My review of Philip Roth’s new novel The Humbling has been posted over at Identity Theory. Roth has written several of the best books I’ve ever read, and I revere him for his mastery of the art of fiction. But unfortunately, The Humbling leaves a lot to be desired.
Posts Tagged 'Books'
Tags: Books, fiction, my reviews, Philip Roth, reviews, The Humbling
Tags: book reviews, Books, Imperial, my reviews, PopMatters, William T. Vollmann
PopMatters has published my review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann.
Tags: Books, Decatur, Illinois, James B. Lieber, Kurt Eichenwald, Rats in the Grain, Steven Soderbergh, The Informant
I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, the one-time “Soybean Capital of the World,” home to almost eighty thousand people and also to ADM, one of the world’s most powerful (and least-known) multinational corporations. In central Illinois, ADM transforms the bountiful harvest of some of the world’s best farmland into artificial sweeteners, ethanol and biofeuls, food additives, industrial chemicals, and animal feed (among many other products). During the long reign of chairman and CEO Dwayne Andreas, ADM grew from a small grain company into an international agribusiness behemoth, and also came to wield tremendous political influence. Andreas was close friends with former vice president Hubert Humphrey, and in 1972 Andreas donated $100,000 to the liberal Democrat’s political campaign—the same year in which he gave President Richard Nixon $25,000 that would be used to finance the Watergate break-in. I can also remember seeing local news coverage of Mikhail Gorbachev stepping out onto the tarmac at the tiny Decatur airport—he’d come to my hometown to do business with Andreas.
For many years, ADM has reaped great profits by means of its tremendous political influence. Two of the company’s biggest businesses—ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup—would not be nearly so profitable (and perhaps not profitable at all) if it weren’t for massive government subsidies that have poured billions of dollars directly into ADM’s coffers. (For an outline of the basics of this story, see this Cato Institute report from 1995. You’ll also find insightful discussion of the politics of high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol, and of big agribusiness in general, in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)
But for all its power, ADM could not prevent itself from getting hit with a $100 million fine for its participation in a price fixing conspiracy in the markets for citric acid and lysine (a biological product that promotes growth in livestock). In the early nineties, ADM executives met regularly with their Japanese, Korean, and European counterparts in order to reach agreements on prices and production volumes in lysine, and held similar meetings with producers of citric acid. Such agreements are blatantly illegal under antitrust law, because they permit companies to charge artificially high prices for their products. By fixing prices, ADM and its co-conspirators were effectively stealing many millions of dollars from their own customers.
Corporate price-fixing is normally extremely difficult to prove, but in this case, FBI agents were able to present prosecutors with hundreds of hours of price-fixing meetings secretly taped by an ADM executive named Mark Whitacre. In his absorbing and thorough 2000 book The Informant, the New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald tells the complex, bizarre, and utterly fascinating story of how Whitacre worked with the FBI for years, while also lying outrageously in order to cover up his own embezzlement of several million dollars. Part thriller, part character portrait, The Informant makes for thoroughly absorbing reading, and Eichenwald does a masterful job of drawing on interviews, tape transcripts, and other sources in order to place readers right in the thick of the FBI’s investigation into ADM.
It’s not the only book about the price fixing scandal; James B. Lieber’s Rats in the Grain also provides a well-written and incisive account. But Eichenwald’s book tells the story more thoroughly and in much greater detail, while at the same time often reading like a suspense novel—which is no doubt part of why Steven Soderbergh has recently made a film based on the book, starring Matt Damon, which will be released in theaters this fall. I’m eager to see it, and not only because I think The Informant will translate very well to cinematic adaptation. Soderbergh shot the movie in Decatur, and apparently took great care to ensure that the film’s production design is true to Central Illinois in the early 1990s. I’m looking forward to the experience of seeing the world of my own adolescence on the big screen.
But in the meantime: I’d highly recommend Eichenwald’s book.
Tags: Books, history of potatoes, John Reader, my reviews, PopMatters, reviews, The Potato
PopMatters has published my review of the journalist John Reader’s history of the potato, titled (surprisingly enough) Potato. If you’re going to read just one history of the potato, this probably shouldn’t be it.
Tags: Amélie Nothomb, Books, fiction, my reviews, Tokyo Fiancée
Rain Taxi has published my review of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée as a part of its Spring 2009 Online Edition.
Tags: Amina Cain, Books, I Go To Some Hollow, my reviews
PopMatters is now running my review of Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow, a collection of unconventional and fleetingly lyrical short stories.
