Early Summer Reading

The first book worth mentioning, when it comes to my early summer reading, is Keith Richards’s Life, with its oft-amusing portraits of life as a Rolling Stone and Richards’s striking common-man writing voice. In the book there are some truly great stories – especially the excellent set-piece that serves as the opening chapter and reminds me in this way of the way the opening set-piece of Don DeLillo’s Underworld works – but ultimately I would have to admit that the book became a bit of a slog for me to get through in that I found myself very much able to put it down and return to it later. That’s not much of a critique, in that there’s nothing wrong with putting a book down, but Richards at times went over the top in his self-estimation of certain things – his drug intake, his ability to drive brilliantly at night, his excitement about playing with Jamaican musicians – so that he could become hard to take after a while. I’d recommend it to others, especially for the unbelievably conflicted feelings he has toward Mick Jagger (it’s not all negative, as the press about the book seemed to emphasize). Those parts are just plain fascinating – has anyone known such a complicated love/hate relationship? Life is not a must read, but it certainly has its moments. Great for the beach.

The next book worth mentioning is a novel by Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed. You may have come across Ferris before: he’s a young writer and his previous novel – Then We Came to the End – was something of a commercial and critical success, with plenty of positive reviews and placement on lots of Top Ten Novels of the Year lists. Perhaps you recall it: Ferris used the first-person plural to situate his story of workplace ennui, set in an ad agency in Chicago as the Internet boom came to an end. I remember reading Then We Came to the End and finding it funny at first in its satire of American boom ideology, but as I kept reading I found it less funny than clever, and by the end I was kind of tired of its cleverness and hoped it would start to add up to something more. I didn’t really think it ever did, though I also thought that it was pretty good for a first novel – to be fair to Ferris.

I began The Unnamed this winter when my kids were taking ski lessons. I became enamored of it because I found the plot conceit rather engaging. Tim is a highly successful attorney, married with a daughter, who is undergoing an affliction that is unknown to mankind: a compulsion to set out walking, walking for hours and hours until he collapses from exhaustion. This compulsion has returned – which means that he has had it before, which he did, and then it passed. But it has returned now with a vengeance. At any moment – at home, at work, anywhere – Tim’s body starts to walk. No doctor knows what is going on; his case is even profiled in The New England Journal of Medicine. Irregardless of the impact on her own work and well-being, his wife Jane is loyal to Tim, driving to find him at night, collecting him from wherever he has collapsed. His daughter Becka is rather estranged from him, but not so much because of the compulsion but because Tim is so driven to succeed at work that he tends to ignore his daughter and is unable to make any emotional connection to her.

As my kids skied, I would read snippets of the novel and savor Ferris’s writing and Tim’s problems. However, because of the time constraints of the Spring semester, I decided to call a halt to my reading of the book and to wait until the summer to return to it. When I did, I became fully engrossed rather quickly and ate it up like a fresh key lime pie. The compulsion – it’s hard to call it an illness because it’s never made clear exactly what it is (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.) – ruins Tim’s career and devastates his family and the novel, on one level, dramatizes that destruction and the broad pain it causes all of the individuals in the family. On another level, the novel offers a portrait of the love affair between Tim and Jane – her loyalty to him that eventually leads to her own destruction and his loyalty to her, which is of a much more complicated sort. That element of the novel is rather brutal in its portrayal. Add to this the portrayal of Becka and the damage that Tim’s dedication to work, and then the recurrence of the compulsion, have wrought on her. The novel, in short, is hard work, at least in terms of its emotional pull on the reader.

Ferris has some strong gifts as a writer and he has come up with something strikingly original in his story. There are echoes here of the type of story that focuses on cancer and what it does to individuals and families, and much of the emotional vibe of the book is one of grieving, of something lost. There were times when I turned to my wife and said, “This part must be a dream sequence because there’s no way it could have gotten this bad, there’s just no way.” But there was. It’s terribly sad. But the novel isn’t perfect, nor fully satisfying. For all the things that Ferris can do, he hasn’t yet mastered the skill of making us feel fully invested in his characters. The story is compelling more than the characters themselves are. I wanted Jane and Becka both to be more fully developed characters. But still, overall, I’d recommend the novel, in part – I suppose – because I’d love to have someone to talk about it with!

