an attempt at finally offering an honest portrayal of the city of Orlando in literary fiction. I assembled 15 Orlando fiction writers to write one long loosely-linked story that wanders through our fair city, and the result is indeed impressive and surprising. (I love me some self-congratulation.) And because Orlando writers love our community, all proceeds from book sales will directly benefit Page 15, a literacy non-profit which conducts writing workshops for Orlando public school kids. If you don’t live in Orlando, buy a copy of the book and feel good about your purchase supporting a great cause. If you do live in Orlando, you need to get to our release party.

Details of the release party follow here, in a blog post from Burrow Press publisher Ryan Rivas:

Remember: we’ve got a huge book release happening in exactly one week.

That would be the 15 VIEWS OF ORLANDO book release:

Tuesday, JANUARY 31st
6pm to 9pm @ Urban ReThink
625 E. Central Blvd.
 
In addition to photography, booze, and music, there will be readings by: J. Bradley, Hunter Choate, Ashley Inguanta, John King, and J. Christopher Silvia, at 7:30pm.Folks who pre-order 15 Views for pick-up, or purchase 15 Viewsat the event, will be able to buy other BP books for $5.

15 Views editor Nathan Holic, and authors Hunter Choate and J. Christopher Silvia, were recently interviewed on WMFE’s Intersection. You can listen to that interview and excerpts from the book here. Pre-order the book while you’re at it. There’s no better way to support what we do; and, in this instance, the profits from the book are going to benefit Orlando kids.

 Whether you can make it to the party or not, please spread the word.

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo again explores the decay of small-town life in America, and although he’s done this brilliantly before (Empire Falls, obviously, went over pretty well, right?), I don’t think he’s ever hit us over the head with his ideas on why small towns have failed as he does in Bridge of Sighs. And I still can’t decide whether it’s effective or…well…a bit much, and a bit overkill, considering his other novels.

This book focuses on two main characters, Lucy and Noonan, boyhood friends from a small industrial town in upstate New York (where else, Russo?) whose lives took vastly different paths. Lucy cannot leave the town, despite the death of all industry there, and despite the slow collapse of the town’s sense of community, because he still hopes for the best and fears a life outside the town of Thomaston. He’s had trouble making friends, but is incredibly loyal to all those who have ever shown him affection, and is annoyingly good-natured, refusing to acknowledge the bad in anyone. Noonan, on the other hand, has always been an agnostic, a cynic, raised by a terrible set of parents and determined to leave Thomaston and do…something, anything. He winds up becoming a famous painter and travels throughout Europe.

It’s an interesting strategy that Russo has chosen to explore the small town of Thomaston and its stranglehold on the people who have never left (one character escaped, the other didn’t, and we get both points of view), but the novel’s main problem is this: it begins with the narrative moment of Lucy telling his readers that he will soon travel to Venice to meet back up with Noonan. Then, Lucy begins a 500-page narrative of his childhood, interspersed only occasionally with present-day scenes, which further the narrative moment of Lucy and Noonan meeting again. But, like Eugenides’ Middlesex, the author becomes so engrossed in the past narrative that the present narrative (the reason we continue reading, the moment we are waiting to truly see) takes a backseat, and–not to ruin the ending–never really pays off in a way that we were hoping for. Oh, it’s all well-written, and it’s all engaging, but the author sets us up for something, then gets wrapped up in what amounts to a sub-plot or an extended flashback.

Russo, as I mentioned earlier, also becomes more overt in his theories of small-town decay than ever before. The decline of Empire Falls was tragic, yes, and extremely well-developed. The decline of Thomaston is equally tragic, but it is also violent (we have blood-red water, cancer, house foreclosures, and an overall feeling of overwhelming pain and melancholy with the fate of this town) and unforgiving. We get the sense that all small towns are doomed because large corporations open up shop, close down all local businesses, bankrupt or drive away all the former businesspeople, convert all jobs to low-paying retail or service, and force all smart people to want to get away as quickly as possible.

This is Russo’s theory, it seems, and to be honest, it’s not far off in our current culture. But I don’t think it has ever felt so pessimistic, so insurmountable, as it does in Bridge of Sighs. That doesn’t make the book unlikable, but it does tell me that Russo needs to find new subject matter, and quick. I can’t take another Bridge of Sighs; I need my Russo to have some humor, some hope.

The Wettest County in the World

A year or two ago, I published a piece of fiction in The Saranac Review which alternated between traditional text and illustrated comic page. You can actually find a link on my “links” page to my post-publication interview with the editors, where I discuss some of my thoughts on mixed-media literature. The Fiction Editor of Saranac, though, is Matt Bondurant, and I just learned that his novel The Wettest County in the World is in production as a big-budget Hollywood film. Good for him. I’m hoping that the result is something that has all the style and complexity of other recent ’20s and ’30s-era crime films, from Public Enemies to Boardwalk Empire (and even the two-season series Carnivale).

But before the film comes out next year and makes a ton of money and everyone begins associating the story with the director’s style, not the original novelist’s style, here’s a quick look at the book itself.

Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World is an amazing piece of work, part fact, part legend, part absolute fiction, but always strikingly honest. The book follows the Bondurant Brothers (the author’s grandparents) through an extremely violent and hypocritical time period in American history, Prohibition.

