Wednesday, April 27, 2011

REALITY HUNGER by David Shields

To paraphrase Woody Allen: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach (or write), teach writing. David Shields teaches writing--or tries to--somewhere near the western edge of the Great Flyover, and Reality Hunger is this university professor's not-exactly-angry manifesto. (Because we all know the next revolution will be led by English professors, right?) Shields's manifesto-as-mixtape consists of 618 Wittgensteinianly numbered aphorisms, some as brief as a single line and most, mercifully, extracted from the works of writers much better than the credited 'author.' Shields's own contributions are no better than the bland and boring book in which he attempted to put the ideas manifested here into academic 'praxis,' The Thing About Living Is That Someday You'll Read A Book As Boring As This And Wish You Were Dead (as it should've been titled). The best stuff here--and there is a surprising amount of thought-provoking wisdom stuck between the whining and banalities--is without exception stolen from writers like W. G. Sebald, William H. Gass, Nietzsche, Emerson--in short, writers who drink Shields's milkshake and beat him senseless with a bowling pin. Shields's own 'aphorisms' might have been condensed into two or three lines:

1.I am lazy, hear me whine.

2.The contemporary literary novel is in a state of formulaic exhaustion, and if any good ones exist I'm too lazy to read them.

3.What is to be done? Hybridize novel and memoir into a fragmented form of novella length.

The author's intellectual laziness and proud unoriginality (the academic's version of the lowbrow's proud ignorance) are on display even in the work's central thesis. Any intelligent reader can see that what publishers call 'literary fiction' has hardened into a genre (I attempt to outline the rules of this genre in my post on Jennifer Egan's Look At Me, below), so this Newtonian revelation deserves a big fat "Duh!" Nor is Shields's favorite answer to the current impasse in any way original: in essence he suggests an Americanized version of European Late Modernism (Robbe-Grillet, Barthes, Sebald), a nonsolution that would set Emerson spinning in his echt-Yankee grave. (One might also note that the very project of manifesto-writing is an unoriginal exercise in Modernist nostalgia, evincing a conservative, traditionalist impulse to return to a time when 'the novel' supposedly mattered more than it does today.)

Shields's prescription for the "next big literary thing" is so mild, so tame, so (say it!) academic as to be essentially worthless. We don't need more vapid novelistic memoirs or memoiristic novels or pale imitations of Sebald. No, the only thing that will save American literary fiction today is a rediscovery of the wild energy that has always been the best and strongest and strangest part of American literature. The next American novelists should seek to be the children of Melville and Faulkner, of Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, of Ralph Emerson and William Gass, of Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg, of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, of Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth, of Robert Stone and Anne Sexton. The last thing American literature needs is a generation of David Shields's vapid toadies telling us what to think.

Reality Hunger is just barely worth reading--for the parts that aren't written by Shields--and worth arguing with, but any reader will find much more that is worthwhile in Shields's source materials. Before wasting time with David Shields, spend it wisely with the essays of Emerson (some of the greatest prose ever written by an American), the essays of William Gass (especially those in Fiction and the Figures of Life, The World Within the Word and Finding A Form), and Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil. With that toolkit, you'll be able to compose a much better manifesto than the originality-starved Reality Hunger.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM by David Foster Wallace

In a truly creepy coincidence that every reader today will be unable to ignore, David Foster Wallace's 1987 novel The Broom of the System is brought to its pseudo-apocalyptic climax on--of all the 365 days DFW might have chosen--the eleventh of September.

Of course, it's September 11, 1990, in the near-future of the novel's few early readers. But still... tres creepy.

