Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Catch-22

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

The last catch

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Catch-22

This time Milo had gone too far.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Yesterday, the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos finally lost his book deal. The turning point was a video that surfaced over the weekend of Yiannopoulos appearing to condone the sexual abuse of young boys—which, for future reference, is a useful data point for establishing what the conservative movement considers excessive. Shortly after Yiannopoulos was dropped from his speaking slot at an upcoming conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, which had awarded him a lucrative contract to write his memoirs, decided to cut him loose, too. As far as the merits of that action are concerned, the author Roxane Gay, who put her money where her mouth was last month by withdrawing her own book from the publisher, sees it for what it is:

In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies…Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.

But the sequence of events is enlightening in itself. The video, which was taped on January 4, 2016, was leaked by the Reagan Battalion, a conservative outlet active mostly on Twitter and Facebook, on Sunday morning. It took the ACU one full day to rescind their invitation, and Simon & Schuster tweeted out their decision four hours later. I don’t have any way of knowing when the internal conversation about the video at the publisher began, and they might well have been discussing it intensively ever since the comments became public knowledge. Perhaps the fact that the announcement was made soon after the conference cut its ties with Yiannopoulos was just an accident of timing. But that isn’t how it looks. It feels a lot more like Simon & Schuster—the company as a whole, that is, not the imprint Threshold Editions—had been angling to get rid of Yiannopoulos as soon as he became a bigger headache than he was worth, but was unwilling or reluctant to move until it got the signal that it was fine to proceed. The response from the Conservative Political Action Conference gave the publisher the cover that it needed. If Yiannopoulos is too offensive even for mainstream conservatives, the reasoning must have gone, then we can’t be blamed for canceling his book, too. The video alone wasn’t enough. It also had to lead to action on the right. And as soon as it did, the publisher acted with suspicious quickness. Nothing ever happens that fast in publishing, which implies that Simon & Schuster was eager to act for a long time, but was afraid to do so until now.

Joseph Heller

Which, in a way, is the most frightening thing of all. Simon & Schuster—which, let’s not forget, is also the publisher of the novel Catch-22—found itself caught in a similar bind. It seems fairly clear that an internal understanding had been reached long ago that publishing Yiannopoulos’s book was a bad idea, for reasons of branding, if not ethics. No matter how well it sold, it had already tarnished the publisher’s reputation in ways that couldn’t be easily erased. Yet it seemed better to endure whatever attacks from the left it received, rather than to incite a similar reaction from the right by doing the reasonable thing and pulling the book. Maybe it’s because Simon & Schuster calculated that the protests from the left would be noisy but ineffectual, as they all too often are, or, more likely, that it felt that liberal outrage was already baked into the cake, and drawing the ire of the right would push them into unexplored territory. Whatever the reason, the result was that the parent company was effectively held hostage by one of its imprints. (In retrospect, the statement in which Simon & Schuster blandly reiterated its opposition to hate speech, while defending its decision to publish authors with “frequently controversial opinions,” seems to have been all but dictated at gunpoint.) I have a feeling that the decision by the ACU was greeted by many at the publisher with a sigh of relief. But it also means that they allowed the terms of the conversation to be set by the conservative movement, not by their own editorial standards. And it says a lot about the times in which we live that a formerly respected New York publishing house is relying on the right to police itself.

Yet it also gets at a more important point, which is that change will have to be driven by reasonable voices on the right. I don’t know much about the Reagan Battalion, which appears to have emerged last year as part of the Never Trump movement, but there’s no question that the video gained much of its impact from its source. If a liberal blog had released it, it might not have made so much as a ripple. And it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that any attempt to deal with all that Yiannopoulos represents will have to come from conservatives. This isn’t meant to understate the importance of protest on the left, which forms the kind of indispensable backdrop—or power source—necessary to motivate those who are in a position to effect real change. But it’s revealing that Yiannopoulos imploded just a few days after none other than Bill Maher bent over backwards in an attempt to normalize him. A lot of Republicans seem like “the treacherous old man” whom Joseph Heller describes in his novel:

I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American…When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way.

