Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Read about Books You Haven't Read

Two articles which I read (or did I?) recently seem like they'd go together well: Sam Anderson's astonishingly well-written NY Mag "review" of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read and Matthew P. Brown's piece for Common-place, "Undisciplined Reading."
And I may as well throw in this, Scott McLemee's column lauding/considering the recent n+1 pamphlet (which, yes, I did order) about regrets and reading.

Alright, let's actually dispense with the irony: I have indeed read these articles and hope you do too. However, if you wish to read what I have to think about them first, read on.

The premise of the n+1 pamphlet is the unfortunate interlocking of regret and avid readership: to be passionate about reading is to mourn the books you should have read years ago or to lament the books which should never have been read and which still occupy too much disk space.

Interestingly enough (at least for this post), regret is the only opinion one can't (or doesn't) express during the types of peri-literary activities Bayard endorses as a necessary and pleasant part of a literary life—most of which boil down to cocktail party wankery. The reason regrets are excluded from these conversations and activities (which potentially include scholarship or reviewing, especially if it's broad and fast, allusive and synthetic, omnivorous and arbitrary, as most of it is) is that regret is a sort of imprimatur of authentic experience with the book in question, a proof that it has been absorbed enough at the present for one to regret its prior absence or its shameful persistence in one's life.

Of course regret can be faked as easily as knowledge, and there is no reason why a particularly good cocktail wit may not use such a strategy to convince his audience of the depth of his reading. ("Ah, if I hadn't waited until I was in my twenties to read Proust—I should have been able to spend all that decade re-reading it!") A prime example of this may be found in (or so I believe) Clive James's Cultural Amnesia.

Yet regret remains for us perhaps the most definitive expression of authenticity when it comes to a reading life. It insists that not only do we read, we read in the consciousness of our development as readers, a development which is identical with that of our maturation and which occurs alongside a deepening sense of life's variety and nature. To regret a discontinuity between either the timing or the value of what we read and the life we are living at that moment and place is to assert the primacy of literature (in a broad sense) over our formation as persons, to claim the superintending presence of some tutelary gods whose words may effect wondrous changes in our whole concept of life and our intended path through it. This is serious stuff! And cocktail gossip—or scholarship, or reviewing—cannot be this serious, because these activities are professional in nature and in execution. They are too close to how we actually live to admit the always failed prospect of how we hope to live through books—regretfully.

Life is a series of tests of our growth as readers; I may be, at this moment, at the perfect age to read Stendhal (I probably am), but would I be ready to live a life like Sorel's?

Life is also a series of digressions from reading; in this I take a page from the Undisciplined Reading piece when Brown says, in the hope of finding an answer to the question, "how then does reading become a means to the new, the unknown, the undiscovered?" He answers himself: "one might use discipline to escape discipline, that freeing the mind is achieved by entering into restrictive procedures that liberate thinking."

His comparison to the pietistic Puritans is here very apt, and even more apt to my point about digression: The Puritans understood everyday life as a series of digressions from one's true calling—worship or study of Scripture. I here get into rather murky territory, as the efforts of many critics to force theological seriousness and intensity (or the trappings thereof—cf. George Steiner, Matthew Arnold) into literature have had a rather poor conversion rate.

In calling life a series of digressions from reading, I am not so much suggesting that reading is the most important work of one's life, but rather that it is, for obvious reasons, the most narrative. Looking at everyday life as a digression from what one reads is a way of making one's life coherent to oneself. I recognize that this notion is not very different from a certain functionalist view of religion, but I do think it veers well away from religion in a way that prevents the two from being psychologically or ideologically entangled too much.

So back to regrets. Having noble, articulate and, let's face it, tasteful regrets represents for many people, most of whom are also readers, prima facie evidence that one is maturing, and that one takes this process reflectively, but also in stride.

I should rush on to say, however, that the liberatory cavalierness of Bayard's book is not the dialectical opposite to the high moral/literary seriousness of n+1's rue which it may seem to be. Bayard is easily read to say, "so what if I tell you my opinions about Tolstoy without having read all War and Peace! Everyone does it—let's be honest and have fun chatting up to or beyond the limits of plausible conjecture on the matter!" I, umm, haven't read his book, but it sounds like he is really saying, "there are very many arbitrary value judgments placed on forms of literary behavior [as is the case with sexual behavior]. Given that literature is, for the most part, a relatively closed formal system in terms of possibilities, motivations, and sociological arrangements, it is unreasonable to suggest that smart people can't say some interesting things about a book or author given enough context and peripheral knowledge about said author or book. Especially if that person is witty, French, and wears black constantly."

Is this reasonable inauthenticity the antithesis of what we might call (purely for kicks) n+1's unreasonable authenticity? I think the answer is no. Bayard (or Franco Moretti, whose idea of distant reading I may be unfairly introjecting into Bayard's book) and n+1 are complementary, and not in the sense in which idealism and realism are or may be complementary (I'm not sure what sense that would be anyway, but whatever).

Regret is the acknowledgment that it is impossible to correct past mistakes—omissions or commissions—if they are truly a part of a character-forming process. Cocktail gossip (or the intellectual con game) is ultimately the acknowledgment that you will never read all of what you should, or all of what you would like to, and even these two things probably don't match up—the number of books you should read greatly outnumber the books you'd like to read, even if you're an n+1 editor. Both regret and the experience of playing the intellectual con game are humbling—the admission that one has made mistakes and the fear that one will make a mistake—these things force us to make assessments of the state of our character, of our path of maturation, of our tendencies and deficiencies.

I am, however, being too naive, although purposefully so. I do believe that regret and the experience of playing the intellectual con game can be humbling, but of course both can be tremendously preening, ego-boosting activities whenever they are validated by others. Yet pursuing these activities as complementary processes of intellectual growth creates new desires—ideally the desire to feel validated in both activities simultaneously, a situation which will likely lead one to actually make the self-assessment which one is implying that one has already made. One might find oneself asking things like, "Would I really have been affected if I had read The Catcher in the Rye at the appropriate time of my life, rather than after it (or before it)?" But the important question, and I think the one most likely to result from practicing regret and deceit in equal measure, is, "Would I benefit from reading The Catcher in the Rye now, trying to determine what I may have missed?" Salinger is perhaps a poor example here—a better one might be The Book of Job or Hamlet. Angst is probably not the best mood for reading these books, and I would likely do well to wait until those tides have receded (if they do—do they?) to approach those altars again.

That is a humbling thought because it forces upon me the sense of my life as a programmatic sequence, with limits and affinities which are to some extent not mine to control. I can imagine all the things The Divine Comedy will say to me when I have reached "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," but I can only do so schematically. To recognize this limitation is an acknowledgment of the maturation I have yet to accomplish, and the thinness of my current sense of life. That is, I believe, what literature is for in the first place.