The other book I’ve been reading, slowly, lovingly, joyously, is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love Wallace’s nonfiction; I’ve read some of his fiction and like it fine, but I am one of the people who believe that his true gift – his best genre – was the essay. A few years ago I read Consider the Lobster and was stunned by it. The intellectual reach, the deeply held belief in the power and beauty of language, the fellowship he felt toward other people – these were so clearly on the page, in my mind. The essays were beautifully written and they were on topics that at first blush seemed to be rather banal: an awards show for porn stars, a lobsterfest in Maine, a new edition of a dictionary. Irregardless of the topic, though, Wallace invested himself intellectually and aesthetically in the task at hand. He took it seriously and compelled us to do so as well. Those banal occasions for writing became transmuted into something beautiful, something touching, and something important. They became occasions for ideas.

That, in fact, is what I love in his essays. They so clearly serve as testaments to a mind at work, at play, engaged in the act of thinking. The word “act” is crucial, I think, when describing Wallace’s nonfiction. His writing style – discursive, with plenty of footnotes that allow us to meander into side issues for a bit and then to return to the main issue at hand, and playful, with a mixture of the vernacular and the technical that is comfortably familiar while at the same time keeping us on our toes as thinkers – actually allows us to see him thinking. It’s as if he’s working out his ideas in the moment, in the text itself as we read it. But in his best pieces, of course, he’s worked it out in advance and is instead allowing (or possibly forcing) us to join him in the act of thinking. So the reading becomes the similarly active as an intellectual process. Wallace crafts his essays – they read as fully accomplished wholes – but he structures them in such a way as to let us see his mind at play and therefore also to let us play with what he is presenting to us. It’s heady stuff, in the best way possible.

His essays are things to savor. His piece on David Lynch is such good fun that it’s almost impossible to put down. His essay on playing tennis as a teen and the combination of physical and intellectual activity in the playing is a wonderful testament to what it can mean to “get lost” in the moment of play (again, physically and intellectually). The last piece I read, just the other day, on professional tennis was especially striking. Wallace focused his attention on a rather unknown player, Michael Joyce. In doing so, Wallace was able to note how much better Joyce was than anyone Wallace had ever played or seen in person. Joyce became the embodiment of how much better professional athletes are in their sport than the rest of us. At the same time, Joyce was nowhere near the best in his sport, which demonstrated just how amazing the best players actually are. Indeed, Wallace speaks so glowingly of Joyce that I felt compelled to look him up.

It turns out Joyce’s ranking peaked soon after Wallace’s essay was originally published in Esquire. He never won any tournament of real significance and never was actually that successful as a professional athlete, at least not how success tends to be defined in our present culture. And yet. And yet Joyce won over $750,000 playing tennis. And in fact he still occasionally plays, and is certainly involved in professional tennis – as a hitting partner and occasional coach. He has made a living out of something he loves to do, something that he excels at, something that he is better than almost anyone else at doing. No one really knew who Joyce was when this essay came out, and no one really knows him now. But Wallace, in this essay, was able to make clear that Joyce was actually special and worthy of our attention and our thought. And the essay itself is as well, as again Wallace uses Joyce to think not only about Joyce and what he represents but also about tennis itself, about the place of sports in our culture, about our values. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read in a while.