The brothers are bootleggers, and while the book delves into various conspiracies involving lawmen, and paints several bloody scenes of deliveries gone wrong, men shot, men beaten and bloodied, the most interesting moments of the novel are those when we focus on the very human conflict between brothers. Jack Bondurant, the youngest, is simply not cut out for this lifestyle, no matter how hard he tries to fit in with his older brothers, and every page on which Jack appears with either of his brothers, it makes for extremely tense (and extremely satisfying) reading.

While the story is fast-paced, intricate, and employs multiple chronological shifts (there’s a sub-plot, told from many years after the narrative moment, involving Sherwood Anderson attempting to learn the truth about the bootlegging conspiracy), Bondurant’s prose style is worth exploring here, also. He writes in a dusty and gritty prose that owes quite a bit to Cormac McCarthy, and while it’s beautiful and original and full of amazing imagery, all I kept thinking throughout was: So you really like Cormac McCarthy, huh? Bondurant doesn’t use quotation marks, and he utilizes the stylistic strategy of simply listing, in sentence fragments, many poetic details in a row (much like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy). Again, I thought the prose was rich and concise all at once, but sometimes feels like a borrowed style. This shouldn’t take away from the achievement of this book, but authors and readers alike know–whether fair or unfair–that certain Major American Authors have hoarded certain Interesting Stylistic Choices as their very own, and to use them yourself will inevitably beg the comparison. Any horror movie with a masked slasher will be compared to Halloween, after all; that doesn’t make Scream any less successful, but certainly we know that Scream owes much of its success to the masked killer films that came before.

The Wettest County of the World, though, is a fantastic little gem that (hopefully) gains renewed interest after its film adaptation, and is (hopefully) useful in catapulting Bondurant into the Barnes & Noble Buy-2-Paperbacks-and Get-1-Free big leagues.

I Just Want My Pants Back

I didn’t have high hopes for David J. Rosen’s I Just Want My Pants Back. I remember putting it on my Amazon wish list several years back, when I was first reading about “fratire” and searching through Amazon’s unending hyperlinked recommendations, one after the next. This was 2007 or 2008, maybe, and I had the strong feeling that “fratire” would be the next big thing: Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell was a cultural phenomenon, and Superbad and Knocked Up were proving that the general public was indeed interested in seeing the exploits of young male slackers, or reading the commentary of twenty-something white men who had been told by literature departments that their stories and their viewpoints did not matter because they had never been marginalized. (Read Tucker Max’s Huffington Post article for a little more background here).

Yeah, I was sold. If “chick lit” was so popular, I’d certainly begin to see “fratire” books in the hands of all of my male friends, on their coffee tables, in their bathrooms…it would be a grand awakening for 18-35 year-old male readers, books and stories targeted at their demographic, work that was likely comedic and raunchy, detailing the frivolousness of life in one’s twenties, and maybe the majority of the books would never be canonized, but hell, I was tired of having to constantly argue to my friends that they should be reading, that there was value in reading, that the experience was often deeper and richer than the superficial TV shows they DVR’d, or the popcorn movies they watched on the weekends. “Fratire” as a literary genre, I had decided, would change everything. Blogs were gaining popularity; my male friends read blogs, right, so why wouldn’t they buy a collection of blogs, like Aaron Karo’s Ruminations?

And maybe the real reason that young men had given up on books in the first place was, quite simply, that books had given up on them. Yes, I saw in my Creative Writing classes that there were young men who devoured Kurt Vonnegut’s entire catalogue, and there were hordes of Chuck Pahlaniuk or Bret Easton Ellis followers, but most of these readers were just Creative Writing students who had found a rebellious contemporary male writer that they wanted to emulate/imitate. On the first day of class in my CRW classroom, I always ask students to write their favorite books, and trust me: you’d be surprised at how many of the students (particularly the males) say, “I don’t really read.” Or how many of them tell me Fight Club or Cat’s Cradle or American Psycho, but when pressed to provide further examples of work that they enjoy, cannot move beyond those books. And my friends? They aren’t Creative Writing students. They’re just guys. Old fraternity guys. Sports fans. Dudes. They didn’t even like Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk because, well, they hadn’t really cared about literature since they were forced to read Frankenstein and 1984 and The Canterbury Tales in high school, and so they didn’t care about rebellious male writers (such as Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk) who seemed strikingly different or transgressive. My friends simply had better ways to spend their time than reading books, and (I’ve always thought) this was because there was no surefire genre catering to average non-writer/non-academic males. They weren’t going to take the chance on reading random books, Nick Hornby or Michael Ondaatje or Richard Russo, in hopes that they might find an author they like. From their perspective, no one was writing about 18-34 middle-class men (either in college, or stuck in cubicles), so why should they be the ones who bothered to read all these crappy books about…whatever the hell they were all about.