Edit: I got the n+1 pamphlet in the mail today and read it. I feel it will be of tremendous help trying to fill in the gaps of my historical and sociological knowledge, which I was hoping for some guidance on.

But what struck me was how much the interlocutors, most of whom are over thirty, made use of what Hobsbawm might call the "short twenties"—the period between graduation and one's thirtieth birthday. While most talk about how they wasted this time on grad programs (the antipathy toward post-graduate work surprised me, although after some reflection seems more in line with other n+1 preferences) or on abortive attempts at journalism, it is clear that these men and women were extremely active and fruitful—mentally, intellectually—after graduation.

But there was something a little off about the shade of these regrets. Each panelist seemed to offer a narrative in which the short twenties were used to correct the mistakes or deficiencies of one's undergraduate education. Each seemed to have had a conscious sense of error which they held in front of them throughout the eight or so years following college, but this consciousness seemed to have puzzled them rather than offering them a program for rehabilitation.

I suppose I sympathize to some extent, although I have at this time more intentions of following up on things I only brushed in college rather than a deep sense of wasted time. The bitterness with which the first discussion panel denounces college as "summer camp" seemed a little overdone—would any of these people have been where they are without this summer camp? Let's put it bluntly: most of the panelists are Ivy League graduates, and the whole matrix of privilege and entitlement that goes with that brute fact cannot be written off as "summer camp." To degrade the undergraduate experience so thoroughly is a tremendously facile way of asserting one's self-sufficiency; I wish in all their reflection someone had pointed this out.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

From "The Return of Cold War Liberalism," by Andrew Kopkind

In The Nation, April 23, 1983:
The [cold war] liberals sought to depoliticize all aspects of culture, to emphasize technique over ideology, the instrument over the idea. Daniel Bell's book The End of Ideology decreed the cessation of class struggle in America. The surviving form of liberalism was "managerial" rather than ideological; it offered a method for adjusting social imbalances rather than a blueprint for reforming society. The technical approach became the Democratic Party's "program" in the 1950s. Liberalism is, of course, nonrevolutionary by definition, and even in the headiest days of the New Deal, liberals opposed the transformation of the capitalist system. But with the death, or dormancy, of the radical left in the 1950s, liberalism lost even its reformist character, and it, too, became depoliticized.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

From "Americans and Their Myths," by Jean-Paul Sartre

In The Nation, October 18, 1947:
Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life. An American said to me at Berne: "The trouble is that we are all eaten by the fear of being less American than our neighbor." I accept this explanation: it shows that Americanism is not merely a myth that clever propaganda stuffs into people's heads but something every American continually reinvents in his gropings. It is at one and the same time a great external reality rising up at the entrance to the port of New York across from the Statue of Liberty, and the daily product of anxious liberties. The anguish of the American confronted with Americanism is an ambivalent anguish, as if he were asking, "Am I American enough?" and at the same time, "How can I escape from Americanism?" In America a man's simultaneous answers to these two questions make him what he is, and each man must find his own answers.

In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders

George Saunders In Persuasion NationLike Denis Johnson, whom I just wrote about, George Saunders represents a certain sub-quasi-genre that has never been properly defined and which I feel somewhat ill at ease writing about. Saunders has drawn, and acknowledged, comparisons to Vonnegut and like that author, his fiction is built on a sort of hyperactive social criticism/commentary not-disguised as mordant, zany, parable-like figments of enraptured sputtering. Am I letting my judgments show yet?

I don't like Vonnegut-like stories or novels. (I do like Vonnegut's straightforward essays, though. I think his metaphors work much better outside of fiction.) I don't like their habit of naming things as a way of being funny (e.g. Books that Contain Too Many Capitalized Compound Nouns) or inventing things as a way of condemning things that exist. I recognize, however, that a good many people appreciate exactly what I can't stand.

The good news, for me at least, is that Saunders is perfectly capable of writing things that don't do these things. "Bohemians" is a fantastic story (and so is "Christmas"), and it gets by on none of these metafictional crutches. I don't begrudge Saunders his penchant for social commentary, but I do think his art suffers when this commentary is powered by cleverness. When cleverness is the central focus, Saunders's stories unbalance themselves, for he leans too far in the direction of the reader in order to nudge and ask her rather persistently if she gets what his meaning is. This is the point of metafiction—to address the reader and ask if she's keeping up with you, the author. To do this in what amounts to a series of explicit parodies of consumer society is insulting to the reader.

Two stories manage to comment on social functions or social formations and yet to avoid the droll facileness of the other socially-engaged stories. "The Red Bow" is a frightening look at the way highly visible grief is used to engender violence even in the absence of real or substantiated fear and is, as you should see by that description, one of the best 9/11 stories I've read. "Jon" is, somewhat like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a story about the control of natural reproduction and the effects of that control on love and human relationships.

Both these stories succeed, at least in my view, because their subject is the human, not society. They are explorations of human consciousness and human behavior, not social organization or systems of control. Which is not to say that these are two distinct sets of things, only one of which may be treated in fiction (a position which would seem, in some dark moments, to describe James Wood's view of the novel's place and purpose, as well as its history). The social is very much a part of the novel—both its history and its (multifarious) purpose. But it cannot exist independently of the human, and Saunders too often tries to do just that.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Angels, by Denis Johnson

angels denis johnsonI finished this raw, powerful novel this evening at the library in Fairfield and drove home, wondering what to say about it. I have a tough time writing about fiction like this—novels or stories that deal with people of few ideas, spare words, and that peculiar sense of harsh beauty that comes from the authenticity of a life lived hard and self-destructively.

It's not that I don't appreciate these authors or their books; I'm not a huge fan of someone who employs these tropes in a maximalist way, à la Burroughs (although I don't mind Henry Miller, strangely), nor am I particularly keen on writers who seem to write in this manner mainly (or merely) for the sake of the notion that their art gives them a mandate to act in a manner that combines foolishness, boorishness, and over-assertive pretentiousness (basically anyone who cites Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson as an influence—e.g. most male creative writing majors). But I'm a big fan of Raymond Carver, and as I've recently discovered, Junot Díaz, both of whom, I feel, write about these kind of people extremely well.

I can write about fastidious old men rather well, I think, especially if they're white—a fact which depresses me greatly. The ability to describe writers like Denis Johnson, or books like Angels, is, however, mostly lost on me. So in order to have something to say, I suppose I may take the recourse of comparing Johnson to a much older writer whom I think I may be able to write about.

The inspiration—tiny as it is—struck as I looked down at the passenger-side car mat as I got out of the car. There lay, amid a few leaves and an empty Dunkin Donuts styrofoam cup, the book-on-tape I've put on hold for awhile until I decide I can forge through the ending which is already threatening to bore me into an accident: Lord Jim.