I haven’t finished the collection yet, I think because I don’t want to because then what will I read? I still have the piece on cruises and the piece on the state fair and I don’t want it to end. Great books can be that way. You finish and you feel flushed and aflame and want more, but it’s gone and there isn’t more.It’s true that I can always read This is Water again, Wallace’s great graduation speech at Kenyon in 2005. And if you haven’t read it yet, you’ve made a mistake, even if unknowingly. Do so, do it now. Here’s a link to it so that you can read it online: because it’s now copyrighted, this site had to take the piece down, but it’s cached and so available, and this reads not so much like a perfectly finished text but more like a transcript, which is part of its charm in this form. This is Water, like Wallace’s essays in his collections, is a powerful evocation of Wallace’s compassion, of his desire and his ability to think beyond himself. It’s also a powerful evocation of Wallace’s basic goodness. He must have been an interesting man to know. And as I write this, I realize that one of the reasons I don’t want to finish reading his essays is because I know there will be no more new ones. He’s dead and his writing is gone. Yes, we have The Pale King, and I recently received it from my wife as a present and I hope to read it later this summer. But there won’t be any new pieces and I suppose that’s something I want to put off dealing with.

Keith Richards lived. Wallace didn’t. It’s not ironic, but it’s a brutal reality. I like the Rolling Stones, but Wallace sets my mind aflame and makes me want to be better than I am. I guess I don’t want to stop wanting that.

Panel for 2012 NeMLA Conference in Rochester

If you’re interested in the work of Jennifer Egan, intellectually invested in contemporary fiction, and/or engaged in studying the role/representation of technology in fiction, perhaps you’d like to send me an abstract?

PANEL: Jennifer Egan, Contemporary Fiction, and the Digital Age

This panel looks to examine the work of NeMLA 2012 Keynote Speaker Jennifer Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and other accolades for ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ in relation to that of other contemporary writers. Of special interest will be papers that explore the work of Egan and others in the context of the Digital Age, the role of experimentation in contemporary fiction, and the interplay of technology and the self in contemporary fiction. Please send 250-500 word abstracts to Stephen Brauer at sbrauer@sjfc.edu by 9/15/11.

For more on NeMLA’s conference next Spring, see http://www.nemla.org/convention/2012/index.html

My Summer Reading, or How I Spent a Few Months Desperately Avoiding the Literature of Narcissism

Way back in 1987 or 1988, I was at a party in New York City hosted by my girlfriend’s sister.  At the time I was a college student who was deeply infatuated with the notion of becoming a writer – a poet, a short story writer, maybe a novelist someday.  I loved to spend my days reading, thinking about the construction of stories and poems, getting into conversations about Milan Kundera, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton.  That night, I met Jenny Egan, who was an emerging writer who had recently published a story in The New Yorker.  Jenny was lovely, not only physically but in her generosity in sitting down and talking me about being a writer, about her work, about some of the books and writers we both liked.  It was pretty great.  I was a rather smalltown kid, about twenty years old, hanging out in a groovy downtown apartment, drinking cocktails and chatting up a New Yorker writer.  Now, it certainly helped that she was a good friend of the hostess!  But what was great to me was her willingness to not so much offer advice but to validate my place in the conversation.  That I belonged in that space and that conversation, and that I might have something valuable to offer in it.  It was wonderfully affirming.

Jump twenty one, twenty two years.  Although I’ve written plenty of poems and some stories, that’s not the path that I’m on.  And yet I’ve been lucky enough to follow my passion for reading and for talking about what I’m reading.  I’m an English professor.  And it’s every day that someone asks me, “Who’s your favorite writer?”  I always want to answer, “John Milton.”  Or Wordsworth.  Blake.  Alexander Pope.  Hawthorne.  Ben Jonson.  But that would do no good.  So I try to engage in a civil conversation about reading and his/her favorite novels.  I’ll be honest – it’s almost always brutal to someone who studies literature to have this discussion.  But it’s to be expected.

Nonetheless, like all other professors and like most other people, I try to keep abreast of what writers are doing and writing.  Which brings me to this past summer and what I encountered.  First a brief note: it took me some time this summer to get into reading again, but I found my way there.  I’m not looking to discuss every book I read, but want to highlight some in particular.

