Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Wood

The electric dream

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There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

Quote of the Day

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One London lunchtime many years ago, the late poet and editor Ian Hamilton was sitting at his usual table in a Soho pub called the Pillars of Hercules…A pale, haggard poet entered, and Hamilton offered him a chair and a glass of something. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” said the weakened poet. “I must give it up. It’s doing terrible things to me. It’s not even giving me any pleasure any longer.” But Hamilton, narrowing his eyes, responded to this feebleness in a tone of weary stoicism and said in a quiet, hard voice: “Well, none of us likes it.”

James Wood, The Irresponsible Self

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

An awkward utilitarianism

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Two decades ago, the critic James Wood published a scathing review in The New Republic of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow. Wood acknowledged that the book was “very diligent,” but he found that it suffered from at least two fatal flaws. The first was that it was insufficiently reverent toward the novelist whom Wood considered “the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century,” a shortcoming that he framed in amusingly petty terms: “[Atlas] writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize.” And a page or so later: “Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness.” His second objection was that Atlas had paid undue attention to the unpleasant details of Bellow’s personal life. After quoting from a speech that Bellow once gave at his birthplace—“We are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom”—Wood made an extraordinary argument:

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

It’s fair to say that the final sentence—which could be applied equally well to, say, James Levine or Roman Polanski—probably wouldn’t fly today. But it’s worth looking at some of the “sins” that caused Wood to recoil so strongly. He doesn’t cite any specific passage from Atlas’s biography, but he must have been thinking of moments like this, which concerns Bellow and his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov:

On Labor Day, Bellow came to pick up [his son Adam], but Sondra wouldn’t let him go. Bellow alleged that she tore his clothes and “bruised” him. “He beat me up,” Sondra countered, claiming she was “bedridden for a week. Did I give him a slap? I did. But he retaliated violently—more than once.”

This doesn’t make for pleasant reading, regardless of your feelings toward Bellow himself. Just two years ago, however, the scholar Zachary Leader published the first bulky volume of The Life of Saul Bellow, a massive undertaking that was widely seen as a respectful corrective to Atlas’s work. (The second half, which covers the last four decades of Bellow’s life, is due later this year.) In the course of his research, Leader was allowed to read an unpublished memoir by Tschacbasov, in which she gives a graphically detailed version of the same incident: “He was spoiling for it, I could see his tense lip and twitch that always telegraphed a simmering rage…I slapped him and he grabbed me by the ponytail and swung me around punching me with his other hand. I was bruised for a week and took out a restraining order.” And in a letter that Tschacbasov wrote to her lawyer shortly afterward, she describes her injuries as “severe bone bruises behind one ear, cuts on my left temple and left eyelid, and a bad bruise on my left breast. My scalp is a mess of lumps and bruises.”

As Principal Skinner once said to Superintendent Chalmers: “Oh. That’s much worse.” And remember, this is from the biography that was supposed to rehabilitate Bellow’s reputation. (It also includes an account of an incident of which Tschacbasov wrote to Bellow: “As you know, you dragged me from the car by my hair across the lawn, kicked me and whipped me with your cap.”) Leader spends much of his discussion of this episode parsing whether Tschacbasov’s slap—which she didn’t mention to her lawyer—could be “mistaken for an attack,” and he concludes: “Both parties were shading the truth.” He also apologetically explains that he’s only bringing up these accusations at all “because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog.” In the finished novel, which is clearly based on the end of Bellow’s marriage, Herzog merely fantasizes about beating up his wife Madeleine, who is leaving him for another man:

Herzog…pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head.

“In early versions of the novel, Herzog uses physical force on Madeleine,” Leader writes, referring us in a short footnote to another study of the most autobiographical of American novelists—and then he just moves on. As far as I can tell, none of the reviews of Leader’s biography, and there were a lot, dealt with this material at any length. Of course, that was two years ago, and if we haven’t gotten around to Bellow yet, like André Gide, it’s because it hasn’t occurred to us. He can get in line. Which is a form of utilitarianism in itself.

And I’d like to think that James Wood might have second thoughts now about his “awkward but undeniable utilitarianism,” or at least about its undeniability. Learning to deny it is largely what the events of the last six months have been about, and it matters what our most prominent literary critic thinks about our greatest novelist, even—or especially—if their relationship was even closer than they let on. In The Shadow in Garden, James Atlas’s book on the art of biography, he refers to Wood as one of Bellow’s three “nonconsanguineous” sons, and he notes of the critic’s negative review of a memoir by the novelist’s actual son Greg Bellow:

At least Wood was upfront about his partisanship: he mentioned that he had co-taught a course with Bellow at Boston University. And if you looked back at a tribute in The New Republic Wood had written eight years earlier, just after Bellow’s death, it emerged that they had been close friends: their daughters had played together; Wood and Bellow had played piano (Wood) and recorder (Bellow) duets. And they grew still closer toward the end: “In the final year of Bellow’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him.”