Like Conrad, Denis Johnson writes about severely self-destructive people. And like the experience of reading Conrad, there are moments of pure incredulity while reading Johnson, moments when you must pause to ask yourself, "How can anyone write this well?" These moments are, on the other hand, preceded and in some instances surrounded by stretches of rather lugubrious (though in starkly different ways) exposition. However, for both writers I would argue that the languor of these patches is what creates the high intensity of the sublime moments. For it is not, in either writer's case, that the writing suddenly falls apart—a sentence from either writer's more plodding parts can be as beautiful on its own as a sentence from the most thrilling moments. There is a slackness, however, to the non-sublime sections, an etiolation or a lull. And in both cases, I believe this effect is produced if not knowingly, at least purposefully, for it mimics the larger rhythm of experience for these characters.

For Conrad, it is the tempo of a sea voyage—intermittent perils of flashing terror and frightening beauty, but dwarfed by the immensity of a long sea voyage's natural listlessness. For Johnson, it is something like the effect of hard drugs, I imagine, although this analogy breaks down as Johnson's slower sections don't seem to arced toward the action, aren't coiled in the pain of withdrawal or tense in the search for the next hit. But Angels follows in its tempo the path of one becoming addicted to speed, then breaking up or down and "recovering"—a process which is more shock than assurance. The first third of the novel—which I guess could be called the "sober" third—is flat but a fairly good rendition of dirty realism. The middle third is kinetic, but not trippy—things are sharpened, not fuzzed out. The latter third is broken by shifts and shocks, with a somber undertone of great regret and stoic uncertainty about what has happened, or will.

In some ways, this kind of novel is for our late capitalist society what the sea novel was for late last century's genteel classes. Tales of drugs and petty crime yield both a jolt of insouciance and a meaningful commentary on "respectable" society (funny how that word needs scare-quotes to protect it from laughter now, where once they would have been mere mockery of the idea)—and these are exactly the things one got from a late nineteenth century tale of the sea. And if this comparison holds water (no pun intended), I would argue once again, and more forcefully, that Johnson is our Conrad, a master of the form, a writer of rare and fearsome power whose rough precision with language sets him well apart from his peers.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

From "Is Literature Possible?" by Lionel Trilling

In The Nation, October 15, 1930:
if there is one class of modern man that may be held accountable for its acts, it is the artist class. Nothing could more surely hasten the extinction of the artist than to convince him that he is a mere creature of his immediate environment.
This being the case, the function of the American critic becomes clear. He must cease making obeisance to "environment" and teach the artist that he too must heed his own god. He must make clear to the artist what the function of the artist is—which is not to be a mere literal expression of the life of his race but the imaginative understander, the wise investigator, the angry revolutionist. In short, the critic must help to restore to the artist something of his old function of seer and teacher. It does not much matter if the seer's vision or the teacher's precept be disregarded at the time of its utterance. It is a fate in which history will provide a fine array of colleagues&hellips; Two great tasks confront the American writer—the acquisition of considerable knowledge and the construction of a completely efficient style. One thinks of men—Mr. Dos Passos comes to mind, Mr. Edward Dahlberg—who understand the problem in large part and who are attempting, with a very fair measure of success, to solve it. They perceive the madness and hysteria in our life and they are rendering it admirably. Such writers should not be badgered with the insistence that their work is of no avail.

From "On Being Modern-Minded", by Bertrand Russell

In The Nation, January 9, 1937
All movements go too far, and this is certainly true of the movement toward subjectivity, which began with Luther and Descartes as an assertion of the individual and has culminated by an inherent logic in his complete subjection. The subjectivity of truth is a hasty doctrine not validly deducible from the premises which have been thought to imply it; and the habits of centuries have made many things seem dependent upon the theological belief which in fact are not so. Men lived with one kind of illusion, and when they lost it they fell into another. But it is not by old error that new error can be combated. Detachment and objectivity, both in thought and in feeling, have been historically but not logically associated with certain traditional beliefs; to preserve them without these beliefs is both possible and important. A certain degree of isolation both in space and time is essential to generate the independence required for the most important work; there must be something which is felt to be of more importance than the admiration of the contemporary crowd. We are suffering not from the decay of theological beliefs but from the loss of solitude.
My emphasis.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Salad Days

andrew seal
My birthday—my twenty-third—slouches into sight tomorrow, and its looming nearness made me think of the salad days line from Antony and Cleopatra (Act I):
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I'll unpeople Egypt.
Well, I only remembered the salad days and cold in blood bits, and something about greenness, so I googled the line and was surprised to remember that these are Cleopatra's lines, not Antony's. It's rather chauvinistic of me, I know, but I tend to associate the term with male youth—bumptious, eager, and fondly "remembered"—not female youth. Although I suppose current cultural connotations would align salad more closely with these very days of dalliance for young women, but I digress... (although wouldn't Salad Days make a great gynocentric sitcom title? no, it wouldn't, but it would be a good title for a comic strip in the "Cathy" vein...)

This discovery immediately led me to recall the line from Bellow's Herzog in which he describes his (ex-)wife as partaking in "the brutal nature of all women who eat green salad and drink human blood." I found this line disgustingly misogynistic when I read it (I still do), but now I see the clear allusion to Cleopatra, who delivers this line when referring to her erstwhile lover, Caesar. "Get me ink and paper" might as well be Moses Herzog's cry at this point in the novel (it's early still), and he will spend the rest of the novel writing a "several greeting" to many people, some of whom are, like Cleopatra's Caesar, former lovers, others present foes (again like Caesar). What a wickedly apt allusion!

Two by Randall Jarrell

"Deutsch durch Freud"

I believe my favorite country’s German.

I wander in a calm folk-colored daze; the infant
Looks down upon me from his mother’s arms
And says—oh, God knows what he says!
It’s baby-talk? he’s sick? or is it German?
That Nachtigallenchor: does it sing German?
Yoh, yoh: here mice, rats, tables, chairs,
Grossmütter, Kinder, der Herrgott im Himmel,
All, all but I—
all, all but I—
speak German.

Have you too sometimes, by the fire, at evening,
Wished that you were—whatever you once were?
It is ignorance alone that is enchanting.
Dearer to me than all the treasures of the earth
Is something living, said old Rumpelstiltskin
And hopped home. Charcoal-burners heard him singing
And spoiled it all… And all because—
If only he hadn’t known his name!

In German I don’t know my name.
I am the log
The fairies left one morning in my place.
—In German I believe in them, in everything:
The world is everything that is the case.
How clever people are! I look on open-mouthed
As Kant reels down the road im Morgenrot
Humming Mir is so bang, so bang mein Schatz
All the nixies set their watches by him
Two hours too fast…
I think, My calendar’s
Two centuries too fast, and give a sigh
Of trust. I reach out for the world and ask
The price; it answers, One touch of your finger.