My early summer summer was spent with Nick Hornby.  I’m teaching High Fidelity this Fall and needed to read it and thought that Fever Pitch would be good fun considering my interest in the World Cup.  Let me be plain: Fever Pitch is not a good book.  I understand that memoirs are, by nature, focused on the individual telling the story, but I can’t seem to find any entree into this book – and I’ve been at it for about four months.  I want to like it, but I can’t figure out why I should.  Yes, his family situation sucks and he finds companionship and something larger than his own troubles in his loyalty to his team, but really it doesn’t add up to anything much. I haven’t given it a go in a while.  And while I’m about to teach High Fidelity, it reads like a young man’s novel – focused on his own woes, his own foibles and misunderstandings.  It can be entertaining, but is also rather solipsistic.

I bring these up because I read a third Hornby book – Juliet, Naked.  This is a novel I’d recommend, and the novel that took me into my summer reading.  Here Hornby finds a way to move beyond boyish obsessions into character study.  The obsessions are still there mind you, but now he is able to write from outside them and to recognize their limitations.  Part of this was his move to focus on a female protagonist – for at least part of the novel.  It did him good.  He might think about doing more of it.  t led him to be much more compassionate to his characters and the situations he places them into.  He learned to do more than play them for laughs.

Boatloads of friends and reviewers recommended Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi and I tried to give this novel a go.  Rarely have I ever found a novel so very difficult to get into.  I know lots of people love Geoff Dyer, but I just wasn’t willing to follow him – and I’m usually one willing to do so.  And I recognize that part of the point was to engage the reader in the narcissism of the protagonist in the opening section as a means to undercut that self-centeredness.  But it just didn’t work for me.  It was just self-centered as a novel, not a study of self-centeredness.

Which brings me to The Imperfectionists, one of those novels that got amazing press over the summer. But why, I’m willing to ask, do readers think this is a good novel?  It was reviewed pretty well.  How, I don’t know.  It doesn’t work structurally, not in terms of revealing something deeper about character or about the themes or ideas that it seeks to dramatize.  It’s a fine study of the evolving newspaper business, but it’s not a good novel.  It’s shapeless and lacking in any overall cohesion or coherence.

A brutal summer of reading this sounds like, no?  In many ways, yes, except for two books.  The first is A.M. Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life.  Admittedly, part of the reason I love this novel was its setting in Los Angeles, where I spent part of the summer.  I gravitated toward the insanity of the novel as a reflection of what I was also experiencing in actual life.  But my deep engagement – and it was extremely engrossing not only in the basic storyline but in the way that Homes took us further into the characters’ lives – was more a result of Homes’s rather striking love of the story she was telling.  That might sound funny, but it’s not.  Homes came up with a crazy, eccentric story that wonderfully matched the irrationality of LA and she embraced it in not only the story but in the way she told the story.  And all along, she never lost her affection for her characters.  As I read this novel in mid-July, often late night in Venice Beach, I appreciated more her generosity toward these character than the zaniness of the story.  Homes was having fun, but she was also doing something worthwhile.  And I enjoyed being part of that as I read along.

And that’s what takes me back to Jenny Egan.  Of course I’ve kept track of her, reading her stories in The New Yorker and Harper’s and having a sense of what she was doing.  I didn’t get to The Keep, but wanted to.  It’s a novel that sits on my list of “What I want to read that is still new and what I haven’t read.”  An ever-expanding list, but also shrinking in its own way.  Jenny has never left that list – I like what she does with characters and situations.  What do I mean? That’s best explained by my brief take on A Visit From the Goon Squad, her latest.