So: back to my Amazon list. I’m not sure how many of these fratire-style books I added to the list (and I’m not even sure how many of them are actually “fratire”), but I had this crazy idea that I would document the trend, that I would read all of these books, that I would become an expert on the genre, that–maybe–I would even write a multi-layered fratire novel that young men would read (drawn in by the lure of booze and boobs and tomfoolery) and it would be the reason that they came to appreciate good literature again, the reason they branched out and found new authors outside the fratire comfort zone. Well. If you’ve been around my site, you know that this little fantasy didn’t quite work out, that I started to think more broadly about “generational literature” and how the entire Millennial Generation might shape its books and films (and even more specifically, how the Millennial reliance upon communication over/ involving many different mediums would result in the rise of “mixed-media literature”). In other words, fratire never really took off. Someone made a movie of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Aaron Karo is still writing his ruminations, and there are hundreds of thousands of blogs about stupid bullshit and occasionally one of them is insightful and witty and is released as a book to great acclaim (Stuff White People Like), but I must have been extremely deluded to think that anything could pry young men away from television, cinema, and the multiplying number of gadget and gizmos now at their disposal (iPods, iPhones, iPads, iEtc.). Some will be interested in reading fiction, but those few readers will not need a book about Beer Pong in order to draw them in.

I hadn’t updated my wish list, really, in awhile…or rather, I hadn’t removed some of the stupid crap I put onto the wish list…or rather, I hadn’t removed all of the stupid crap, and maybe I had some vague interest in a few of the books I’d originally targeted. And this past Christmas, I received I Just Want My Pants Back as a gift from my wife. “I liked the title,” she said, and well, it is a pretty funny title, and I was happy for the gift. Sometimes it’s nice to get a book that you never really thought you’d read, or that you’d forgotten you ever wanted to read.

After a few tough reads in the preceding months, I even put Rosen’s novel at the very top of my reading list. During the first weeks of this semester, while I was engulfed in photocopies and syllabi and student emails, I figured I’d use the novel (which was, presumably, going to be semi-amusing, right?) as a bit of brain relief. But the first two or three chapters confirmed my worst fears about fratire: we have a male protagonist (the book’s summary describes him as a slacker) who goes out every night of the week, drinks, smokes pot, has some easy sex, has a few female friends with whom he can share the juicy details; he lives in New York, is an Ivy League graduate but has no real ambition, and just wants to “live it up” in his twenties while the poor suckers he passes on the sidewalk are busy with all-consuming jobs and families. Really, I asked myself? This was the sort of story that I thought would become super-successful, that would redefine literature for male readers? I was annoyed with the book because it just felt like some douchebag know-nothing twenty-something’s blog (or facebook page), and I deal with enough know-nothing twenty-somethings at my university, many of whom think that–because they’ve discovered how to do their own laundry and shop for their own groceries–they have everything figured out. But I was also annoyed with myself for ever wanting to dedicate my time and energy to such a genre. I was embarrassed. One of my own rules about teaching is that I shouldn’t expend energy on the kids who don’t care, that it’s college and if they don’t want to be there, that’s their own problem. And now I saw my former views come into sharp focus: I wanted to write literature for people who didn’t care, and I wanted to dumb myself down in order to get their attention (and I’m not even that smart to begin with!)? A strong emotional reaction from 30-40 pages of a novel in which nothing had really happened yet…

But then I started to fall into I Just Want My Pants Back, hesitantly at first, discouraged with myself for enjoying it. But there were some things that were really working, here, and the novel touched upon many of my own ideas about what “Millennial Literature” could and should be. In fact, had I ever written a book that would fall under the category of “fratire,” I started to think that it would be an amazing compliment if the book was as layered (and even affecting) as Rosen’s novel.

Of course, my own opinions on the novel might just be so strong because the story (and protagonist) confirm my hypothesis about Millennial Literature characters: they are constantly searching for a sense of purpose. From a longer posting I wrote: “In contrast to many other generations still living, Millennials struggle with a sense of purpose, a single unifying experience to bring them together in a noble way.” By now, the idea of a long career in one place (working in the same office or cubicle, the way their parents might have) has become a nightmare for Millennials, a nightmare no doubt fueled by Office Space and American Beauty; they don’t have a loyalty to employers, and they often are unwilling to spend their lives simply plugging away at an okay salary so that they can raise a family; more than ever, young people think they can become millionaires (if just the right opportunity presents itself!), a thought articulated brilliantly in The Social Network when Harvard’s president lamented that young people all wanted to “create jobs” rather than find them; young men and women are going back to grad school in larger numbers than ever before, waiting longer to marry and to have kids, and it’s because they have an overwhelming fear of committing to the wrong purpose. If I take this particular job, then I’ll be stuck! If I marry, I’ll have to get a job I don’t like, and I’ll be stuck! I can be a millionaire, I know I can, but the dream is over if I commit to the wrong idea! There is one right job for me, and it is fun, and it doesn’t feel like work, and it pays a lot, and I will find/ make it! Never mind that this fear might cripple them, prevent them from doing anything of value. It’s there, and Rosen’s novel captures it brilliantly.

