I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges

Category: Essay

The greatest American novel, according to some experts

I’ve always been fascinated by books that define themselves as distinctly American: American Pastoral, American Psycho, etc., to say nothing of the many books that encapsulate uniquely American events or characters but that lack the titular adjective — I’m thinking of many of Steinbeck’s works, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Winter of our Discontent. What is it that makes America so tremendously … American? It is many things, I suppose, and every expert would give a slightly different take on the matter, though you’ll often hear race relations or diversity as primary elements.

I think the nine English scholars (why only nine, I wonder?) consulted by The Millions do a good job identifying some of the many great American novels. Many of them cite a novel’s treatment of race relations as the reason they picked it, and I think that it’s particularly a salient issue in light of the recent Zimmerman trial. I have read some of these novels and should very much like to read the rest, except, maybe, the Henry James novel, The Ambassadors. Good grief, he’s a great one to study in a classroom setting, but I have a feeling that would be a bit of a slog. Can’t knock it till I’ve tried it, I suppose. Take a look and see what you think.


On breakfast, the sexiest meal of the day

I could eat breakfast all day. Give me oatmeal with milk and honey, pancakes with maple syrup, sausage and scrambled eggs with goat cheese, cherry scones with homemade whipped cream. Lots of coffee, black. One of my favorite breakfasts, though, is simply leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Israeli couscous with dried fruit mixed with honey yogurt. Roasted acorn squash topped with butter and brown sugar. Shredded chicken and black beans low-simmered for hours in salsa, wrapped up in a tortilla with sour cream and avocado.

In this way, I buck the trend described by Seb Emina in this piece in The Guardian about breakfast, “the sexiest meal of the day,” as Anne Sexton called it in “Angels of the Love Affair.”

Breakfast is the most habitual meal of the day, a routine so key to inner wellbeing that Hunter S Thompson called it a ‘psychic anchor’, drawing, uncharacteristically, on an image of weighty predictability. If somebody is having toast with marmalade this morning (or, in the case of Thompson, ‘four bloody marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half pound of either sausage, bacon or corned-beef hash with diced chillis’ plus quite a few other things), it is a safe guess that they had it yesterday and that they will have it tomorrow as well.

I do agree, however, that a description of a character’s breakfast is designed by the author to tell us something about the character, just as every description of what the character does or says or wears or thinks should do. After reading Emina’s piece earlier, I couldn’t help but take special notice of the breakfast partaken by Diamantis in Jean-Claude Izzo’s The Lost Sailors, which I have just picked up today (nothing but three cups of black coffee). I love the agglomeration of breakfasts in this article. In fact, I’d love to see a whole cookbook of breakfasts from works of literature. Someone get on that.

Audio books for the win

In November, I flew home to visit family. I bought a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table to read on the trip. I have yet to finish it. I love Ondaatje’s other works like The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter, and Divisadero. Though I certainly haven’t had the focus lately to give it its fair due, The Cat’s Table seems to lack some of the poetry of Ondaatje’s other books that I’ve read. I’ll give you a full update when I’ve finished it.

The good news is that I took a six-hour round trip this past weekend, during which time I was able to listen to David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, which I had never read. Shocking, I know. I enjoyed it very much, although “Big Red Son,” Wallace’s collaborative piece covering an adult video industry awards show, went on a bit long for me, psychically speaking; one can take only so much of the vulgar and tawdry, or at least I can (coincidentally, Wallace mentions in the essay that one of the several dictionary definitions of vulgar is simply commonplace or ordinary, whereas I typically use it synonymously with crude; however, both meanings are fairly representative of the porn industry these days). I find it amusing that AVN, the sponsor of the awards show in question, took umbrage at the way they were portrayed in the essay and wrote a number of rather unhappy letters in response.

“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (which you can listen to here) was far and away my favorite of the four pieces. It concerns Wallace’s experience of the September 11 terrorist attack, which he refers to as “the horror.” I found the last line of the piece particularly moving, although I won’t quote it for you here out of context: it carries the most weight when balanced atop the rest of the essay.