How shall I put it?  This is a novel that focuses on the lives of a number of individuals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  It’s realism that doesn’t worry about being realistic, it’s fantasy without being particularly fantastic.  More than anything, it’s a novel that looks at a group of people in a stunningly sympathetic way that first delineates the choices they make, and then, over the course of the novel, takes the time to unearth the origins of those choices.  As such, I found it to be one of the most deeply empathetic novels I had read in a long, long time.  Egan doesn’t excise her characters’ choices, nor does she overly explicate them.  She places her characters in moments in time and allows them to be individual.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most generous novel I have read in a long time.  Generous in terms of what she does with her characters, generous in terms of what she allows  her characters.  Most writers set up their characters and their narratives to conform to a novel’s “meaning.”  Egan refuses.  She’s strikingly empathetic (like Homes).  The space this allows for the reader is magnificent and welcoming.  Egan’s work in this novel is noteworthy because she can understand sympathy and empathy as complicated and sophisticated emotional responses to complex moments.

Plus, what she does with Powerpoint is pretty much beyond belief.  You might think I’m kidding but I’m not.  It’s a tour de force.  A powerpoint as an emotional blunt object that will bludgeon you with love.  I’m not joking.  Jenny Egan is not to be messed with.  She’s a writer, a great one.  Her novel must be read and engaged with.  She has always been a lovely soul, but little did I know way back when just what this woman could do.  And, for me, she points me toward an aesthetic that insists on a world beyond the self, toward others, beyond the narcissistic.

It’s not a new notion: Don ‘t worry about the fireworks, there’s really interesting things going on in the trenches.

Bloodied and Bruised, But Not in a Good Way

Yesterday, I was finally ready to read.  It’s been a while since I found myself willing to give into a book.  I’ve started a lot – a LOT – in the past few months and every time I’ve closed them pretty quickly.  There have been various reasons: I don’t feel like reading another novel by a guy with father issues, I don’t feel like working that hard to wait for the narrative to really kick in, I just don’t find the story appealing at all, etc.  It’s been bad, and it’s been especially bad for an English professor.

Perhaps it has something to do with not teaching for the past three semesters.  I’ve been deep into administrative mode for a while and maybe that has led me to reading a certain type of text.  J. thinks that it might have something to do with being on the computer a lot, and that reading on a Kindle or iPad might make a difference.  I’m not sure, really.  I can still get into certain genre fiction without any difficulty – especially detective fiction, not surprisingly for me – but serious literary fiction feels like it takes itself too seriously.  It’s bored me.

So what do I choose as I rummage through the house?  I’m looking for a detective novel, something I can sink my teeth into, knowing that the second two Stieg Larsson books aren’t in the house and wishing they were, when I come across Angels and Demons.  Dan Brown.

I’ve never read any Dan Brown, not even The Da Vinci Code.  It never had any appeal.  I’ve caught bits of the movie on television, but Tom Hanks didn’t seem to make sense to me in the role, and frankly his long hair bothered me.  But I figured Dan Brown’s books supposed to be page-turners and what did I have to lose?  I brought the boys to the pool and cracked it open.

It’s not a good book, not at all, at least in terms of most of us would call “good.”  It’s weak in terms of character development, there’s way too much exposition and explication for fiction, it’s silly, some things in it are just wrong.  The plotting is ridiculous and Brown keeps trying to come up with hairpin turns to keep the reader off balance when it’s been pretty clear all along where things were headed.

But it is a page-turner.  I read fast and I stayed up late and I finished it.  Overall, I’d estimate that this 545-page book took me about ten hours to finish.  And I’m not a fast reader.  So that gives you a sense of Brown’s style of pacing – his soulmate James Patterson operates the same way.  Each constructs chapters of little more than four pages.  To be fair, Brown is better than Patterson, but still, unless he is describing an action sequence or having a character lay out a long speech that works essentially as a monologue (and therefore some sort of exposition of the theme), he is unable to stick with a scene for very long.  He just doesn’t have much to say or do, except on the theme of the conflict of religion and science.