We see the “Millionaire Mentality” early in the book, this sense that the character (his name is Jason Strider) believes that he is destined for great things even if he hasn’t put in any real work: “I had graduated with honors from Cornell, but I was an English major who didn’t do all the required reading and owed his diploma to the friendly folks at CliffsNotes…I was sold on moving to the city. I had been a DJ at WBVR at school, and I figured I’d be able to find some kind of job in the music industry here, though I didn’t know what. The career center had helped me get a few interviews at radio stations, but they were all in ad sales, which seemed a lot closer to telemarketing than Telecasters” (13). And late on the same page: “I didn’t see the point in shaving every day and working long hours at something I wasn’t sure I wanted to be doing” (13). Heck, we even see the sort of mentality so prominent in parents of Millennials, the super-encouraging you can be anything you want! positive talk: “For some reason, my parents thought I might become a lawyer…Cornell was pretty hard, and the last thing I wanted was more school after school. Hell, I didn’t even know what lawyers did every day, except for what I had gathered watching reruns of Matlock while hung over” (15). So Jason instead takes a “bullshit job at a casting company,” which he calls “temporary,” even though he admits to a friend that he has “no idea” what he really wants to do. “‘It’s, you know, fine. I don’t need to shave or dress up, and it pays the bills. Eventually, I’d like to do something music-related…I mean, I think.'” (89) In one late conversation we see that he is scared of a “life that was defined by what I did for a living,” though this is the sort of fear that only matters to someone who hasn’t found that right job (209).

Constantly, the narrator goes out drinking, smokes pot, hits on girls, all those things that had originally annoyed me due to their frivolousness, but what makes the book so poignant and relevant is that Rosen eventually begins to starve the fun out of these events. Whereas the most stereotypical/ popular of fratire (fiction and nonfiction alike) seems to continue full-steam-ahead with frivolousness, rather than exploring other themes and ideas, Rosen lets his narrator grow tired of the binge drinking, the purposelessness. In fact, even though the book isn’t long and we are never exhausted while reading about late-night drinking and parties, we do become sick of it, also (though we grow tired of it before Jason Strider does, which actually builds drama through the ironic narration: we know what’s best for him, but he doesn’t know what’s best for himself). By the middle of the book, we know purposelessness is taking its toll: “Even during what were supposed to be the most fun times, in a bar, drinking in hand, life was starting to feel repetitive” (113). By acknowledging the narrator’s frivolous existence, the author is able to use it as a theme and a major plot element, rather than just a source of lame comedy.

In the end, I don’t want to make I Just Want My Pants Back sound like it is the defining book of the Millennial Generation, nor do I want it to sound like the book is flawless, that it made me laugh/cry/stand up and shout, blah blah blah. It’s very good. It captures the life of an average twenty-something Millennial male with thoughtfulness and honesty (traits that weren’t present in the regrettable The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen). It’s a book I’ll recommend to a lot of my friends, and it’s a book that truly captures the fear of commitment at the heart of the Millennial reluctance to actually “start life.” Is it as multi-layered or well-written as Middlesex or The Corrections or Refresh, Refresh? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a nice book, and I think its main weakness is the very reason why “fratire” never really took off as a genre: by the time we’re done reading about the protagonist (frivolous 20-something male who likes drinking, sex, pot), we’re done reading about this protagonist ever again. Thanks for the time we had together, but you know what? Time to move on to your thirties, when you’ll look back at the previous decade and shake your head at all of your decisions and fears.

Reading Philip Roth

The following are a series of short reviews/commentaries I wrote after reading various Philip Roth novels. I’ll come back to update and revise the page from time to time. Just note that each short commentary was written directly after reading the novel, and that–while I’ve arranged them in order by date of publication–I wasn’t always so careful about the order in which I read. When She Was Good, in fact, was read long after I finished Everyman.

When She Was Good


I get the feeling that Philip Roth didn’t particularly enjoy writing When She Was Good. The book feels tortured, is occasionally an agonizing read; there are stretches where it seems like every character is shouting at one another, each sentence for five pages ending in an exclamation point. It’s like watching a 1940s-era Jerry Springer episode, characters in loveless relationships who all behave badly.

I also get the feeling that Roth hated his female protagonist, which is not a feeling with which a reader should be left. No matter how despicable the character, we should always feel as if the author is trying to understand this person, trying to get past their flaws, trying to see why they act the way they do. By the time that Lucy–the female protagonist–dies at the very end of the novel, though, we get the sense that Roth couldn’t wait to kill her off. And after you finish reading, you start to understand why Roth has not written a female protagonist since; the men appeared as victims in When She Was Good, the women as evil control freaks. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Roth knew that this was the overall outcome of his efforts…

While I didn’t enjoy this novel (and I really only finished it because I’m trying to conquer the full Roth canon), it is interesting to note some of the strange structural choices that Roth utilizes here: the nonlinear/ achronological structure, the shifting of point-of-view, the secrets kept during one perspective of an incident that are later revealed in a different perspective of the same incident. It feels like a test run for The Human Stain, an unpolished early attempt that he would later remember and improve upon (with far different characters and a far different plot). There were even some images that reminded me of John Irving’s The World According to Garp: the vigor and energy and inevitability with which Roth described Lucy’s death felt very much like Irving’s slow and painful description of the car accident that claimed one child’s life, another’s eye, and a large portion of a graduate student’s penis. Maybe there are few similarities between the two scenes; maybe I’m imagining it; but I guarantee Philip Roth was overjoyed when he read that scene in “Garp.”

Everyman


Philip Roth’s Everyman reads like an extended personal essay on the male preoccupation with mortality and the failings of his own body. It’s an interesting work, made effective by its brevity and its unwavering dedication to the subject at hand: like a personal essay, it is a meditation on a single subject, and it does not break off into sub-plots, unnecessary character development, etc.