In all my Germany there’s no Gesellschaft
But one between eine Katze and ein Maus.
What’s business? what’s a teaspoon? what’s a sidewalk?
Schweig stille, meine Seele! Such things are not for thee!
It is by Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke
Without ein Wörterbuch, that man learns German.
The Word rains in upon his blessed head
As glistening as from the hand of God
And means—what does it mean? Ah well, it’s German.
Glaube, mein herz! A Feeling in the Dark
Brings worlds, brings words that hard-eyed Industry
And all the schools’ dark Learning never knew.

And yet it’s hard sometimes, I won’t deny it.
Take for example my own favorite daemon,
Dear good great Goethe: ach, what German!
Very idiomatic, very noble; very like a sibyl.
My favorite style is Leupold von Lerchnau’s.
I’ve memorized his da und da und da und da
And whisper it when Life is dark and Death is dark.
There was someone who knew how to speak
To us poor Kinder here im Fremde.
And Heine! At the ninety-sixth mir traümte
I sigh as a poet, but dimple as ein Schuler.
And yet—if it’s easy is it German?
And yet, that wunderschöne Lindenbaum
Im Mondenscheine! What if it is in Schilda?
It's moonlight, isn't it? Mund, Mond, Herz, and Schmerz
Sing round my head, in Zeit and Ewigkeit,
And my heart lightens at each Sorge, each Angst:
I know them well. And Schiksal! Ach, you Norns,
As I read I hear your—what's the word for scissors?
And Katzen have Tatzen—why can't I call someone Kind?
What a speech for Poetry (especially Folk-)!

And yet when, in my dreams, eine schwartzbraune Hexe
(Who mows on the Neckar, reaps upon the Rhine)
Riffles my yellow ringlets through her fingers,
She only asks me questions: What is soap?
I don't know. A suitcase? I don't know. A visit?
I laugh with joy, and try to say like Lehmann:
"Quin-quin, es ist ein Besuch!"
Ah, German!
Till the day I die I'll be in love with German
—If only I don't learn German&hellips;I can hear my broken
Voice murmuring to der Arzt: "Ich—sterber?"
He answers sympathetically: "Nein—sterbe."

If God gave me the choice—but I stole this from Lessing—
Of German and learning German, I'd say: Keep your German!

The thought of knowing German terrifies me.
—But surely, this way, no one could learn German
And yet&hellips;
It's difficult; is it impossible?
I'm hopeful that it is, but I can't say
For certain: I don't know enough German.

"Jerome"
Each day brings its toad, each night its dragon.
Der heilige Hieronymus—his lion is at the zoo—
Listens listens. All the long, soft, summer day
Dreams affright his couch, the deep boils like a pot.
As the sun sets, the last patient rises,
Says to him, Father; trembles, turns away.

Often, to the lion, the saint said, Son.
To the man the saint says—but the man is gone.
Under a plaque of Gradiva, at gloaming,
The old man boils an egg. When he has eaten
He listens a while. The patients have not stopped.
At midnight, he lies down where his patients lay.

All night the old man whispers to the night.
It listens evenly. The great armored paws
Of its forelegs put together in reflection,
It thinks: Where Ego was, there Id shall be.
The world wrestles with it and is changed into it
And after a long time changes it. The dragon

Listens as the old man says, at dawn: I see
—There is an old man, naked, in a desert, by a cliff.
He has set out his books, his hat, his ink, his shears
Among scorpions, toads, the wild beasts of the desert.
I lie beside him—I am a lion.
He kneels listening. He holds in his left hand
The stone with which he beats his breast, and holds
In his right hand, the pen with which he puts
Into his book, the words of the angel:
The angel up into whose face he looks.
But the angel does not speak. He looks into the face
Of the night, and the night says—but the night is gone.

He has slept&hellips; At morning, when man's flesh is young
And man's soul thankful for it knows not what,
The air is washed, and smells of boiling coffee,
And the sun lights it. The old man walks placidly
To the grocer's; walks on, under leaves, in light,
To a lynx, a leopard—he has come:

The man holds out a lump of liver to the lion,
And the lion licks the man's hand with his tongue.

Monday, October 15, 2007

From "The Ruins of Memory," by Josephine Herbst

In The Nation, April 4, 1956:
The language of our new critics was seductive, called us to account on many basic literary issues; and since we were fed up with too much emocracy in the thirties, the notion of an aristocracy, if only in the arts, made a telling point. Form and precision of language are all important but there is also a point of view and one may well ask in what origins it arises. What assumptions are made from which the elegant flower is to grow? It is not coincidence that most of the writing to please the new detective-critics came from Southerners, most of whom were emigrés living in the North, getting their livings in Northern cities but with all feeling, knowledge and creative source in the South.

If it is our privilege to admire a body of brilliant writing by Southerners, worthy of a lasting place in our literature, it is also pertinent to ask why, in general, it has become so static. If it succeeded in producing a renascence for which we should be grateful, why did its influence effect a stalemate and degenerate into the picturesque, the bizarre and the exploitation of the eccentric? The insistence on perfection may produce a Rimbaud, revolutionary in form and content, but it may also settle for an inverted romanticism, a kind of snobbish chastity, implying that the hurly-burly is really not good enough for these particular garments. Then the will to perfection without the valid idea may proliferate into mere decay and tedium, descending into the language and thought of journalism, relying finally on the violence of the "you-gotta-knock-'em-dead" school. The secret prince and dreamer of perfection may become lost in the glitter of honor, and his talent may then make of him an actor for life.

There is a distinction to be made between the actual writing of the group that produced the renascence and the effects which followed in their train. This is no challenge to that body of writing its writers had their aim and had to fulfill it by the inner secret processes of all creative work. But it also seems true that the sights were set toward a traditional past to the extinction of a prevailing present and as a result precluded a dynamic for writers to follow. From the richest section of this country in the sense of a literary potential we have arrived at a dead level of little studies of general decay. But the fact is that the South is not so much decaying as changing and it is fair to ask what use other writers in other countries in other epochs made of similar situations of transition. And it seems also to the point to suggest that of all Southerners, Faulkner, who has mostly stayed put, has been able to gouge deeper, range more widely and feel more intimately the pressure of Southern change and responsibility, and to be, so far as I know, the only writer of the South willing to put himself on record on the murder of young Till. As for earlier epochs the writer did not have to applaud in order to respond knowingly; Balzac, attached to the feudal past, could write of the business-king Louis Phillipe so incisively that The Green Huntsman could not be published in his lifetime. A response to change was inherent in every line of Jane Austen. As for the Russians whose serfs were liberated in the same decade as the Civil War what did they not do?