And he sticks to that theme, baby.  He doesn’t develop it, the narrative doesn’t push that theme in any direction or take us anywhere in our thoughts – no, nothing like that.  The book creates a tension and seeks to play it out over the next 500 pages, but nothing in those 500 pages takes us any further into the debate and tension than Brown had characters articulate in the opening 50 pages.

By about page 300, you’re exhausted, bloodied and bruised.  But not in a good way.  You feel the need to finish, sure, because although it’s just been a few hours now you’re 300 pages in.  But you know pretty well what’s going to happen, and you even have a pretty good sense of the villain’s motivations, even though these won’t be revealed for another 225 pages.  It’s just not that complicated to figure out.

And yet that’s part of the appeal of the book in a weird way.  It’s so simple-minded, it’s so pedestrian, that it makes for easy reading.  It’s like listening to Joe Mantegna read Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels on a long car ride.  There’s a pleasure in the known and seeing it fulfilled, even if it often isn’t very well done.  Angels and Demons is not a good book, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad book either.  Oddly, I would just say that it doesn’t actually aspire to be good.  It’s like most network sitcoms on television nowadays.  It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t have any ambition to be anything other than a network sitcom maybe hoping to be picked up for the season, then the next year, and then to grind the way to syndication.

It’s not that Brown tries and misses in Angels and Demons.  I think he actually does the very thing he tries to do – to keep you reading his book until the end.  Is he a weak abstract thinker too caught up in insisting on the importance of his theme but lacking in the ability to actually dramatize that theme?  Of course.  There’s no real drama here.  But he’s very good at demonizing institutions and schools of thought without actually engaging in the ideologies at play withing those schools of thought or those institutions.  And he’s good at research – the titles of works of art and where they reside, and who painted or sculpted them, and when they lived.  These details don’t add much, but they do help to keep readers going until the end and they do allow him to weave a elaborate (and ridiculous) tale of conspiracy and deceit.

And who doesn’t enjoy that?

The question now is how quickly I turn to The Da Vinci Code.  I’m a bit afraid.  I’m still feeling a little tender after my first experience with Robert Langdon, Brown’s protagonist in the two novels. But hey, maybe this will get me back in the reading habit.  So it might have some ancillary benefits after all!

(How To Grow Up) To Be a Famous American

In the past year, my son has had occasion to read a few selections from a series of books called the “Childhood of Famous Americans.”  He has read four of them – on Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Jim Thorpe – and enjoys them enough, but I’ve come to realize that he likes the focus on childhood more than the overall story of the person’s life.  In fact, as the title of the series makes evident, these books are centered on the subject’s childhood almost more than their overall lives.  While this is fine and good, I suppose, it’s also kind of odd considering their great achievements came later in life.  Well, I should say it’s odd until you recognize the ideological underpinning of the series and its indebtedness to core American mythology.

The roster of subjects for the collection includes many figures you’d expect: George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Edison, etc.  There are also some wild cards: John Muir, Harry Houdini, Jim Henson, Disney, and Roberto Clemente.  It’s not these people are not worthy of inclusion or didn’t lead outstanding lives; it’s just not really clear what the criteria for selection into this pantheon are or how the choices are made.  Plus, I’m not sure Clemente would have identified as American!

What does seem essential for individuals to be included – or at least essential for their stories to have been, is some semblance of the American Dream to be at play in their path to success – especially in relation to their ability to overcome hardship.

The back-cover copy of my son’s Jim Thorpe: Olympic Champon, the latest one he finished, claims that the series offers “lively, inspiring, fictionalized biographies” for readers to enjoy.  These three adjectives are quite revealing, if we take a moment to consider them.  Certainly readers will hope that the stories are lively and engaging – most books seek to be so, if only as a way to keep the reader reading, and hopefully to come back for another book in the collection.  But why inspiring?  And inspiring how?  Moreover, why the need to fictionalize?  Aren’t these lives dramatic and inspiring enough?  Aren’t their achievements worthy enough of inclusion?  What exactly is being fictionalized in these biographies, and to what end?