Some thoughts on life of late

Hello, all. I’m happy to report that I’m very nearly at my goal of dropping 50 lbs this year! My two littles are by turns wonderful and hair-wrenching; I spend most of the day pulling Segundo down from the staircase and the other half of the day fishing toys and wads of paper out of the toilet. All that to say, I hope you’ll excuse me for being less than loquacious of late. I’ve been writing a good bit of material for my church, at least. Here’s an essay I wrote recently after hearing some sermons by Joe Thorn.

The weather has changed. I adore the autumn season, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Here are two poems for you about autumn.


Autumn Movement

by Carl Sandburg

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.


by Mary Hamrick

Autumn is like an old book:
Marred spines turn mean yellow,
staples rust red-orange.

Every stained page is stressed
by a splat of color. Rough-red,
like an old tavern,

we become hungry birds
and prepare for fall.
Shape and shadow are candied citron

as lanterns turn bitter yellow. Autumn
is a red fox, a goblet filled with dark wine,
a hot chilli pepper with smoky eyes.

Pressed leaves take in the colors
of seafood paella and saffron; these leaves
are like death, climaxing with a smile.

Autumn: Her dress is a net of mussels;
dark shelled, it covers up
summer’s weatherbeaten body.

So pull out your boots
and stand on an aged, wood floor
like an evergreen.

An intermezzo

Before I jump into the novels I mentioned in my last post, I have two things to mention. Firstly, I have a short nonfiction piece up at Liturgial Credo, where I also contribute my talents, such as they are, as fiction editor. Check it out.

Secondly, I just finished Nabokov’s Pnin, and I don’t get it! Can somebody help me out here? It seems to relate a string of events that happen to dear Professor Pnin, and then he drives off into the sunset. But I’m left wondering where the story was. David Lodge writes in The Guardian that “the stories describe a continuous narrative arc, poignantly tracing Pnin’s quest, which is ultimately frustrated, to find a home, or to make himself ‘at home’ in alien Waindell,” but I didn’t get a very strong sense of quest. (Although now, the word quest draws a strong association in my mind between Pnin and Don Quixote.) Everyone seems to agree that it’s a comedy, but I found it only very mildly so. I’m sure I just didn’t get the jokes.

Lodge continues: “Novel of character, roman à clef, campus novel, epiphanic short story, postmodernist metafiction – Pnin contains elements of all these fictional subgenres, but ultimately it is sui generis, uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them.” Perhaps this is the cause of my consternation: I can’t quite pin down what this book is supposed to be because it’s so many things at once.

Everest vs Balbec

Mark O’Connell lays forth an interesting theory on reading long or “difficult” novels, over at The Millions. He posits that reading such books is not unlike being kidnapped by their authors, with whom we come to sympathize over the course of the journey. He writes:

Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.) And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. …

[A long and difficult] book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back.

I buy his premise that part of our enthusiasm over long and difficult books comes not from their inherent literary quality but from our satisfaction at having endured and finished. It does feel good. But I think it’s asking too much to simply lump “long and difficult books” together, as though Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow will strike everyone the same way (I, for one, read Moby-Dick twice, every word of it, and adored it, though not as much, or perhaps just differently, than I cherished Infinite Jest — and as for the muddle that is Gravity’s Rainbow, I never finished it nor do I have any immediate plans to do so). For some readers, the length of the text may have nothing to do with its readability, and you’d be hard put to quantify what makes a book “difficult.”

For example, Matthew Stadler over at The Stranger has a love affair with Remembrance of Things Past that is about as far removed from Everest — or from Stockholm, for that matter — as possible. He says:

I don’t mean that I am an especially skilled or hardworking reader; I am not. I am in fact poorly prepared, self-indulgent, and lazy. Rather, to fall into Proust’s work is a trackless, opiated pleasure — a surrender — which only becomes “difficult” when approached as a kind of self-improving challenge for the intellectual athlete. Reading is too often regarded as a hardship to be endured for the rewards that attend any hard work — betterment, learning, whatever. The difficulty posed is usually put as the challenge of “getting through” a book. …

But what if reading involves a dissipation into languor and ease, rather than any kind of mounted effort toward victory? What if the book is our final and only destination, a place we live in rather than “get through”? To complain that a book is “difficult” is like complaining that mornings are difficult. One cannot simply strike them from the day or refigure them as a kind of therapeutic exercise (though, tellingly, this is what many of us do with that part of the day, or those particular friends, or that season of life that we term “difficult”; rather than indulge in the fine texture of the time we spend there, we try and “work through it” — find the lessons such hardships teach us).