But the funny thing is that the old man isn’t even wrong. He’s just looking out for his own survival, and when another character calls him “a shameful, unscrupulous opportunist,” he smugly replies: “I am a hundred and seven years old.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. The conservative movement tolerates Yiannopoulos or Trump only because it thinks that it’s better off than it would be without them. And it won’t be the left that convinces it otherwise.

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February 21, 2017 at 9:17 am

“She had been presented with one setback after another…”

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"She had been presented with one setback after another..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 30. You can read the previous installments here.

Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:

The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The divine mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.

One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.

It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”

"Wolfe spoke up at last..."

My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.

And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…

The challenge of honest optimism

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place?”

When I was in my twenties, I had a theory that most novelists my age—including myself—were more or less faking it. Until you turned thirty, I thought, even a spectacular literary debut was usually just a pastiche of similar works the author had read and internalized, rather than a reflection of real experience. You had to have lived a little longer, and done something besides spend all your time writing, to express something meaningful about the world; until then, you were left with technically clever imitations, some admittedly more graceful or ingenious than others, of the books you’d loved yourself. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve modified my opinion: I suspect that we’re all faking it. (This isn’t confined to writing either: it’s a terrifying realization about being a grownup in general. As the father says in Calvin and Hobbes, “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”) In their first drafts, at least, most writers don’t really know what the story is about, so they end up writing a kind of extended simulation of the novel they want to see, a patchwork of good guesses and impersonations that they hope to revise into the real thing.

And it strikes me that a lot of what we call “insight” in fiction is really a verbal strategy, a reflection of a basically neutral ability with words, just as an invalid argument seems more convincing if the author knows how to write. A strong prose style is no guarantee of truth, and at its worst, it can hide weaknesses and gaps in logic that would be more obvious if less artfully concealed—which may be why serious philosophy is such a chore to read. And while we’d all like to hope that we’ll come up with real insights in the process of putting together our thoughts, in the meantime, we have to find new ways of faking it. That’s why so many young writers can seem so cynical. Cynicism feels more mature, at first glance, than idealism; a dark, pessimistic perspective presents itself as a hard realization at which the writer has arrived after passing through many intermediate stages. Of course, that doesn’t need to be the case at all. Reflexive cynicism is as much of an intellectual retreat as unthinking optimism, but it hides itself a little better, which may be why it’s so attractive to writers who want to seem more worldly than they really are. As Zapp Brannigan says on Futurama, when trying to convince Kiff to smoke for the first time: “Teenagers all smoke, and they seem pretty on the ball.”

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

That’s why I’ve come to treasure works of art, regardless of their ethical or philosophical point of view, that seem like the product of earned experience. I’m aware, obviously, that I may just be responding to a particularly convincing act of sleight of hand, but it doesn’t feel that way: there’s something in really great works of art or literature that takes us by the hand to show us that we’re in the presence of a genuinely alert intelligence. That’s true of books as different as The Magic Mountain and Catch-22, or movies with as little in common as Last Tango in Paris and My Neighbor Totoro. Sometimes a really honest exploration of the world can end up in a place of despair, but it’s easy to tell the difference between a work of art that ends up in the darkness because it has no other choice, like Caché, and one that takes it as a fashionable starting point, like Fight Club. And I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it, even if it ends up staking out the position, which may not be wrong, that existence is fundamentally meaningless. But such works are all the more precious, at least when it comes to getting through this life in one piece, when they express a basically optimistic view of the world.

Take, for instance, A Canterbury Tale. The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are wonderful for a lot of reasons—their wit, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their enormous visual energy—but what I’ve come to value in them most is their air of a wisdom that isn’t confined to the movie studio. Powell and Pressburger lived crowded, eventful lives, and their films are crammed with tiny moments of anecdote and observation, side by side with spectacular artifice, that speak to deep experience. When necessary, they don’t shy away from darkness or tragedy: The Red Shoes ends the way it does for a reason. Throughout it all, though, they remain sympathetic, humane, and attuned to a vision of what makes life worth living. A Canterbury Tale is both their gentlest and most radical work, a leisurely, nearly plotless slice of life that remains endlessly watchable because it’s so intensely observed. It was shot during World War II, which affects the lives of all the characters involved, and although it was clearly designed as a boost to morale, it winds up being much more. It’s propaganda, if you like, for the values of humor, simplicity, and forgiveness, and it ends so happily that I can’t help hoping that it’s true. But I wouldn’t believe in it at all if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t given me good reason to trust them in the first place.

Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on October 13, 2011.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two books, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)

What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
  3. Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  6. “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
  9. Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
  10. As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
  11. The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
  12. “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
  13. The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
  14. “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
  15. Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
  16. He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
  17. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
  18. “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
  19. His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
  20. “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
  21. “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
  22. “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
  23. As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
  24. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)

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November 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

Joseph Heller on the process of imagination

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I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination…

I have to be alone. A bus is good. Or walking the dog. Brushing my teeth is marvelous—it was especially so for Catch-22. Often when I am very tired, just before going to bed, while washing my face and brushing my teeth, my mind gets very clear…and produces a line for the next day’s work, or some idea way ahead.

Joseph Heller, to The Paris Review

(Note: Today is my final panel at Chicon 7: “Stalking the Elusive Story Idea,” at 3:00 pm, also featuring Vylar Kaftan, Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. I’ll also be at the Hugo Awards!)

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

A year’s worth of reading

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These days, I’m fortunate enough to have more work than I can handle, which also means that I no longer have much time to read for my own pleasure. The past year, in particular, was all business: I had just over nine months to take City of Exiles from conception to final draft, along with a number of other projects, which meant that nearly all my free time was devoted to either writing or research. All the same, I managed to make time to read a number of books that didn’t have anything to do with my work, either in my spare moments, on vacation, or in parallel with writing the novel itself. (Like many writers, I like to read a few pages of an author I admire before starting work for the day, which means that I tend to read books in piecemeal over the course of many weeks or months.) And while I doubt I’ll ever return to being the sort of omnivorous reader I was growing up, it’s still important to me to read as much as possible, both for professional reasons and for the sake of my own sanity.

Much of this year was spent catching up on books that I’d been meaning to read for a long time. The best book I read this year, by far, was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which seems likely to stand as one of my ten favorite novels, followed close behind by Catch-22, which really does deserve its reputation as the most inventive comic novel of the twentieth century. Turning to slightly more recent books, I was able to catch up on such disparate works as The English Patient, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler’s Wife, all of which I admired. Of these, the two that retain the strongest hold on my imagination are John Crowley’s Little, Big, despite my mixed feelings on reading it for the first time, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which strikes me as one of the most perfect of all recent novels. More disappointing were London Fields, Updike’s Terrorist, and, somewhat to my surprise, A Confederacy of Dunces, which I found clumsy and only intermittently engaging, despite its reputation as a classic.

Of books published in the last few years, my reading consisted mostly of nonfiction, despite my nagging resolve to read more contemporary novels. I greatly enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is a model of both popular science and investigative journalism. Like everybody else, I bought and read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, which is short on analysis but long on fascination—more a gold mine of material than a real portrait, but still an essential document. I read The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker partly as background material for my novel, but was ultimately won over by Baker’s genuine wit and candor—it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. And although The Possessed by Elif Batuman was a little thin, like a selection of essays in search of a theme, it made me curious to see what she’ll do next, given a more substantial project.

As for the coming year, as before, I expect that most of my time will be spent on background reading and research. Still, I have a few other authors I’ve been meaning to try. I’m going to read DeLillo for the first time, probably starting with Underworld, and then the later Philip Roth, beginning with American Pastoral. If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll tackle Faulkner, Morrison, and Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual as well. Above all else, I’m going to make a concerted effort to read more contemporary fiction. A glance at the bookshelves in the next room—the property of my wife, who is a much better reader than I am—reveals such titles as A Visit From the Goon Squad, Swamplandia!, and The Magicians, all of which have been beckoning to me for some time now. These days, of course, even my leisure reading has something mercenary about it, as I look for tricks and techniques to borrow or steal. As the year goes on, then, I hope to have a chance to talk more about these books, and if all goes well, I’ll have a few useful things to share, too.

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