Tags: Books, Charlotte Roche, my reviews, Wetlands
My review of Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel Wetlands has been posted on PopMatters.
Tags: Books, Emily Perkins, Novel About My Wife
Emily Perkins’s Novel About My Wife recently won this year’s Believer Book Award, but has otherwise gone almost entirely unnoticed in the United States. I’m extremely glad that the folks at The Believer have now brought the book to my attention: Perkins has written a flat-out terrific novel, and I hope that the receipt of the prize will win her many more new readers.
Novel About My Wife is narrated by Tom, a Londoner and the father of a young child, in the aftermath of his wife’s death. As he looks back on the final months of their life together, Tom struggles to come to an understanding about what happened to Ann, and attempts to put himself in her head during the course of the events leading up to her death. I won’t go into the details of the plot, as I have no desire to spoil the novel’s spooky and emotionally fraught suspense for anyone. Suffice it to say that it’s an unusually involving book, and that I felt compelled to rush through the whole of it in under twenty-four hours.
Perkins’s novel is masterfully plotted, and she also does a fully convincing job of bringing Tom’s first-person voice to life on the page. More impressive still is the way she employs artful and often beautiful prose in order to capture all the subtleties of pitch and intensity in Tom’s emotional state as his life with Ann begins to unravel. The passage quoted below not only offers a lovely and well-observed peek into the everyday intimacy experienced by Tom and Ann, but also demonstrates the power of his love for her. In context—because we know that Ann will die, and Tom will never get to enjoy this kind of moment again—the scene is also shot through the desperation, fear, sadness, and grief. Perkins writes:
‘Oh, God, I’m so old to have a baby,’ Ann moaned from the bathroom in that half talking to herself, half talking to me voice that married people use….I loved that voice, I loved hearing Ann’s inner thoughts as they rose gently to the surface, a ribbon of intimate words floating out of her mouth on the bathroom steam and through the door to me, where I opportunistically sat, ostensibly waiting to clean my teeth but really living for that moment.
It’s a gorgeous passage, and only one of many in Perkins’s engrossing and moving novel.
Tags: Books, Charlotte Roche, Wetlands
Over at Salon, Nina Powers interviews the German writer Charlotte Roche, whose first novel Wetlands stirred up a lot of controversy in Europe because of its extreme sexual and scatological frankness. My review of the book (which comes out in the United States on April 8 ) will run on PopMatters soon, so I won’t comment on it in any detail here. But, I think Powers does an excellent job with the interview, and gets to the heart of why the book has made so many people uncomfortable. These days it’s very difficult to shock anyone with explicit content alone; instead, Roche’s real provocation lies in insisting that readers who feel shocked or disgusted by her explicit discussion of her heroine’s bodily functions ought to carefully examine the nature of their responses.
Here’s Roche in the interview:
Very often, lately, people have come up to me and say “You look tired,” and I hate it. Women are supposed to always look fit and healthy and pretty. But everything that is sick and tired is all very human—and I think that being human is a big taboo.
Tags: Books, Kafka, The Onion
Tags: A Mercy, Books, fiction, Toni Morrison
When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she was 62 years old—no spring chicken, but still a writer with a long career ahead of her. After receiving the Nobel, Morrison experienced literary deification, and in the sixteen long years since, she has been routinely accorded the same kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for long-dead writers whose canonical position is beyond dispute. Most critical discussion of her fiction now takes an assumption of greatness as its starting point. When a new Toni Morrison novel arrives, the question for reviewers and scholars is never, “Is it good?”—its quality is a given. Rather, the task is to fit the new work into the context of Morrison’s previous accomplishments and of great literature more broadly. Morrison, in short, has been canonized alive.
Given this fact, Morrison no doubt makes a tempting target for critics in search of an exalted literary reputation to deflate—the harder they come, the harder they fall. But actual attempts at Morrison takedowns are quite rare. The reason? Part of it might be her status as a beloved living legend within American literature. More fundamentally, though, I think it’s simply that her books are fully worthy of the extraordinary acclaim they’ve received. Also, despite having completed an apotheosis at such an early age, Morrison has never rested on her laurels. Her new novel, A Mercy, published late in 2008, is yet another worthy entry to an astoundingly rich body of work.