It’s hard for anyone to acknowledge the worst about a man whom he loved—but it’s equally true that if our current moment can’t force James Wood to rethink Saul Bellow, then it might not be worth as much as we hope. It can’t just be an excuse to find more reasons to hate Brett Ratner. We have to look closely at the men who might be our fathers. It’s worth noting that along with Wood, Atlas lists two other men as Bellow’s three surrogate sons. One was Martin Amis. The other was Leon Wieseltier, Wood’s editor at The New Republic, who was accused last year of decades of sexual harassment, and who also wrote admiringly after Bellow’s death: “I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons.”

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Yesterday, while writing about the pitfalls of quotation in book reviews, I mentioned the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris. When I went back to look up the lines I wanted to quote, I found myself reading the whole thing over again, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great critical slams of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this kind of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing a few hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewers them systematically. He comes at the novel, significantly, from a position of real respect: Amis calls himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from these previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Reading the review again, I realized that it falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that begins with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned to them in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it really is one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing we have, and I revisit it every couple of years. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of his target’s puffier critical encomiums: “The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (In response, Twain proposes the following rule: “That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, and it made me reflect on the bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory long after the book in question has been forgotten? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a potential competitor, which is a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace wrote on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, like a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

The act of noticing

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Jonathan Franzen

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter at the park, I found myself oddly fascinated by the sight of a landscaping crew that was taking down a tree across the street. It’s the kind of scene you encounter on a regular basis in suburbia, but I wound up watching with unusual attention, mostly because I didn’t have much else to do. (I wasn’t alone, either. Any kind of construction work amounts to the greatest show on earth for toddlers, and there ended up being a line of tiny spectators peering through the fence.) Maybe because I’ve been in a novelistic state of mind recently, I focused on details that I’d never noticed before. There’s the way a severed tree limb dangles from the end of the crane almost exactly like a hanged man, as Eco describes it in Foucault’s Pendulum, with its heavy base tracing a second, smaller circle in the air. I noted how a chainsaw in action sprays a fan of fine particles behind it, like a peacock’s tail. And when the woodchipper shoots chips into the back of the truck, a cloud of light golden dust forms above the container, like the soul of the tree ascending.

As I watched, I had the inevitable thought: I should put this into a story. Unfortunately, nothing I’m writing at the moment includes a landscaping scene, and the easiest way to incorporate it would be through some kind of elaborate metaphor, as we often see, at its finest, in Proust. (“As he listened to her words, he found himself reminded of a landscaping crew he had once seen…”) But it made me reflect both on the act of noticing and on the role it plays, or doesn’t, in my own fiction. Most of the time, when I’m writing a story, I’m following the dictates of a carefully constructed plot, and I’ll find myself dealing with a building or a city scene that has imposed itself by necessity on the action: my characters end up at a hospital or a police station, and I strain to find a way to evoke it in a few economical lines that haven’t been written a million times before. Occasionally, this strikes me as a backward way of working. It would be better, it seems, to build the story around locations and situations that I already know I can describe—or which caught my attention in the way that landscaping crew did—rather than scrambling to push out something original under pressure.

Joseph O'Neill

In fact, that’s the way a lot of novelists work, particularly on the literary end. One of the striking trends in contemporary fiction is how so much of it doubles as reportage, with miniature New Yorker pieces buried like bonbons within the larger story. This isn’t exactly new: writers from Nabokov to Updike have filled their novels with set pieces that serve, in James Wood’s memorable phrase, as “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” What sets more recent novels apart is how undigested some of it seems. At times, you can feel the narrative pausing for a page or two as the writer—invariably a talented one, or else these sections wouldn’t survive the editorial process—serves up a chunk of journalistic observation. As Norman Mailer writes, rather unkindly, of Jonathan Franzen:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

This isn’t entirely fair to Franzen, a superb noticer who creates vivid characters even as he auditions for our admiration. But I thought of this again after finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s a novel I’d wanted to read for years, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, while remaining conscious of its constant shifts into what amounts to nonfiction: beautifully written and reported essays on New York, London, the Hague, India, cricket, and just about everything else. It’s a gorgeous book, but it ends up feeling more like a collection of lovingly burnished parts than a cohesive whole, and its acts of noticing occasionally interfere with its ability to invent real interactions for its characters. It was Updike himself, I think, who warned writers against mining their journals for material, and you can see why: it encourages a sort of novelistic bricolage rather than an organic discovery of the action, and the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. And there’s more than one way of telling a story. As I was studying the landscaping crew at the park, my daughter was engaged in a narrative of her own: she ran into her friend Elise, played on the seesaw, and then had to leave abruptly for a diaper change. Or, as Beatrix put it, when I asked about her day: “Park. Elyse. Say hi. Seesaw. Poop. Go home.” And I don’t think I can do better than that.