The prose quality was, as is always the case with Roth, hypnotic and deliciously pretentious. And the characters were extremely well-defined, especially considering the tight confines of the novel. But the idea of creating an anonymous “everyman” at the story’s center, I’ll be the first to say, is a bit annoying; the book’s jacket tells us that this is a “candidly intimate yet universal story,” but I don’t think “universal” stories are ever as effective as personal stories. The power is in the particular, as they say: the more specific the character, the more we care. Sorry, this was one device (the everyman) that even Roth could not pull off.

A fascinating novel, though, and a quick read. Years from now, we won’t remember Everyman as one of Roth’s classics, but for now–while we’re approaching (unfortunately) the waning years of his career and life–it’s a must read.

The Ghost Writer

Spend a few nights with a Philip Roth book, soak it in, and you will come away with strange new thoughts about writing and reading. Here, Roth tackles the difficult subject of the artist releasing his art upon the world: what if readers and viewers make of it something different than we intended? The dream-like passages about Anne Frank’s disgust (and then delight) with her own diary’s reception are remarkable.

And as with any Roth book, also, you can read this and marvel at the prose quality. How the man consistently creates such rich and distinct voices in his books (here, the narrator seeks erudition, and Lonoff, the other central character, has an entirely different erudite voice, one borne of passionless adherence to the routine of producing art) is beyond me.

This is a short book, but to make it a “quick read” is to do it a disservice. Read it in four parts, four sittings, and really take your time with it. “Soak it in,” as I said, because there’s a lot of great stuff here.

Zuckerman Unbound

Another insightful meditation on art and the artist from Philip Roth. Here, we try to learn how success affects novelist Zuckerman, and to what extent he’s willing to embrace the world around him, now that the world around him knows who he is.

This book wasn’t quite as intimate and focused as The Ghost Writer, perhaps because Roth made the choice to pan out and use a third-person voice (which I actually found a bit disorienting for awhile), but it’s still essential reading. Probably doesn’t stand on its own, but as part of the Zuckerman series, it is a brilliant chapter.

The Anatomy Lesson

Once again, Roth seamlessly integrates metaphor into his character’s psychological state…it’s absolutely amazing. The “affliction” that Zuckerman suffers comes to represent the world around him, as well as the turmoil inside him for having wronged his family. Faced with an ongoing pain, Zuckerman decides to forsake his career as a writer (where he is also feeling pain, and questioning the value of the profession) to go to medical school and become a doctor at age 50.

The metaphor of “pain” seeps into every facet of Zuckerman’s life, and the false solace of the Percodan matches the false solace of med school.

The great thing about Roth, though, is that even though these metaphors and themes all work together so well (and seem so heavy-handed when they are summarized in a few short paragraphs), the book feels natural, organic, in the same great way as the best books and stories about writers (Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be a Writer” comes to mind). Never once while reading did I even believe that this story wasn’t real, that these things weren’t happening to a flesh-and-blood mid-life crisis writer named Nathan Zuckerman.

This isn’t my favorite Roth or Zuckerman book, as I much prefer the erudite first-person novels like The Ghost Writer and The Human Stain, as opposed to the third-person novels…but it’s essential reading. Dense, lush writing, and very funny at times.

The Prague Orgy

I don’t generally read novellas because I don’t really get the point of what they’re trying to do and why the author couldn’t pick (a) the short story form, or (b) the novel form. But I had to read The Prague Orgy because it is part of Roth’s Zuckerman series. And while this wasn’t fantastic, I certainly understand why it had to be a novella…Zuckerman is too large a character to inhabit short stories, but this particular story was not large enough to deserve a novel.

For the first time since The Ghost Writer, Roth allows Zuckerman to tell his own story in first-person in The Prague Orgy. Strangely, though, the story is pulled from “Zuckerman’s journals.” The result is strange, surreal, and difficult to piece together until the last 15 pages or so.

When we do connect the pieces, though, it’s a strong effect. For the novella’s duration, Zuckerman has been questing through Czechoslovakia for the long-lost Yiddish manuscripts of a Nazi-slain Jew, a quest that (we conclude) is supposed to mirror the unending quest of the Jews for a true homeland. Once he has the manuscripts, how will he know they’re real? Now that the Jews have their homeland, will they ever truly have it?

Once again, Roth expertly weaves metaphor with circumstance and psychological state to deliver a work that works on many levels at once. How this guy keeps cranking out such rich work is beyond me.

The Counterlife

The Counterlife is perhaps Philip Roth’s strongest work, and perhaps his weakest. I’m still not entirely sure.

Roth’s strongest attributes seem to stand out first, though: he is the king of the unmanipulating plot twist. Here in The Counterlife, we read the first 3,000 words, and are completely turned around by the next ten words. It’s a magnificent shock that Roth delivers, and it doesn’t feel forced or contrived; instead, it feels the way that real-life shocks generally feel, whenever we suddenly learn of some new piece of information that completely changes everything we thought we knew.

