Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tom Wolfe

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

American Stories #1: The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today.

The opening sentence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”—is my favorite first line of any novel, and I’ve written about it here before. Yet when you look more closely at the paragraph in which it appears, you find that what Tom Wolfe praised as the “momentum” of Cain’s style is carrying you past some significant material. Here’s how it reads in full:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Cain described his narrator, Frank, as “a hobo with good grammar,” but he’s also a white man who passes easily back and forth across the border between Mexico and southern California. When he meets Cora, the wife of the doomed gas station owner Nick Papadakis, he drops a casual reference to “you people,” prompting her to shoot back: “You think I’m Mex…Well, get this. I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are.” But Frank sees to the bottom of her indignation at once: “It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.”

Yet it’s Nick Papadakis, whom Frank always calls “the Greek,” who somehow emerges as the book’s most memorable creation—he may be the most vivid murder victim in all of crime fiction—and Cain’s ability to make him real while channeling everything that we know about him through the narrator’s contempt is an act of immense technical skill. Nick is also the figure in whom the story’s secret theme comes most clearly into view. In order to be alone with Cora, Frank tricks Nick into going into town to buy a new neon sign, and he comes back with a resplendent declaration of love for his adoptive land: “It had a Greek flag and an American flag, and a hand shaking hands…It was all in red, white and blue.” Later, after Nick has unknowingly survived a botched attempt on his life, he proudly shows Frank his scrapbook: “He had inked in the curlicues, and then colored it with red, white and blue. Over the naturalization certificate, he had a couple of American flags, and an eagle.” It isn’t the murderous couple’s shared lust, but Cora’s resentment toward her immigrant husband, that really drives the story, and it spills out in her bitter words to Frank: “Do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parts printed on the back…while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts?” It still rings uncomfortably true today, and it echoed in the imagination of Cain’s most unlikely imitator. As Alice Kaplan writes in Looking for The Stranger:

When [Albert] Camus said The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired The Stranger, he didn’t go into detail. It is easy to imagine that when he observed the effect Cain got by using “the Greek” in place of a proper name, he realized he could create a similar effect by calling the murder victim in his own novel “the Arab.”

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.

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

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