Capturing The Goldfinch

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Donna Tartt

Last week, I finally finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, something like six months after I first picked it up. This protracted reading period wasn’t entirely the book’s fault: I’ve been so preoccupied by work and family, and plain exhausted at night, that I’ve rarely had a chance to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. And there’s no question that a page or two of The Goldfinch goes down as smooth and easy as a vanilla milkshake. After a hundred more, though, you find yourself in much the same place as you started, and as painless as it is, you start to wonder if it’s all really worth it. Its narrator, Theo Decker, may be the most passive protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream novel, and for grindingly long stretches, the novel traps you in the same kind of stasis. Over the course of more than seven hundred pages, Theo undertakes maybe three meaningful actions, and he spends the rest of the book in a riot of noticing, unspooling dense paragraphs of details and quirks and brand names. And it’s all true to his character. After surviving a bombing in New York that claimed his mother’s life, Theo spends the next decade in a state of paranoid numbness, a condition that would result in exactly the book we have here.

That doesn’t sound like a potential bestseller, but The Goldfinch has been a true phenomenon, moving over a million copies in hardcover on its way to a Pulitzer Prize. Part of its success has to do with how it keeps the pages turning, even through huge chunks of nonaction, and this is all to Tartt’s credit—to a point. Yet there’s no avoiding a sense that twenty or even fifty pages at a time could be lifted out of the book’s middle sections without anyone noticing. If it were a deliberate attempt to replicate Theo’s shellshocked brain, it would be a considerable literary achievement, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the causal arrow ran in the opposite direction. If Theo comes off as passive, it’s because the book around him fails to find a convincing shape for itself, not the other way around. Tartt is a writer of huge merits: when she’s on fire, as during the lengthy section in Las Vegas, she can deliver set pieces that rank with the best that contemporary fiction has to offer. And her book doesn’t lack for eventfulness. But the incidents don’t build so much as accumulate, like Tartt’s fat descriptive paragraphs, and I have a feeling that a lot of readers emerge in agreement with what Samuel Johnson said about Milton: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take it up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Which is the real reason it took me six months to read, when I might have polished off a more focused—or shorter—version of the same story over a long weekend. But I don’t mean to echo those critics, like James Wood of The New Yorker or Francine Prose of The New York Review of Books, who see the success of The Goldfinch as a symptom of a wider decline in literary standards. They seem to regret that Tartt didn’t write a different novel entirely, but as today’s quote from Christian Friedrich Hebbel reminds us, that’s a pernicious form of criticism. A novel, like a poem, deserves to be judged on the author’s intentions. (Wood is accurate, though, when he points out that Tartt’s American characters “move through a world of cozy Britishisms, like ‘they tucked into their food,’ ‘you look knackered,’ ‘crikey,’ ‘skive off,’ and ‘gobsmacked.'” It reminds me of what Lost in Space actor Jonathan Harris was reported to say when asked if he was British: “Oh no, my dear, just affected.”) But I’m not sure Tartt succeeds at the kind of novel she evidently wanted to write. I take a lot of interest in the intersection between literary and mainstream fiction: it’s where I see myself, even if my published novels skew more to the genre side. And I’d love to see Tartt pull it off, as she did, more or less, with The Secret History. But as eventful as The Goldfinch is, Tartt never convinces me that she knows how to construct a plot that would justify the investment of time it demands. And that’s a shame.

There’s a great deal of craft, obviously, involved in writing a huge, mostly readable novel through the eyes of a character who abdicates all responsibility for his fate, and who plays a minimal part in his own story’s resolution. Tartt refined the manuscript for eleven years, and she apparently wrote and discarded entire sections that required months of work. This may be part of the reason why The Goldfinch sometimes reads like a novel with its focus on all the wrong places: not just on Theo, who is the least compelling character in sight, but on the parts of his life it chooses to dramatize. (There’s a gutsy jump in time, effective in itself, that unfortunately skips over the single most interesting thing Theo ever does: he decides to become a con artist, which must have required considerable skill and ingenuity, but everything he attempts in that line is kept offstage, and instead, we’re treated to one chapter after another of Theo as a useless sad sack.) Tartt’s effort and accomplishment show on every page, but I can’t shake a nagging sense that this is the kind of book that Stephen King, one of the novel’s fans, could have cranked out in a year or so with less fuss. The result looks a lot like the kind of novel that many readers dream of finding, a great read of real literary heft, and it poses convincingly as one from sentence to sentence. But we can do better, and so can Tartt. A Pulitzer and a million copies sold aren’t likely to convince her of this—but I hope she takes another crack at it, and sooner than ten years from now.

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