I can also relate to Stadler’s philosophy, particularly when it comes to Proust, whose work can seem tedious to navigate and has, after all, taken me years with little progress to show, in part because its winding sentences take me so long to parse and in part because I keep taking breaks from it to read other books; but each time I return to it, I immediately fall into its easy, languid embrace. Remembrance of Things Past always makes me feel a little sleepy, or like I’m sitting in a warm patch of sunshine on a long, lazy summer day. It’s a strange and pleasant sort of hypnosis. I honestly wouldn’t call it difficult. Just very, very long.

So I’m not picking a camp. I’m just going to keep on doing whatever it is that I’ve been doing — scaling mountains or lazing in the sun, however the mood strikes me.

Rules for writing

Last year, The Guardian asked several writers for their personal lists of rules for writing.  Franzen’s is full of wisdom.  He says things like:  “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. [True!]  Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.  You have to love before you can be relentless.”

Geoff Dyer says, hilariously, “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.”

Margaret Atwood is supremely practical: “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.  If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.  Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.”

I don’t at all agree with Esther Freud’s advice to “cut out the metaphors and similes.”  When done well, they breathe life into otherwise pedestrian prose (I’m looking at you, Jhumpa Lahiri).

Colm Tóibín gets very specific with some of his suggestions: “Work in the morning, a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon and then watch the six o’clock news and then go back to work until bed-time. Before bed, listen to Schubert, preferably some songs. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Persona or Autumn Sonata. No going to London.  No going anywhere else either.”

Al Kennedy’s is my favorite list so I’m reproducing it in its entirety:

1 Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

2 Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.

3 Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.

4 Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.

5 Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.

6 Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

7 Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

8 Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

9 Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.

10 Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

Steve Almond on “Editors, Ambition, and Angry Dependence”

On July 30 of this year, Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, took his own life.  The media cast his boss, Ted Genoways, as a bad guy and a bully, and the whole affair was all very sad.  Steve Almond wrote a beautiful meditation, in 33 parts, on Morrissey, the industry, literature, and our responsibility as members of humanity.  You should read it.  You’ll like it.

Turning the tables on B.R. Myers

I’ve invoked B.R. Myers’ criticism of contemporary American literature several times on this little weblog, but not everyone finds his crotchetiness so charming.  In fact, Garth Risk Hallberg over at The Millions makes some really great points about Myers’ particular brand of criticism, using Myers’ unfavorable review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as a prime example, stating that “what Myers takes to be the philistinism of contemporary literature is an enormous reflection of his own.”  I appreciate that Hallberg doesn’t just grumble because he disagrees with Myers’ reading, but he seems to accurately put his finger on the source of the problem.  He says:

Of course, Myers’ real target isn’t Jonathan Franzen, or even “the modern literary bestseller,” so much as it is “our age, the Age of Unseriousness.” … Moreover, Myers has, symptomatically, mistaken a signifier for the thing it signifies. The underlying cause of the contemporary ills he keeps alluding to is not the coarseness of our language, but our narcissism, whose most “salient” form (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is a seen-it-all knowingness that inflates the observer at the expense of the thing observed. In this sense, B.R. Myers couldn’t be more of-the-moment. It’s no wonder he’s baffled by those turns of phrase by which the novelist seeks to disappear into his characters.

It’s a fascinating essay — part book review, part literary theory, part cultural expression.  Highly recommended.

And if you’ve got the time, you might as well check out the much shorter but no less insightful essay “Does Franzen’s Freedom Suck?” by Eric Herschthal in The Jewish Week.

Bottom line: Franzen comes out on top.

De gustibus non est disputandum

I got all excited to read this article, which set itself up to mock a great deal of contemporary literary darlings, a la B.R. Myers.  But the article itself falls quite flat — or rather, it preens itself extravagantly and obnoxiously without really making any salient points.  It’s a tirade by one Evert Cilliers about the state of contemporary art — a word that he misuses tiresomely — which is an idea that I can get behind to some degree — until he claims that the only books from the past 20 years he’s found worth reading are Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  Seriously?  Seriously?

The only redeeming qualities of the article are that it appears Cilliers has learned his lesson, judging by his responses to some of the readers’ comments below the article, and some of his readers give some really great-sounding suggestions of books and music for poor Cilliers to check out.