In the novel, Morrison interweaves the stories and voices of several characters—a slave girl; an Anglo-Dutch trader; his wife; and their orphaned Native American servant, among others—who are attempting to forge lives for themselves in the New World in the 1680s. At 167 pages, the novel is slim and dense, finding room for several involving storylines while also making nuanced, intelligent, and morally powerful arguments about the nature of freedom and bondage, the formation of the American character, and the American relationship to the land. All the while, Morrison’s language is intoxicating in its sounds and rhythms, routinely achieving beautifully poetic effects without sacrificing story or sense.
Here’s one brief illustrative passage, in which Jakob, the trader, ponders making a move to Barbados in the hope of achieving greater fortune and success:
Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.
What I love about this passage is not only its surface gorgeousness, but also the ways in which Morrison uses it to breathe new life into an old, overfamiliar metaphor. This is far from the first time that the stars have been used as a metaphor for hope; the conceit is so familiar that it found its way into Disney movies generations ago, and even then it was far from fresh. But here Morrison does something remarkable: the stars become “cream” for “the tasting,” and Jakob’s hope becomes an embodied hunger, rather than an abstract gaze heavenward. This idea forges a connection with the metaphor’s ancient heart, reconnecting the dots between the hungry, restless, unsettled feeling in Jakob’s gut and the milky splash of stars above. At the same time, Morrison quietly achieves some distance from Jakob’s perspective, noting the vulgarity of the stars, and thus calling into question both the ethics of his hopes and the fact that he has no real reason to believe that he might succeed. And so Morrison also uncovers another aspect of the metaphor that contemporary readers rarely give any thought: the idea of the heavens as existing on an altogether different scale than human hopes, and the idea that the stars reveal just how small a man who wishes upon them can be.
Earlier on the same page, Morrison achieves a very different, and startling effect, using a far more novel metaphor. Jakob has suffered the deaths of several young children, and when he finds his way to the seashore in a contemplative, hopeful mood, this is how Morrison describes it:
He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves.
The vast possibilities of the ocean (and of the New World for which he has crossed it) reach Jakob only in the form of “infant waves” dying in his hands. It’s a grim, startling passage, and one made all the more sad by the fact that Jakob seems scarcely aware of the fragility of his hopes, and even less aware of how the life he dreams of forging for himself might ruin the lives and hopes of those under his power.
Morrison is also capable of imbuing her writing with intense and beautifully evoked sensuality. Here’s a passage coming only a few pages later, from the point of view of Florens, a slave who has fallen for a free black blacksmith:
There will never be enough time to look how you move. Your arm goes up to strike iron. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop to pour water first on the iron then down your throat. Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break.
Passages like these defeat my critical faculties completely—all I can do is sit back and admire them. Morrison is an engrossing storyteller and a prose stylist of the first order, and she writes with both great sensitivity and thunderous moral authority. I know this is news to precisely no one, but here I’ll say it again: Toni Morrison is a great writer, and she has fully earned her early induction into the canon.
Tags: Books, critical reception of women writers, Elaine Showalter, fiction, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Roberto Bolaño, women writers
In the Guardian, AJ Flood points to a Slate article by Katha Pollitt about A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s big new critical/historical survey of the lives, work, and reception of American women writers. I’ve just recently begun reading Showalter’s book, so I won’t comment on it here. But, like Flood, I was struck by one particular passage in Pollitt’s piece about Showalter’s book:
Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction?
This is a very sharp observation on Pollitt’s part. I’ve long been bothered by the way many critics tend to dismiss (or simply fail to notice) the grand (even awe-inspiring) scope of Joyce Carol Oates’s literary ambition, and I don’t doubt that gender plays at least some role in this. Oates is routinely bashed for being prolific, rather than admired for her vast range and phenomenal energy—whereas Philip Roth’s late-career burst of productivity has been widely hailed as a renaissance, and has cemented his place in the American literary canon.
Further, I think Pollitt is right on to point to the violence in Oates’s work as another potential source of the problem—it’s not very ladylike, after all, for a writer to devote so many pages to seriously elucidating a red-meat, manly theme like the role that violence plays in shaping American lives, identities, relationships, and culture (which is in fact one of the major preoccupations of Oates’s fiction). But in contrast, few critics blinked at the horrific violence that is the central concern of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. (In a side note, I also find it fascinating that no one has taken Bolaño to task for writing from what I think can only be understood as a feminist perspective on the nature and causes of violence against women. It is clearly men who are responsible for the violence in 2666, and Bolaño strongly suggests that the many female victims in the book would have been less vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that both the (male) murderers and the (male-dominated) state failed to take women seriously as individuals with rights and ethical stature; because the deaths of women (and especially poor women) are seen as not especially significant, it becomes that much easier for men to kill them. I wonder what the reception would have been if 2666 had been written by a woman—would critics have objected to the uncompromising stridency of the author’s feminist perspective?)