All of which goes to say (or ask): what’s the function of these texts?  Each of them seems to have at its core some fundamental dramatization of the American Dream.  Central to each story seems to be that the path to success must include overcoming adversity or suffering.  Great things can happen for those who locate ways to not only survive but who can actually locate their central character in the battle over suffering and adversity.  The series, much like the Dream itself, argues that struggling through the hard times enables you – in fact is virtually essential to your ability – to achieve success.

There’s a long history to the series. There are over fifty of them, and if you scroll through Amazon you’ll find lots of different editions, let alone different subjects.  But all the books seem to be set on the same narrative arc.  Each subject’s childhood tends to be the time where his/her character is determined – either through the good example of parents/teachers/mentors or through the ability to overcome marginalization, danger, or suffering.  The choices one makes as an adult, in other words, are determined by the crucible of our experience in our childhood.

(By the way, the formula obviously works – the series gets quite a spread in our local Barnes and Noble, and as I said, Amazon is rampant with these books!)

Ultimately, the link between pedagogy and ideology goes beyond the limitations of political party or even a liberal/conservative split.  At the heart of these narratives is a belief in two things.  The first of these is that our childhood determines who we will become; moreover, our ability to negotiate the travails of our childhood successfully helps determine who we will be.  There’s a hint of determinism in this, in that what happens early in life controls what happens later, but ultimately our circumstances don’t determine who we will be.  Rather, it is how we respond as individuals to those circumstances that will determine who we will be.  We have free will, agency, the ability to shape our future, based on the choices we make.  In America, we believe that we make choices freely and independently and that these choices determine what happens for us.  This adds up to a core belief in individualism triumphing over determinism.

The second belief that is fundamental to these stories is that those people whose stories are worth telling are those who have gone down this path.  Aren’t there stories of great and wonderful and successful Americans who didn’t have to travel down this path?  Which presidents were left out?  Which captains of industry?  Technological innovators?  I don’t think Bill Gates would make the cut, not with his upbringing.  But there aren’t many more famous Americans living today, or those whose global reach has touched as many people – either in terms of his business or his philanthropy.  Bill Clinton?  Sure. Jack Welch?  Sergey Brin?  Hmm.  And where are the artists?  The writers?  Other than certain types of musicians, few contributors to the arts are even on the list.

All in all, it’s worth checking out what publishers are selling to our kids – not just in terms of who is included, but the underlying logic for why they are included.  I’m not even fully against what they’re selling here, though as a parent I must say that I’m not looking to create adversity or struggle for my children.  Maybe it’s because I don’t care if they’re famous or not or because I think of success based on a different set of criteria than implied in these books.  Or maybe it’s because I have a sense of balance and proportion and can recognize a bunch of hogwash when I see it.  That’s why it’s called the American Dream, not the American fact-based narrative.

I’m all for believing in core mythology as a construct, but as a foundation of how I live my life or teach my kids to live theirs?  That’s just crazy.

The Killer in Me (is the Killer in You)

killerinside

Yesterday, I stumbled on the fact that there is a film of The Killer Inside Me in the works.  (I guess there was a 1976 version starring Stacy Keach, but I haven’t seen it.)

I am so excited to see this film.  This is one of my favorite books, written of course by Jim Thompson, who wrote so many great novels.  The film stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty, and Simon Baker.  The director is Michael Winterbottom.  They’ve been filming in Oklahoma, to match up with the look of Texas in the 1950s (when it was published), and the release date is in 2010.

If you haven’t read it, do so.  Do so soon.  Today.  It’s one of the great first-person narrations out there, a weird mixture of Sigmund Freud, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Frederic Wertham, and Groucho Marx.  Seriously.

Thompson is usually called a pulp writer.  I’m not always sure what that means, but I can tell you this – The Killer Inside Me is a great read – fun, crazy, fast – but also an interesting read.  When I say he’s similar to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I mean it as a compliment.  A big compliment.  Thompson is a good writer, and one who bears re-reading.