This discussion would fail to make its point if it appeared to set up new goals for more authority instead of more freedoms. The writer has suffered more than the Wars of the Roses in this period. He, like everybody else, seems to have been atomized and a waif on his own, to be shut off from many of the sources of knowldge more freely come by at an earlier period. If his road leads to the university and conformity, it is not altogether by choice, but by grim necessity in a society where the writer has never been a culture-hero. Roving was good for the writer; to have been a reporter undoubtedly informed Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane. To know far more than he may ever use is imperative for the writer.
I have some things to say about this (long) quote, but my arms are tired.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Manqués

An amusing feature from The NY Observer on the inability of the current generation to be the older generation, pairing a member of this generation with the man or woman whom they are supposedly trying to emulate, but failing to live up to. (E.g. "Rufus Wainwright is Judy Garland manqué," "Paris Hilton is Patty Hearst manqué")

Okay, that's not very amusing—in fact it's downright asinine, not to mention sophomoric, puerile, and a heap of other pejorative terms denoting youth, ignorance, or something in that vein.

I say that mostly because this was the sort of thing that really spun my wheels in high school—and the memory of my former, less-informed self burns in the back of my mind with a ferocious sense of shame. Rather like stumbling upon a clutch of silly verse written in lovelorn throes of angst and self-pity (or like thumbing through the archives of this blog will be five years from now), to be reminded of my unholy and unreasonable passion for lists, comparisons, and remonstrations of my own age's inadequacy next to the decades and centuries past—it is simply disheartening (especially since my first reaction was still "how cool!").

Some of the comparisons are, I must say, provocative—they are somewhat original (or at least I haven't seen them before) and lead to further thought. For instance... actually I'm joking. Some of them are modestly humorous because you know they would burn their intended target (e.g. "Keith Gessen (N+1) is Dale Peck manqué") and completely untrue or ridiculous (apparently Nicole Krauss=Jonathan Safran Foer manquée AND JSF=NK manqué, which is somewhat funny, I guess, if you know they're married). Some are painfully obvious and therefore neither interesting nor in the least bit funny, especially since the comparison does tend to make one feel bad for the contemporary schlub (e.g. Adam Gopnik = E.B. White manqué, George Saunders = Kurt Vonnegut manqué). Others are almost surreal in their absurdity ("Alicia Keys is Chaka Khan manquée," "Angelina Jolie is Audrey Hepburn manquée"—not so much, I think).

But that is not to say that even those comparisons which work, and to the detriment of the contemporary, are convincing in regards to the loose argument of the feature, which is more eloquently expressed by the illustration than by the copy—that today's stars exist as diminished echoes of past heroes, and that they represent some general diminution of celebrities and, I guess, authoritative presences in the American mainstream.

Okay, every cultural theorist of late capitalism talks about the fracturing of American mainstream culture (the disappearance of unifying institutions like Henry Luce's publications or the radio or the urban experience or bowling leagues or what have you) into today's multifarious late late capitalism, but it seems rather dim to take the cultural arrangement of (to judge by the illustration) prewar America and contrast it with contemporary America's celebrity culture. The old guard standing in such marked contrast (and really, few of the comparisons are from this prewar era, or even the years just after) are the ones who have remained cultural icons from their own day—lost to us are those who faded into obscurity, who might be more apt comparisons to many of those on the list. Comparing the pointedly ephemeral celebrities of the present with those who have already withstood the passing of time is pointless and daft.

Is ephemerality a critical characteristic of modern celebrity? Certainly, although it seems funny how ephemerality is also only truly applicable to the present or the very recent past. One "rediscovers" writers of the more distant past whose work vanished from public view quickly, but this rediscovery is a separate cultural phenomenon, not a repetition of the past.

Do we give less credence to our celebrities now than we did in the past? Or, to put it another way, has cultural capital been, to some extent, democratized? I find that to be an unanswerable question, inseparable from the question of whether, in hindsight, we don't consolidate cultural capital and authority, allowing novelists, for instance, say more about the bygone era to us than those novelists did to their contemporaries. While I would not go so far as to say that the hegemonies of the past are created by the present, I would say that we give them the textures they appear to have naturally. For instance, Edmund Wilson's reviews of the 30s and 40s are being released in a new set by the Library of America. Can it be doubted that Edmund Wilson was the most important literary critic of this era? Certainly not, and yet that apparent hegemony (or just plain influence) works far differently in our assessment of it than it possibly could have in reality.

This isn't earth-shaking or novel or in any way something that wouldn't be apparent to anyone with some time to think, but the impulse to compare pasts and the present in the manner of this feature seems to be a hard one to check among many different classes of people.

I read an essay today by Frank Lentricchia in a collection of pieces from the defunct journal Lingua Franca—it detailed the development of his frustration with statements like "The first thing we have to say about Faulkner is that he was a racist." I have gone back and forth over this kind of issue—it was even raised while I was at Great Books this summer by Joe Ellis, the historian. Ellis railed somewhat against presentist arguments while also maintaining that slavery and ethnic cleansing are legacies of the Founding. I think he meant that, while one must be historically accurate about the circumstances of any given event or text, one cannot judge the actions involved in those events or in the production of those texts against present standards of conduct. But that suspension of contemporary standards is not an exoneration nor is it a suspension of causal analysis. Did the actions of the Founding Fathers lead to the expansion of these practices? Yes. Could they have acted differently? Perhaps. And isn't, I think he might say, this "perhaps" answer more worthwhile of study and more productive than the answer to a question of whether we could properly judge their inner or expressed thoughts or feelings racist according to our sense of racism today?

What Lentricchia is objecting to, effectively, is the fact that applying these questions to texts produces answers that rather deflate the cases made against the authors, but that these questions are not asked. One could ask, "Did Faulkner's novels lead to acts of racism, or the spread of racist ideologies?" The answer would have to be "Probably not," and Lentricchia is annoyed that we often disregard this question and its answer in favor of the one which, he says, makes us feel better morally—"Can Faulkner be read as a racist? Yes."

I struggle with completely accepting, or rather sharing, Lentricchia's frustration because I think race is quite clearly a very relevant issue in reading Faulkner, and part of its relevance lies in determining what Faulkner's views on race are, and a necessary part of that determination may be reading him provisionally as a racist—then reading him as an anti-racist, then as ambivalent, then as something else.

If I share in Lentricchia's frustration, it is that I believe that too often (though not as often as many critics allege) texts are approached with the assumption that the author's views on race or gender or class are what we have to understand—and agree upon—first, that these must be the preliminary working assumptions that we can ground our discussion or analysis in or on. Establishing the author's position on these topics is our first obligation to the text; after that, we may deconstruct or formalize or historicize or psychoanalyze at will. But I am not so sure we can establish those things at the outset for all writers. Certainly there are writers whose anti-Semitism or misogyny or racism or homophobia or classism distort and disfigure their work in easily recognizable ways, and it would be foolish to save the examination of those distortions for later, after looking at the work from another angle—there is no point reading Waugh, for instance, as a workingman's advocate in order to determine more finely his views on class.