And Roth does the same thing at least ten times throughout this novel, consistently kicking the stool out from underneath us, until the point where we love the abuse so much that we can’t wait for the next hit. The book, in fact, is built upon a simple premise: we invent identities for ourselves, and we invent identities for others; we are all living a real life, and a counterlife (it’s like the old Chris Rock joke, “When you first meet someone, you’re not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative.”). The book, then, builds us up to believe a character has a certain identity, then crushes us with an alternate identity. Each new “chapter” (there are five) then completely reinvents each new character, suggesting that the previous chapter was a lie, a fiction that novelist Nathan Zuckerman wrote about his mistress, or brother, to explain behaviors he didn’t understand. By the end, we’re unsure what was real, what was imagined, what was memoir, what was fiction. Simply put, the book is a head-trip, and an absolutely masterful look at the construction of identities in our lives. This is a book that you read, and if you’re a writer, you say, “There’s no way I could have pulled this off.”

On the other hand, this is also Roth’s look at the ethnic/national Jewish identity, and in this regard, it is not so successful. We have pages and pages and pages of conversations about what it means to be a Jew, and if it means anything to be a Jew, and if Israel means anything to Jews, and on and on, and at times, it feels enlightening and subversive and interesting, but other times, it feels overdone. After all, Roth touches on “what it means to be a Jew” in every one of his books. Does the subject need to be so exhaustive here, as well?

It’s the classic case, perhaps, of a single book trying to do too much. Roth is a genius, without a doubt, and while this was a difficult book (several of his books are), it is indeed challenging and rewarding, a hell of an accomplishment. But Roth could have made it leaner, tighter, and more efficient.

Deception

Perhaps Philip Roth’s most daring novel (which is really saying something), Deception reads like a giant “Fuck You” to traditional story structure. It is a book composed entirely of post-coital conversation, relying on the dialogue itself and deprived completely of dialogue tags or exposition. Risky? Very. Especially considering the protagonist is a man named Philip Roth, and the conversations are had with his mistresses.

I didn’t enjoy Deception, despite its interesting narrative strategy. I thought (like The Counter-Life) that there were a great many conversations throughout that I’d simply heard before in other Roth books. The elevated speech, the pretentiousness of the dialogue, starts to wear on you a little, also. You forgive a bit of it because you figure we’re dealing with hyper-realistic intellectuals…but then you just become annoyed with the dialogue’s overall perfection.

Like The Counter-Life, though, Deception redeems itself by its end. It offers the reader a remarkable turn in the last fifteen pages that calls into question everything we’ve read up until that point. We question what has been real, what has been made up by the protagonist, how many lies upon lies have been told, and in service of what? And in no way does it feel manipulative. We understand entirely why there might have been lies. I would also compare Deception to The Prague Orgy. Dull and seemingly pointless for 40-50 pages, then remarkably interesting for the final chapter. I’m glad I read it, because there is something rewarding to be had in every Roth book, but I wonder if this novel (like Prague Orgy and Everyman) would have simply been better served as a short story, and if Roth’s current aversion to short stories has prevented him from creating some classics of the form, and has made him turn out a couple forgettable and ill-conceived novels.

The Facts

Just when Roth’s fiction was starting to get a bit repetitive for me, I decided to read The Facts, the so-called novelist’s autobiography. Bracketed by letters from the fictional Nathan Zuckerman, Roth shares his childhood, his university years, and his early years as a writer and novelist; while it’s all very interesting and well-written, though, it is the Zuckerman intrusion that gives this autobiography an added dimension, calling into question all that Roth has told us, calling into question the very nature and purpose of autobiography. Zuckerman essentially asserts that this could as easily have been called “The Facts I Chose To Include, as Opposed to the Facts I Left Out.”

This isn’t a new idea, of course, but generally, writers speak about these things in short essays, or conference papers. Rarely do they write full autobiographies that actually make the argument. As always, Roth provides rich, dense prose throughout, and while he occasionally lapses into long passages about what it means to be a Jew (territory he seems always to cover, and territory that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times), The Facts is a fresh work that will remain relevant (I think) as long as memoirs and autobiographies are popular forms of literary expression.

Patrimony

A thousand student writers in a thousand Creative Writing programs have–upon taking their first Nonfiction course–drafted a memoir about a father dying, or a mother, or a grandparent, or a friend, or a cousin, or a family pet. In the post-grad world, this is referred to without amusement as “The Dead Grandmother Story,” and it is an absolutely dreaded genre because first-time authors generally don’t know how to evoke emotion, only how to tell us that they felt it, and they don’t yet know how to make the experience of death feel thematically fresh or relevant. This isn’t to say that teachers think the student’s experience is not significant, or that teachers make fun of or insult those students who attempt to write about these experiences; this is only to say that this type of memoir is tough to write well, and it is too-often attempted.

To those who have attempted to write a “Dead Grandmother Story,” or to those who have had to read far too many, Roth’s Patrimony indeed feels like one author’s lesson in how to craft this story well. Was I excited to read this? No. (Based solely on my experiences with having read too many poor entries in the genre). But Roth’s tale is rich and complex and poignant, helping the reader to feel the same sense of sadness and loss that Philip Roth himself felt.