I suspect it’s not only the violence in Oates’s work that strikes some critics as unseemly, but also her absolute fearlessness about confronting dark events and emotions with both honesty and empathy. The result is sometimes unsettling in its intimacy, and also exhausting in its raw, searing energy. These are qualities that are often praised in male writers, but perhaps Oates’s gender leads some readers to dismiss the great intensity of her work as mere feminine emotionalism run amok. Never mind the serious intellectual (and especially philosophical) heft of much of her work—better to keep her safely in her place as just another sentimental scribbling woman.
As for Janet Franzen: again, I think Pollitt is right on here. The Corrections is far from a bad novel, but it is very difficult to imagine that the same book would have been seen as so earth-shatteringly important if it had been written by a woman. Yet, even before the infamous Oprah incident, Franzen’s book enjoyed an astounding amount of critical attention—I bought it on the day of its release (placing a real strain on my post-college part-time bookstore clerk’s wages) expecting something akin to the next Moby Dick, given all the wild, unadulterated praise the novel had received—but instead I found it to be nothing more than yet another solid but unexceptional contemporary novel, and certainly nothing to get all worked up about. I’ve experience similar disappointments when reading the work of a number of other recent literary “it” boys—some of them write good books, and some write bad ones, but there have been very few (like Bolaño) whose work actually lives up to all the hype.
At the very least, critics could start creating similar buzz and excitement over books by a few women writers every now and again. A handful of women writers of sterling, well-established reputations (Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison) tend to be treated with great seriousness and respect by critics—but very, very few seem to be given the kind of breathless and rapturous reception that mediocre (or worse) books by Franzen, Safran Foer, and their ilk enjoy on a routine basis. It is all too rare to read a review like the one that The New York Times ran on Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which recognizes the boldness, ambition, and importance of a new novel by a younger woman, and treats the book in much the same way a critic would consider the work of a man like Franzen. But you’ll never guess who wrote that particular review. All right, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t John Carroll Oates.
Tags: Books, Chicago, city life, Colson Whitehead, essays, New York, Saint Paul
Few novels I’ve read in recent years have impressed me as deeply as Colson Whitehead’s highly inventive debut The Intuitionist, and I’m very much looking forward to the April release of his new novel Sag Harbor. In the meantime, I’m catching up on some of his other work, including The Colossus of New York, a slim volume of essays and observations about the city published in 2003. In the book’s opening piece, “City Limits,” Whitehead does a beautiful job of evoking one part of the experience of living in a big city:
No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.
I moved to Chicago in 2001, but it did not become my home until I’d been there long enough to see the city’s sidewalks, shops, bars, and buildings begin to change. For a couple of years, I lived in Humboldt Park, just west of Western Avenue, on the border of the Ukrainian Village. It was Humboldt Park in 2001-2003 that set the template for my personal Chicago—for the city as I experienced it, and the city that resides in my mind and heart. I love to bore people with stories about the great jukebox and horrible bathrooms at Tuman’s before its makeover, or about how almost all of the restaurants and boutiques along the stretch of Division between Western and Ashland are newcomers as far as I’m concerned (never mind that by now some of them have been there for several years, and have enjoyed lengthier tenancies than the businesses they replaced). These vanished places mean so much to me not so much because of any specific qualities they might have had, but instead because they were central to my experience of Chicago at a particular point in my life. A big city changes extremely rapidly, and people change rapidly, too. Thinking about the city as you remember it is a means of remembering the person you were at that time, and it’s a way to stop and marvel at all the changes you’ve undergone in the time since.
There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.
Now that I’ve moved away from Chicago, the above passage strikes me as all the more poignant. When Lura and I moved out of our apartment in Logan Square, where we lived for three years, we were so busy with (and exhausted from) the process of repainting the walls and emptying the place out that we almost lost track of the emotional significance of the moment. Lura had to stop me at the door so we could spend one last moment in the space where we’d lived for so long, and commemorate the life we’d led together there. It’s very important, I think, for a city dweller to pause to experience this kind of moment whenever possible. After moving to Ravenswood, we would sometimes return to Logan Square to visit friends or return to our old haunts, but the experience was never the same: the neighborhood was now part of our past, and the changes that had happened there since we left weren’t our changes—they weren’t part of our experience of Chicago. And when we visited Ravenswood and other North Side neighborhoods this past Christmas, after having moved out of Chicago altogether, the experience was very similar: there was great pleasure in returning to the places we’d loved, but they were no longer our places.