The first hundred pages of The Broom of the System are pretty good, the next two hundred somewhat less so, and the last 167 a major league yawnfest. There are some good scenes throughout, but too many of them are too long, extending several pages past the limit of readerly patience. Among the good stuff, I was especially impressed by the underutilized Norman Bombardini, a grotesquely obese Mr. Creosote-figure (see Monty Python's The Meaning of Life; see it immediately) who personifies the all-consuming gaping maw of corporate capitalism, the force that has transformed the book's Cleveland, Ohio, into a commercialized, corporatized toxic waste dump (Yes, DFW's first novel is set in Cleveland; it's the Not Really Great But Still Pretty Good Postmodern Cleveland Novel.) from which residents escape for weekends in the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D., bien sur), an artificial wasteland constructed in eastern Ohio at the behest of a maniacal 1970s governor. (DFW's satirical point is solid. Ohio was in fact ruled by a murderer in the '70s: Governor James Rhodes, the butcher of Kent State, who now, in an obscene irony that would've surprised Wallace not at all, has a community college in Lima, Ohio, named after him.) Bombardini is a wonderfully Swiftian invention, but although he haunts the entire novel, he only appears in one brief scene (probably the funniest scene in the book). (To further demonstrate the excellence of DFW's invention, we might note that Bombardini can also be interpreted as a satire of the dialectical movement of Hegel's Phenomenology; Broom of the System is, among other things, very much a philosophy major's book, a Wittgensteinian comedy [but not, alas, a very satisfying one].) Many other potentially interesting narrative strands are left deliberately loose and unexplored (Lenore's mother, her brother John), and overall the book has a decidedly claustrophobic feel. Its ambition is large, but its world is too small. It wants to be epic, a big, sprawling infinitely jesting thing, but it's trapped in a postmodern closet, doing time in the prison house of Mad Ludwig's language--confined to campus, one might say.

In Broom we can see Wallace feeling for his distinctive form but not quite finding it, not here, not yet. This isn't the book in which digressions become central and narrative marginal--that's the other, later, bigger, more famous book, the one a surprisingly large number of people--my own John Self included--actually have read, contrary to the uninformed assertions of all those reverse-elitist philistines who extrapolate from their own lack of experience to insist that no one really reads it. Infinite Jest is indeed being read, but it's not being read critically enough, with an eye to its weaknesses as well as its strengths. I have serious reservations about the book, but I think it's too good to be elevated into an object of cultic devotion. IJ--and everything else--must be read criticallyBroom of the System isn't--as I was saying before that digression into the other book--a completely deconstructed fiction in which digression becomes central and narrative arc marginal, and much of what doesn't work in Broom is narrative machinery, scenes that exist solely to move the story forward. When Wallace isn't digressing, he isn't at his best.

In any other year, The Broom of the System would probably have been the year's most auspicious literary debut, but 1987 also gave us William T. Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels, a staggeringly accomplished first novel that's better-written, more imaginative, more original, more reckless, and much, much wilder than Wallace's effort. Wallace readers who aren't yet Vollmann readers should check him out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Here's yet another piece of 'creative nonfiction' that promises much and delivers too little. This one should've been subtitled A Desultory Memoir of My Incredibly Boring Life, Plus a Lotta Stuff (But Nowhere Near Enough) About My Very Interesting Father, Plus Many Pages of Random Statistics I Found on Wikipedia... I don't think many readers are 'hungering' for the 'reality' Shields dishes out here. It's a bland and tasteless confection, a cake baked with sawdust. If mediocrity had an odor, it would smell like this book. Shields's prose is a slick, competent and utterly undistinguished upmarket journalese; he seems to think he's the new Montaigne, but he writes like a contributor to Vanity Fair. And this short but padded monument to his vanity is anything but fair. Time spent reading this book is time wasted, and since time is money (for the purposes of argument let's say time costs $20 per hour), I calculate that David Shields owes me $160. I don't expect a check.

I mourn the trees that died to produce this book.
I mourn the bugs that lived in the bark of the trees that died to produce this book.
I mourn the woodpecker that would have fed on the bugs that lived in the bark of the trees that died to produce this book.
I mourn the cat that would've eaten the woodpecker fattened by the bugs that lived in the bark of the trees that died to produce this book.
I mourn the hawk that would've eaten the cat that would've eaten the woodpecker fattened by the bugs that lived in the bark of the trees that died to produce this book...