How does he do it, then? If it’s a lesson for young writers, what can they take away from this book? Simple. This isn’t a “woe is me” story. This book doesn’t assume that readers haven’t also experienced death, sadness, loss…So Roth takes the following approach: his father has been strong his entire life, always capable, always powerful, but suddenly a brain tumor takes control of the man’s life, reducing him without mercy to an old, old man far different than the father Philip knew for so long. Suddenly, Philip is forced to play the role of father, and is forced to watch the painful process of this once-strong man deteriorate before his very eyes. Philip must make the same life/death decisions that his father once made for the family. How does a son cope with this role reversal, with this strain? And (of course) how does a curious writer struggle with a subject that feels off-limits?

As always, Roth’s book is well-written, and as with many of his 1980s works, it feels good but not great. The great works occurred in the 1960s and in the 1990s (with a few others–Ghost Writer, Plot Against America–scattered here and there). This is an accomplished work, and interesting, but like The Facts, Roth’s other attempt at memoir, much of its interest stems from our fascination with Roth as a writer, and the reputation he’s built from his collective canon.

The Border Trilogy

I actually read McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” over the course of three years, and I wrote short commentaries and observations after I finished each of them. Here, I’ve collected the mostly unedited Shelfari postings I wrote, which show my up-and-down, fascinated-then-bored, happy-then-depressed, rewarded-then-aggravated journey through the 1,000-plus pages of prose that compose Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

All the Pretty Horses

McCarthy is truly an American master, and his prose–particularly the prose dealing with everything non-human, from landscape to animals–is magnificent in “All the Pretty Horses.” But, while this book appears to be the novel for which McCarthy was recognized with awards and showered with early mainstream attention, it pales in comparison to early works like “Child of God” and later works like “No Country For Old Men.” Though beautiful and interesting, it is missing the haunting quality of his other novels (perhaps because this book is much less dark than other works…which might be the primary reason for its acceptance into the mainstream).

The Crossing

McCarthy’s “The Crossing” is epic and poignant in a way that (I think) “All the Pretty Horses” was not. It spans such a long time period, covers so much of Billy Parham’s life, and ties everything together through three crossings over Mexico’s border. Only the final crossing achieves anything, and–as Parham says–it turned out not to be what he wanted anyway.

Ultimately, this is a haunting and sad novel, one that I was not enthusiastic to read (given my take on “Horses,” which I felt to be mediocre in the McCarthy canon), well worth the read. Sometimes it is slow and trudging, as when it focuses upon the country men and women that Parham meets, each who has a different tale. There is a strong fascination with folklore in this book, how tales can twist and turn from our imagination and gain a life of their own…how once-real events can become legends…how innocent listeners can be so quickly and easily duped by an oral story. But some of these stories last so long, and the reading feels laborious.

Each McCarthy book I read, though, offers me something new as a writer myself. In this case, I marveled at the quickness of the violence and tried to understand how McCarthy could make something happen so quickly, and without any obviousness. A horse stabbed, a man shot, etc. He’ll tuck the violent act into the middle of a sentence, sometimes including two or three other actions in the exact same sentence so that the reader is picturing something else entirely, unaware of what we’ll read in just moments…Brilliant.

This book is long and sometimes very difficult, especially with all the Spanish, but it is remarkable. Definitely one that you’ll spend time with. Definitely one with the power to depress. Rewarding, though.

Cities of the Plain, and Final Thoughts on the Trilogy

Strangely, while I love Cormac McCarthy’s later work (“No Country For Old Men,” “The Road”) and his early work (“Child of God” is a classic), I found The Border Trilogy to be tedious, boring, and even a bit forced. There are moments in each of these books–“All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing,” and “Cities of the Plain”–that stand out in the lyricism of the prose, the depth of the characterization, and even the height of their drama and conflict. The dog-hunting scene, for instance, is incredible and excruciating, all at once.

But too often in this trilogy, McCarthy drifts into extended stories within stories, and the themes just feel too blatant, too (as I said above) forced. We’ll veer off course from the narrative to listen to some old man in Mexico talk about the spiritual nature of this or that, and ten pages later, we’ll wonder why we’re still reading about it. It’s almost like the U.S.S. Indianapolis story from “Jaws,” but replayed every fifteen pages or so.

“Cities of the Plain,” I thought, was the best work in the trilogy, if only because it took two unconnected narratives (Billy Parham and John Grady Cole, from the first two books) and found a way to weave them together, ultimately showing the heartbreaking end for both characters, and for the way of life that they had always wanted to pursue (but never really could). When it’s moving, really rolling, we start to make the sort of grandiose statements that you see on book jackets (“McCarthy is a genius!”), but when it’s stalled, we wonder why we would ever proclaim the man a genius.

He’s a great writer, and “Cities of the Plain” is worth reading, but I still get the impression that he could have made them a lot more streamlined, a lot more coherent, and the awards McCarthy reaped from the Border Trilogy are less a reflection of these particular works, and more a sort of lifetime achievement award, a “Sorry we didn’t appreciate your earlier stuff!” consolation prize.

Rabbit Redux

“Rabbit Redux,” I think, is the perfect “generational conflict” novel, a book that pits a blue-collar, gritty, salt-of-the-Earth American man in his late 30s (a bigot, also, to be precise), against the social upheaval of the late 1960s. Rabbit, a decade older since we last saw him in “Rabbit, Run” (which I found to be boring and dull), now has to contend with the blossoming of the space program (and, as the book opens, man is landing on the moon), the blossoming of the idea of “free love,” and the rise of the black power movement.