Yet there is some value, I think, to reading Conrad, for one, in a number of different ways on the issue of race. And I don't think the academy collectively misses this value as often as its critics insist they do; Conrad has clearly been at the center of a very intense debate for many years regarding his views on race. The problem is, the debate is never brought up in the anti-PC rants, just the views which proceed from the most accusatory perspective. This selectiveness is aggravating, especially when it comes from someone like Lentricchia. Insofar as he means that these opinions must be part of a broader discourse about any given author, but threaten the integrity of that discourse with a frequently (though not universally) premature moralism, I agree with him. That there is no place for the statement "Faulkner was a racist" anywhere in the classroom or in the critical literature on his work or life—with that I vehemently disagree, and I don't believe it's "presentist" to allow that opinion to enter the discussion. To overwhelm the discussion, to close the discussion—that is the danger, as with any opinion.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Nation: 1865-1990, ed. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Victor Navasky and E.L. Doctorow

From "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," by Willa Cather (9/5/1923):
It is in that great cosmopolitan country know as the Middle West that we may hope to see the hard molds of American provincialism broken up; that we may hope to find young talent which will challenge the pale proprieties, the insincere, conventional optimism of our art and thought..."
From "H.L. Mencken," by H.L. Mencken, (12/5/1923)
I practice criticism for precisely the same reason that every other critic practices it: because I am a vain fellow, and have a great many ideas on all sorts of subjects, and like to put them into words and harass the human race with them. If I could confine this flow of ideas to one subject I'd be a professor and get some respect. If I could reduce it, say, to one idea a year, I'd be a novelist, a dramatist, or a newspaper editorial writer. But being unable to staunch the flux and having, as I say, a vast and exigent vanity, I am a critic of books, and through books of Homo sapiens, and through Homo sapiens of God.
From "Saratoga," by Henry James (8/3/1870):
Saratoga is famous, I believe, as the place of all places in America where women most adorn themselves, or as the place, at least, where the greatest amount of dressing may be seen by the greatest number of people. Your first impression is therefore of the—what shall I call it?—of the muchness of the feminine drapery. Every woman you meet, young or old, is attire with a certain amount of splenodr and a large amount of good taste. You behold an interesting, indeed a quite momentous spectacle: the democratization of elegance. If I am to believe what I hear—in fact, I may say what I overhear—a large portion of these sumptuous persons are victims of imperfect education and members of a somewhat narrow social circle. Shewalks more or less of a queen, however, each unsanctified nobody. She has, in dress, an admirable instinct of elegance and even of what the French call "chic." This instinct occasionally amounts to a sort of passion; the result then is superb. You look at the coarse brick walls, the rusty iron posts of the piazza, at the shuffling waiters, the great tawdry steamboat cabin of a drawing-room—you see the tilted ill-dressed loungers on the steps—and you finally regret that a figure so exquisite should have so vulgar a setting. Your resentment, however, is speedily tempered by reflection. You feel the impertinence of your reminiscences of Old-World novels, and of the dreary social order in which privacy was the presiding genius and women arrayed themselves for the appreciation of the few—the few still, even when numerous. The crowd, the tavern loungers, the surrounding ugliness and tumult and license, constitute the social medium of the young lady whom you so cunningly admire: she is dressed for publicity The thought fills you with a kind of awe. The Old-World social order is far away indeed, and as for Old-World novels, you begin to doubt whether she is so amiably curious as to read even the silliest of them. To be so excessively dressed is to give pledges to idleness. I have been forcibly struck with the apparent absence of any warmth and richness of detail in the lives of these wonderful ladies of the piazza. We are freely accused of being an eminently wasteful people: I know of few things which so largely warrant the accusation as the fact that these consummate élégantes adorn themselves, socially speaking, to so little purpose. To dress for every one is, practically, to dress for no one. There are few prettier sights than a charmingly dressed woman, gracefully established in some shady spot, with a piece of needlework or embroidery, or a book. Nothing very serious is accomplished, probably, but an aesthetic principle is considered. The embroidery and the book are a tribute to culture, and I suppose they really figure somewhere out of the opening scenes of French comedies. But here at Saratoga, at any hour of morning or evening, you may see a hundred brave creatures steeped in a quite unutterable emptyhandedness. I have had constant observation of a lady who seems to me really to possess a genius for being nothing more than dressed. Her dresses are admirably rich and beautiful—my letter would greatly gain in value if I possessed the learning needful for describing them. I can only say that every evening for a fortnight, I believe, she has revealed herself as a fresh creature. But she especially, as I say, has struck me as a person dressed beyond her life. I resent on her behalf—or on behalf at least of her finery—the extreme severity of her circumstance. What is she, after all, but a regular boarder? She ought to sit on the terrace of a stately castle, with a great baronial park shutting out the undressed world, mildly coquetting with an ambassador or a duke. My imagination is shocked when I behold her seated in gorgeous relief against the dusty clapboards of the hotel, with her beautiful hands folded in her silken lap, her head drooping slightly beneath the weight of her chignon, her lips parted in a vague contemplative gaze at Mr. Helmbold's well-known advertisement on the opposite fence, her husband beside her reading the New York Sun.
Oh, Henry.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Drown, by Junot Díaz

After Oscar Wao, I couldn't really not go and immediately read Díaz's earlier work; if there were another book out there by him, I would be reading it now. I'd like to read Drown again, but I never allow myself the luxury of reading something twice in succession; with all the books on my shelves waiting to be at least formally scorned for something else, I have no business indulging in one book on repeat.

But I'd like to.

It could be simply that I've fallen for Díaz's stories and tone in the same way and for the same reasons that his women characters fall for his men. They are rough and indifferent, but they give you the sense that if they do speak softly and even gently to someone, it is to you, that if someone can see the quiet core beneath the badass exterior, it is you, fair reader.

There is a very masculine charm about the way Díaz measures his sentimentality, smashing things around with heavy actions and gruff, unadorned dialogue, but relenting momentarily in exactly the right spots to let a note of not-too-raw-but-recent emotion build, and then be disrupted casually by another voice.

It could also be the rather simple fact that Díaz's stories are exciting in a very basic sense: while no story reaches after any sort of suspense, the lives of the characters are alluring in their illicitness, their anger-fringed aimlessness, and their—well, in short, their difference from any conceivable path my life could take. One feels liberated by reading of people with so few of the securities I will probably work throughout my life to obtain and maintain.

My two posts on Díaz have been mostly taken up with recording and describing my reaction—strong as it is—to his books rather than with any analysis of his work. It is not my intention to slight them as being somehow not critically provocative, but merely rather to find an outlet for my enthusiasm. However, I'll try to put together some more analytic thoughts on both Díaz's books soon.