Saint Paul is not yet my city; I simply haven’t lived in it long enough for its changes to have become part of my personal consciousness and memory of myself. It is possible to fall in love with a city overnight, but it takes years to really live in it—for that city to become part of not only who you are now, but also part of who you used to be.
Tags: Adriana Hunter, Books, Eldorado, fiction, immigration, Laurent Gaude
In Eldorado, the latest novel from the acclaimed French writer Laurent Gaudé (translated into English by Adriana Hunter, and published by MacAdam/Cage in 2008), a Sicilian naval captain and a Sudanese emigrant take parallel (and perilous) journeys through Europe and Africa. Gaudé’s book reads as a raw and fast-moving tale of suspense, and also examines the tangled ethics of immigration with powerful moral clarity. Eldorado is extremely unsubtle and sometimes even outright melodramatic, but also gripping, forceful, and memorable.
Salvatore Piracci, Gaudé’s Italian captain, has made a career of tracking down the imperiled boats of would-be immigrants and bringing the (relatively) lucky survivors into custody. But after hearing the story of an immigrant woman whose child died after the men she paid to take them to Europe instead abandoned them at sea, Salvatore is deeply shaken, and begins to doubt that he has been doing the right thing. Later, another immigrant who Salvatore has rescued from a stormy sea pleads with Salvatore for his freedom, and begs him not to turn him in to the Italian authorities (who will certainly send him right back home). Salvatore refuses because it is what he is expected to do, and because it is what he has always done in the past. “You can change my life,” the immigrant points out to him in desperation—and Salvatore knows that the immigrant is right, and comes to understand that he not only has the power to let the immigrant go, but also an ethical obligation to do so. All the same, he abandons the immigrant to the authorities. Soon after, however, he realizes that his career as a naval captain is over, because he can no longer devote himself in good conscience to his work.
Of Salvatore’s realization, Gaudé writes, “The guardian of the citadel was growing weary while its assailants were younger every time. And they were beautiful, lit up by the hope in their eyes.” Salvatore has grown tired of his duties, which he has come to see as both unethical and ultimately pointless. And when he thinks of the incredible power of the desire that has driven the immigrants toward Europe, he realizes that there is nothing at all that he wants for himself with comparable strength. His his life has no driving force, and he has no dreams, and he in fact has been crushing the dreams and hopes of others without any real consideration of the ethical implications of his actions.
With Eldorado Gaudé poses a series of piercing, provocative questions about the ethical responsibilities of individuals in the context of deeply immoral authorities and systems. If laws and authorities require unethical behavior, or at least cause unethical outcomes, should an individual rebel against those laws and authorities? If an individual does not act, and lets authority have its way, is that individual ethically culpable? Is violence ever justified in the service of ends that are indisputably just? Should those people (or perhaps even cultures) who have no dreams make way for others who do?
Whatever the answers, Gaudé suggests that these kinds of conflicts will inevitably continue to arise. Sulemain, the young Sudanese man who is the novel’s other major character, simply will not be deterred in his efforts to reach European shores. “The world’s too big for my feet,” he reflects, “but I will carry on.” As long as people hunger for better lives, the dream of Eldorado will always beckon, and people like Salvatore will have to make decisions about where they stand.
Tags: Abdourahman A. Waberi, Books, fiction, In the United States of Africa, my reviews, PopMatters
My review of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa appears today on PopMatters. In Waberi’s novel, Africa is the center of the world’s economic, political, and cultural power, while Paris is impoverished and Swiss refugees flee their war-torn land. It’s a clever premise—and one that might have quickly worn thin if Waberi weren’t such a gifted stylist. His writing is lush and beautiful, as well as very funny, and that’s what makes In the United States of Africa a success.
Tags: Books, David Foster Wallace, fiction, T.D. Max
D.T. Max has written a fascinating and very lengthy biographical-critical essay on David Foster Wallace for The New Yorker. In the piece, Max draws on interviews, personal letters, and Wallace’s published work in order to create a portrait of Wallace as a writer and as a sufferer of mental illness. The essay also includes extensive discussion of The Pale King, an unfinished novel that Foster had been working on for the better part of a decade. The New Yorker also has an excerpt from the unfinished work.