The first Rabbit Angstrom novel did not work, I think, because Rabbit really had no antagonist. Updike writes about a discontented working-class white man who leaves his wife. Yawn. Maybe that was BIG NEWS at one point, but I really didn’t see the conflict as being very involving. “Rabbit Redux,” though, paints Angstrom as a much more tragic figure. The world is changing, shifting beneath his feet, and somehow he is completely caught up within those changes and forced to confront his unaccomplished life.

First, his wife leaves him for a successful immigrant man who disagrees with all of Rabbit’s pro-American, pro-Vietnam-War ideas and ideals. Then, he takes in a runaway girl who he tries to love, but who has vastly different ideas about love than he does. Then, he also takes in a Negro named Skeeter, a sort of Malcolm X figure who actually thinks he is the Second Coming, and who forces Rabbit to confront his prejudices, and the bigotry of his upbringing, and the town around him.

In all, it’s a fascinating book because there are so many rich generational conflicts. We’re no longer just dealing with two white people in their late 20s and early 30s who can’t get along; we’re delving into a rich social novel where many different age groups and social classes are thrust together and forced to confront one another. Brilliant stuff. It dragged a bit, at times (toward the end, especially, when Rabbit’s sister comes to town), but it belongs with Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany” as a prototypical generational novel for the Baby Boomers (even if Rabbit Angstrom himself is just a Baby Boomer’s parent).

How Fiction Works

There are moments in James Wood’s “How Fiction Works” that are truly impressive displays of scholarly synthesis, as Wood brings two seemingly different texts into conversation with another, pointing out not just the similarities in structure or technique, but also the evolution of that structure/technique over many decades (or even centuries). One reviewer notes in a blurb on the book cover that the pleasure in “How Fiction Works” is in watching James Wood read, and that’s a pretty accurate summation of the entire experience, here.

The problem, though, is that I didn’t really gain much from reading Wood. “How Fiction Works” is not necessarily a history of the novel, though there are moments when it seems (or wants) to be. And it certainly isn’t comprehensive enough to even begin to cover the history of all fictional techniques, though (again), there are moments when this seems to drive Wood’s book. And though it sometimes attempts to be instructional, this is not a book for beginning (or even intermediate) writers; it is meant to be read and appreciated by serious lovers of fiction, to shed additional light on many of the techniques that educated writers have come to understand and utilize, but–as I said–it doesn’t offer anything truly new. Nor does it make any particular argument.

So what is it? That’s the real question. And the answer? This is James Wood the book critic simply writing what he knows and putting his knowledge on display for those readers and writers who already adore him. This is James Wood trying to solidify his position as a highly intelligent and influential voice in the literary world. It’s just a collection of…stuff. Really smart stuff, really intelligent anecdotes and quotes and juxtaposed readings, but in the end, just a bunch of stuff, with the catch-all title of “How Fiction Works.” Really, this book is more about getting to know James Wood, branding him and marketing him as “the highly intelligent and influential voice,” than it is about the workings of fiction.

PEN/ O Henry Prize Stories 2010

Before I checked out the O Henry Prize Stories 2010 edition, I really had no previous experience with the collection. I’ve always been a “Best American Short Stories” guy, but I wanted something a little different. After all, there are thousands of short stories published each year, and the “Best American” series cannot possibly lay claim to the only good ones…there’s obviously plenty of opportunity for other collections and anthologies to showcase some talented writers and some amazing work.

But this 2010 edition never really engaged me. Flipping through the table of contents and the contributor’s notes, we can easily see that the editors favored “The Paris Review” and “The New Yorker” (a majority of the stories seemed to come from these two publications), so I suppose I was immediately skeptical: why not just subscribe to “The New Yorker” and call it a day? And the writers themselves seemed mostly to be the usual suspects from the last fifteen years of marketable anthologies: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Annie Proulx. Excellent writers, certainly, but so…ordinary. So predictable.

In other words, while the work in this anthology was refined and accomplished, it just seemed to feel as if the editors were giving us what they thought that “The Best American Short Stories” would give us, scouring “The New Yorker” and finding recognizable names so that they could try to rival the other anthology series. And in the end, it didn’t feel like a unique effort; it felt like an attempt to copy “The Best American Short Stories” (even though some of the stories were very good).

So, from the standpoint of a new reader/initiate to O Henry, I just started to wonder why this even existed. It’s like the Los Angeles Clippers of short story anthologies; you’re never going to be the Lakers, so why even try? Be something completely different. There are a lot of great anthologies out there that find ways to be unique, that don’t simply challenge “Best American” to a duel.

To be fair to some of the authors, I truly loved a half-dozen of the stories here, and the authors are seriously not at fault. But the anthology itself just seemed desperate, and when you read the jurors’ essays at the end, you sense that desperation: one juror mentioned that the reader should check out her favorite stories, a list of 6 or 7, that these were daring, etc. But why does the juror need to mention 6 or 7 specific stories out of about 15-20? Isn’t that like a musician saying, “Check out these three songs on my album, but only listen to the others if you have time. They’re just fillers.”

Needless to say, I will likely subscribe to “The New Yorker” before I pick up another O Henry collection. It feels like an Oscar Bait movie, one of those films that seems like a good idea but really has no heart or soul.