So, yes, I’m super-excited to see this film.  Winterbottom has done some interesting films – I really enjoyed his Tristram Shandy – and Affleck has become a stronger actor with age.  I’m not a big Hudson fan, and don’t know if Alba is much of an actress, but the supporting actors listed above are all outstanding.

This is a story that deserves a wider audience.  I’ve taught it, and my students were both confounded by the novel and really enjoyed it at the same time.  I’m interested to see how they translate it to the screen.  I won’t give away any spoilers – I just recommend you read the book, or at worst plan to see this one.  I’m sure it won’t win any awards, but it has the potential to be a great film.

Pynchon, Detective Fiction, and the Dismissal of Genre

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Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, is a detective story set in California in the early 1970s.  Like most, if not all, of his previous novels, it contains a number of idiosyncratic characters, surreal settings, unforeseen plot twists, and the occasional song lyric that he has written specifically for this narrative.  It’s a bit whacky, in other words, but his use of language seems to be as sharp as ever.

I’m curious about the reception, however.  In the past few weeks, I have read a number of not-so-hot reviews, in places like The New York Times, Slate, New York, and other venues.  Louis Menand in The New Yorker dismissed it as “a generally lighthearted affair.”  What I have found interesting in these pieces is the criticism of the choice of genre that Pynchon has chosen for the novel.  It seems that these critics cannot understand why it is that Pynchon would choose to write a detective story.  These writers not-so-subtly imply that it is clearly beneath him to do so, and that the novel’s inherent flaw, if not vice, is the very genre in which it resides.

Why the hating on detective fiction in these reviews?  Why the implication that a “serious” novelist like Pynchon, someone who writes important, canonical fiction, shouldn’t be wasting his time with such a lightweight narrative structure?

I suppose this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  Critics and readers have often taken detective fiction as little more than entertainment, though starting in the 1960s onward, many critics began to recognize the ways in which detective fiction reflects, refracts, and engages in the culture of its time.  Still, like romance or science fiction, detective fiction is often marginalized as “only” genre fiction.  Notice how these genres have their own aisles and areas in bookstores: they are seen as somehow different, not part of Literature (note the capital “L”).

And yet “serious” writers have often written detective fiction.  Obviously, we can begin with Poe – after all, he’s in pretty much every course on American literature of the nineteenth century.  But Joseph Conrad also immediately comes to mind, as does Umberto Eco.  Such heavyweight contemporary writers as Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Martin Amis have written detective novels.

The genre itself, which was admittedly at its commercial (and possibly literary) zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, continues to enjoy a great deal of vitality in terms of its commercial appeal and its artistic achievements.  James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price are just a few of the outstanding writers who utilize the genre in compelling ways and have written exceedingly fine novels.  They use the genre to interrogate issues of race and ethnicity, America’s past, class, and ideology.  These are sophisticated writers dramatizing critical issues in America through the lens of the detective story.  Chabon, Amis, and Lethem likewise use the genre to not only think about some of these issues, but to explore issues of language and ontology.

Pynchon’s decision to write a detective novel and to situate it in California in the early 1970s should not be dismissed as mere lowbrow fluff.  While it was a bit of a fallow period for detective fiction, other than the work of Ross Macdonald, there was a renaissance in the mid- to late-1970s with the emergence of such writers as Sara Paretsky, Mosley, Ellroy, Robert Parker, and others.  Moreover, the early 1970s was the era, as well as the setting, of Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye – both of which are not only crucial detective narratives, but important films.

There is a rich history to the genre, and Pynchon’s work will take its place in it.  Of course, he already has a place in the history – The Crying of Lot 49 is essentially a detective novel and is often taught as one.  Why did the reviewers of his latest novel seem to forget about that one?  This isn’t even new territory for Pynchon.  But why let such details get in the way of the dismissal of a serious writer’s embrace of a lowbrow genre?