Monday, October 8, 2007

From "Minnesota: The Norse State," by Sinclair Lewis

[Published in The Nation, May 30, 1923]
There is one merit not of Minnesota alone but of all the Middle West which must be considered. The rulers of our new land may to the eye seem altogether like the rulers of the East—of New England, New York, Pennsylvania. Both groups are chiefly reverent toward banking, sound Republicanism, the playing of golf and bridge, and the possession of large motors. But whereas the Easterner is content with these symbols and smugly desires nothing else, the Westerner, however golfocentric he may be, is not altogether satisfied; and raucously though he may snortle at his wife's "fool suffrage ideas" and "all this highbrow junk the lecture-hounds spring on you," yet secretly, wistfully he desires a beauty that he does not understand..."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

"The Fugitive Poets of Fenway Park," by Martín Espada


The Chilean secret police
searched everywhere
for the poet Neruda: in the dark shafts
of mines, in the boxcars of railroad yards,
in the sewers of Santiago.
The government intended to confiscate his mouth
and extract the poems one by one like bad teeth.
But the mines and boxcars and sewers were empty.

I know where he was. Neruda was at Fenway Park,
burly and bearded in a flat black cap, hidden
in the kaleidoscope of the bleachers.
He sat quietly, chomping a hot dog
when Ted Williams walked to the crest of the diamond,
slender as my father remembers him,
squinting at the pitcher, bat swaying in a memory of trees.

The stroke was a pendulum of long muscle and wood,
Ted's face tilted up, the home run
zooming into the right field grandstand.
Then the crowd stood together, cheering
for this blasphemer of newsprint, the heretic
who would not tip his cap as he toed home plate
or grin like a war hero at the sportswriters
surrounding his locker for a quote.

The fugitive poet could not keep silent,
standing on his seat to declaim the ode
erupted in crowd-bewildering Spanish from his mouth:

Praise Ted Williams, raising his sword
cut from the ash tree, the ball
a white planet glowing in the atmosphere
of the right field grandstand!

Praise the Wall rising
like a great green wave
from the green sea of the outfield!

Praise the hot dog, pink meat,
pork snouts, sawdust, mouse feces,
human hair, plugging our intestines,
yet baptized joyfully with mustard!

Praise the wobbling drunk, seasick beer
in hand, staring at the number on his ticket,
demanding my seat!


Everyone gawked at the man standing
on his seat, bellowing poetry in Spanish.
Anonymous no longer,
Neruda saw the Chilean secret police
as they scrambled through the bleachers,
pointing and shouting, so the poet
jumped a guardrail to disappear
through a Fenway tunnel,
the black cap flying from his head
and spinning into center field.

This is true. I was there at Fenway
on August 7, 1948, even if I was born
exactly nine years later
when my father
almost named me Theodore.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Within the Context of No Context, George W.S. Trow


The Decline of Adulthood
During the 1960s, there was conflict between the generation born during (and soon after) the First World War. There was also a debate. Although the debate was supposed to be candid, some truths were avoided—almost shyly. Much of the debate had to do with power and the abuse of power, but no one ever asked if the men in positions of control who were being confronted with evidence of their abuse of power had any right to be considered powerful in the first place. No one inquired into the nature of the connection between the men who had fashioned conventional white society and the men of forty or fifty or sixty who were its contemporary stewards. No one asked if in fact any connection existed at all. A continuum of power was assumed (perhaps out of instinctive politenes or instinctive fear), and what was debated was the question of its abuse. In some instances, the assumed continuum was stretched to include members of the younger generation, with remarkable results.

The Decline of Adulthood
During the 1960s, a young black man in a university class described the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century as "belonging" to the white students in the room, and not to him. This idea was seized on by white members of the class. They acknowledged that they were at one with Rembrandt. They acknowledged their dominance. They offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress. It was thought at the time that reactions of this type had to do with "white guilt" or "white masochism." No. No. It was white
euphoria. Many, many white children of that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it, so that they might continue to feel the power of the connection. Had the young black man asked, "Who is this man to you?" the pleasure they felt would have vanished in embarrassment and resentment.

The Decline of Adulthood
"Adulthood" in the last generations has had very little to do with "adulthood" as that word would have been understood by adults in any previous generation. Rather, "adulthood" has been defined as a "position of control in the world of childhood."

The Adolescent Orthodoxy
Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.

Magazines in the Age of Television
[...] It is recognized that the magazine People is an important contemporary magazine. It is sometimes criticized as purveying gossip. It does not purvey gossip. Nor do most "gossip columns" purvey gossip (with its attendant sense of violation)... Instead, People, like most of the efforts in print that reflect its concern with celebrities, provides an ad hoc context within which may be placed, each week, certain scraps of synthetic talk which have been judged to have the power to reinforce the ad hoc context so that the ad hoc context may, for a moment, seem to exist. What is the function of synthetic talk enclosed within the ad hoc context of People? It is to unite, for a moment, the two remaining grids in American life—the intimate grid and the grid of two hundred million. This is achieved by discussing the intimate life of celebrities who have their home in the grid of two hundred million and by raising up to national attention certain experiences of Americans as they live, lonely, in the grid of intimacy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

I don't know what it is about the Dominican Republic, but between this and Julia Álvarez, it plays very, very well in a novel. It's a character—not so much through its landscape or its topography or even human geography as through its geniality toward myth and hyperbole.

Díaz does the human geography well—he imagines a culture rapturously onto the page—but it is quite clearly in the myth-making that his genius for ramshackle narrative finds its stride and expression. I read one review (I forget where; forgive me, I read too many reviews) which faults Díaz for being too good a compressor of narrative power to make for a full novelist, but, while I haven't read his (legendary) short story collection Drown, I'd say much the opposite was the case. I agree that Wao is ragged, uneven, and that Díaz takes a somewhat unsatisfyingly short time to collate the novel's many pieces into a (somewhat ill-defined) finale. But Díaz is a fantastic novelist precisely because he is able to compress the core elements of the story into vivid bursts, parcelled out somewhat irregularly. It's not smooth reading, perhaps, but neither is The Magic Mountain, and a judgment against this unevenness completely ignores the gargantuan pleasure of reading the thing when it's cooking. Talk to me a week from now and I may find some faults with it, but if you had been there the moment I'd finished, I would have shoved it in your hand and told you it's the greatest novel of the last ten years.

Which is not to say that I won't still hold it in very high regard in a week, or ten, or a year. It's a signal achievement for this year, gutsier and smarter than anything else out there.