Max’s essay makes for grim reading on the whole, but it is also full of insight about Wallace’s writing process and about his ideas about the aesthetics and purpose of fiction. In the following passage, Max writes about Foster’s desire to craft “morally passionate fiction”:
The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool.
Though it was the flashy, ironic, and metafictional qualities of Wallace’s work that initially caught my attention back when I was an eager undergraduate reader in the process of forming my literary tastes, it was the moral qualities of his fiction, I think, that led me to devour all of Infinite Jest‘s thousand-plus pages in the midst of an extremely busy academic term. Wallace’s fiction dazzles on the surface due to his great mental and verbal agility, but it is his sincere moral seriousness that truly makes his writing exceptional.
Tags: Books, cultural value of literature, fiction, Tom Perrotta
As far as contemporary fiction writers go, Tom Perrotta is extremely famous. He’s written several bestselling novels, more than one of which (Election, Little Children) have been made into popular and critically-acclaimed Hollywood movies. Given his considerable success, you might imagine that Perrotta would probably have a cheery take on the role played by books in contemporary culture.
But, not so: in a Big Think video, he espouses a decidedly pessimistic view on the cultural future of fiction. A generation from now, Perrotta predicts, the fanbase for fiction might closely resemble today’s audience for poetry—a tiny subculture with very few members who aren’t practitioners themselves. To back up his argument, Perrotta points to the heavy cultural weight thrown around by some poets in the sixties, and notes that no poet today has been able to capture the same kind of popular attention. He also talks intelligently about the recent Horace Engdahl kerfuffle (in which a Nobel judge trashed the insularity of American literary audiences).
Although it makes me sad to say it, I think Perrotta’s probably right. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact tone he brings to this video: he’s not offering an anguished lamentation over the fate of the book so much as giving a clear-eyed view of matters as they stand. Anyway, you can watch the video here.
Tags: Books, Mark Harris, Movies, Pictures at a Revolution
Just in time for the Oscars, PopMatters has posted my review of Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the five films nominated for best picture in 1968. Harris’s book offers abundant insider information about how each of the films made it from conception to the red carpet, while also making a sustained argument about major generational and cultural shifts playing out in Hollywood.
Tags: Books, Five Chapters, John Cheever, short stories
Tags: Al Roosten, art and politics, Books, fiction, George Saunders, New Yorker fiction, short stories, The New Yorker, writing and politics
From an interview with Nina Siegal, here’s what George Saunders has to say about the relationship between politics and art:
I am pretty far left but trying to cultivate a healthy disgust for hypocrites and liars of both political stripes. I think our country is better than our government would make people believe. I think the role of art is to continually complicate our views and move them along the continuum from conceptual knowledge toward specificity. Our current problems, seem to me, have all to do with people in power who believe in their own ideas too much, ideas that were too much formed in the lab and not enough on the street. So we took those naive, bookish, messianic ideas and mistook them for truth, and now are reaping the harvest. I don’t like the demonizing of Bush et al—it’s too easy and won’t help us not repeat all of this. The only thing that will help is going deep (in kindness and true curiosity) and trying to really understand how the world looks to them—people like Rumsfeld etc wake up in the morning feeling very energized at the good they’re going to do during the day. So this is where art comes in: It’s the one way we can become Other long enough to understand that Other doesn’t really exist—we have it all inside us, and can therefore understand, and can therefore transform.
I think this attitude is exactly what makes Saunders such a potent satirist. For all the barbed, bitter humor and comic exaggerations in his stories, Saunders at the same time operates from a position of fundamental empathy for his characters. He doesn’t assume that some of his characters will be good and others will be evil; instead, he understands that most people believe themselves to be acting ethically most of the time, and attempts to understand why people often make unethical choices anyway, and how they justify their behavior in their own minds. (For a fresh example of this, turn to his recent story in the New Yorker, “Al Roosten”, in which the title character’s behavior is often less than laudable, even if he doesn’t see it that way.)
Many artists feel there’s no room for politics in art, but I think the real problem is that many people who make art on political subjects come in without the ability to separate the clarity of their political convictions from the fundamental murkiness of minds and hearts of human beings. It’s fine to imbue a work of art with a particular political point of view. What you can’t do, however, is reduce the full complexity of a person into the one-dimensional simplicity of a political idea.