And don't be led to believe that an uneven novel can't be also rigorously plotted, as I believe this novel to be. And to complain about unevenness implies that (usually) the slower portions of the book should have been cut; that is most definitely not the case here. The slower bits—mostly those about Oscar's sluggish maturation or about Yunior's women-chasing or, collectively, those set in the US—are actually very strong, well worth their space and time. And mightn't we believe that Díaz is making a point about life in the US compared with life in the DR? Or we could say that Díaz finds himself more restricted by describing American life, and liberated by describing Dominican life—but that would be rather like saying Philip Roth writes boring WASPs—of course he does! Díaz pours all the novel's energy into enlivening the DR, reveling in its magic, and besides, he actually does seem to find American life restrictive compared to Dominican life, so why criticize him for experiencing America as rather pedestrian and narrow? And let's be specific here—Díaz is describing Jersey—who makes Jersey sound exciting? They don't probably because it isn't.

I hope you read Wao, I really do. It's an incredible book, but it's also one that you'll know pretty quickly whether it's for you or not. Read the first few pages in the bookstore and see if you like the style, but do try to track it down.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Lattice Pray

Dave EggersSkewering the Eggers set has been a cultural preoccupation of most literate people who fancy themselves critics for a good while now, but it has been done mostly without the flair or panache one would hope to see. (The closest yet may be the most oblique—Keith Gessen's profile of that Eggers-obsessed California kid in the first n+1.) Partly the fault lies with the subject—for those who dislike the "Brooklyn Boys [and Girls] of Wonder," as Melvin Jules Bukiet of The American Scholar calls them—Eggers, Foer, Krauss—you know who we're talking about—the flaws and felonies are well known and patently obvious, defying by their very simplicity any effort at incision or deconstruction. Besides, it's very hard to ridicule the depressingly risible.

The American Scholar essay isn't it either, but it's close. Ish. For added fun, Benjamin Kunkel (himself of n+1) gets lumped in with all the others. Bet he'll appreciate that.

The same kind of critiques are made—the woebegone optimism is tiresome and tactless, the whole crew trucks along on juvenile sentiments that somehow have avoided showing the wear of their high mileage, and what Bukiet calls "the perception and implicit self-congratulation of wonder."

But what Bukiet picks up on—and amply shows—is that the common fault of these writers seems to have something or other to do with, as he says, the common possesion of a "
pallid soft-core religion — aka spirituality — faith without frenzy, without animal sacrifice." I find this to be a strong argument, and strongly made in its various demonstrations.

What I don't find to be compelling is his attempt to link this pseudo-spiritual kitsch so strongly to Brooklyn, and more particularly to a lineage of Brooklyn or Brooklyn-related writers. He makes his own exceptions (Lethem is a very Brooklyn writer who doesn't do the Eggers routine; Chabon resembles the BBOW in a certain way, yet is more connected to San Fran [not to mention Pittsburgh]) and he makes a very poor show of establishing a true line of descent, rather than a literary historical scatterplot of likely suspects. The problem with making an argument contra parentes is that the family tree one traces could always have more branches. Bukiet quite rightly points out the young adult genre inflections present in these books—very well then, why not blame Robert Cormier? Whitman lived in Brooklyn, loved the idea and sensation of wonder—why isn't he mentioned, held culpable, perhaps qualified and excused?

The question to ask, I believe, is not, or not only, what authors influenced these Children of Wonder, but rather what in the world they're reacting to that deflects them into such narrow channels of soft spirituality and hazy swipes at profundity. Bukiet offers one quasi-answer: "
Though the individual authors are vociferously leftist, they remember and yearn for Ronald Reagan’s blissed-out Morning in America, during which they spent their formative years." I find that a lot more compelling than any attempt to link them to Betty Smith and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, even if it isn't very thorough an observation.

I don't have an answer at the ready—I have some ideas which I may work on, but I would like to offer this:

Bukiet mocks (and I carry it on with the title of this post) Eggers's "lattice" —the network of "
my people, collective youth, people like me, hearts ripe, brains aglow . . . people who have everything in common no matter where they’re from, all these people know all the same things and truly hope for the same things." Clearly it's an absurd passage, but that's not what I'd like to point out—I would instead draw attention to the meagerness of "lattice" as either a description or a metaphor for this communion of Believers. A lattice certainly does not describe what Eggers means here, but it works very flaccidly as a metaphor for it as well. It sort of does the job, because we know what he means, and we know what lattice means, and we grant him the rest on goodwill or faith or some combination of the two, but the word is really just hanging out, inactive, one might even say dangling.

The Children of Wonder are the Children of Dangling Metaphors. You've heard of dangling modifiers? Well, here's a new malformation. The Children of Wonder may do many things well artistically, but one thing I believe not a single one of them has succeeded in is the employment of metaphor to do real artistic work. Kunkel is the only one who has tried—with his indecision-curing pill—but neither the metaphor nor the novel seems to have worked out fully. (I have to confess here that I have not read the book, but I would be surprised if the combined weight of a number of friends and reviews is completely off-base.)

The failure of the Young Contemporary American Serious Novel is a failure of its metaphorical imagination. I believe they can all sense this failure, so they reach for what metaphor should be bringing them anyway—transcendence, or at least some movement between planes of experience and emotion. Thus we have something like Bee Season—the spelling, clearly intended to be a metaphor, doesn't work and dangles, so Goldberg reaches for transcendence hamfistedly by plastering it with adhesive tape and throwing it at the Kabbalah. Eggers can't find a way to tell his story metaphorically and can't stand telling it straight, so he fudges and goes metafictional—instant transcendence, albeit only on the aesthetic plane. Foer clearly becomes lost at various points in Everything Is Illuminated and bails himself out with magical realism whenever he does. Granted, I like those parts better than the parts where he's sure of himself, but the process is the same.

When stuck, dangle a metaphor before the reader and jump, and hope the reader believes you got there honestly. Or dangle a postmodern bauble and pretend you can make it disappear if you want to, then drop it and walk away. It's bullshit either way.


Another thought: Critiques of this set of writers often somehow reference Wood's critique of hysterical realism. It has some validity for this group, although I think they are not quite the same stripe. For one thing, hysterical realism, at least in Wood's account, focuses on two main things—paranoia and multiculturalism—which the very white, Panglossian-monist Children of Wonder don't fit at all. Where Wood's critique is still applicable lies in its charge that hysterical realism evades reality whenever it threatens the author's sensibility or pet paranoia. The Children of Wonder carry this to a new extreme, I think—they could be called flinching realists. When reality threatens to reject their solipsism and immaturity, they flinch away from it and smile at themselves.

Flinching Realists—I think that could work. I hate "Brooklyn Boys of Wonder" or my more inclusive Children of Wonder, and the n+1 term "Eggersards" is deplorable. I'd actually prefer "Dangling Realists" for the reasons mentioned above, but I doubt either that or flinching realists will catch on.