You get the picture.

David Shields's work provides no compensation for the micro-havoc it has wreaked on some fragile ecosystem.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Petruchio as Troping Turd: A Scatological Exchange in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

KATHARINE: ... I knew you at the first
You were a movable.

PETRUCHIO:           Why, what's a movable?

KATHARINE: A joint stool.

             --William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (2.1; 196-7)

Here's my crappy interpretation of this rather curious exchange. On the surface of their first verbal slugfest, Katharine tropes Petruchio as a piece of court furniture, an inhuman object meant to be used by his betters, a ducal footstool. Her word 'movable' is from the French meuble, furniture, but it also signifies a bowel movement, a loose stool. This then becomes the joint stool (or 'join'd stool' in a variant reading), both a product of the woodworker's art and a turd with a turn in it. This surreal hinged turd might also be described as 'articulated' both in the sense of 'jointed' and in that of 'given clear and effective utterance.' The highly articulate Petruchio, then, becomes a jointed, movable piece of shit capable of clever and spontaneous linguistic tropes. And since the word trope is derived from the Greek word for 'turn,' we can clearly see that Katherine has within the space of two lines spoken figurative rings around Petruchio, troping him as a troping turd.

Note how different this Katherine is from the defeated speaker of the play's final scene, a misogynistic denouement that might be redeemed for comedy by a production that foregrounds the play's oddly broken 'frame' (a Brechtian production) or by an actress capable of playing the monologue with sly sarcasm. As written, the tamed Kate is a figure of near-tragic banality.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

LOOK AT ME by Jennifer Egan

Look At Me is a good, somewhat underrated American novel. Published in 2001, the same year as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, it deserved at least as much hype and praise as that good but decidedly overrated work. Like Franzen's novel, Egan's is an intelligent, efficient, highly competent example of contemporary American literary fiction. Also like The Corrections, it is disappointingly unoriginal. And pushing the comparison a bit further, we can say that the two novels are, in at least one respect, unoriginal in the same way. Both appear to have been constructed according to the standard recipe for contemporary upmarket literary fiction: Take one or more Joyce Carol Oates-style plots and season to taste with the satirical irony of Don DeLillo. The fact that much of today's most highly-regarded LitFic can be called 'Ironized Oates' (available next to Quaker Oats in the Barnes & Noble cereal aisle) indicates the extent to which this fiction has hardened into genre--a genre with rules almost as transparent as those of the mystery or romance genres. And what are these rules? With apologies to Wallace Stevens, here are a few Notes Toward a Less-Than-Supreme Literary Fiction:
  1. It must be 'realistic.'
  2. It must be contemporary in setting.
  3. It must concern itself with 'the matter of America.'
  4. It must be self-conscious (but not too self-conscious).
  5. It must be ironic (but not too ironic). [This might be called 'Booth's Law' in honor of the late Wayne Booth, American literature's premier irony cop.]
  6. It must criticize contemporary American life (but neither too much nor too blatantly).
  7. It must ultimately validate the middle-of-the-road liberalism that most American readers bring to it. (Reading, a potentially self-critical act, is thus reduced to an exercise in self-congratulation.)
  8. It must depict strategies for 'coping' with contemporary American life as rational and necessary.
  9. It must depict strategies of resistance to contemporary American life as naive and/or insane.
  10. It must bite the corporate hand that publishes it (but only with the foam rubber teeth of irony).
  11. It must contain within itself its own ironic self-criticism (thus short-circuiting anything Michiko Kakutani might say).
Those are the rules of LitFic Road, but this road, despite its trendy reputation, is looking very old today. It's paved with cobblestones, and its bed, 19th-century realism, is older than Edison. This fact points toward one of the major problems with Look At Me (a novel that adheres, more or less, to all the generic 'rules' listed above): this novel that is so au courant, that so knowingly deploys the techniques of postmodernism and so chillingly describes the world and people technology is producing even as we read, this ultramodern novel is, rather bizarrely, built according to blueprints borrowed from the Joyce Carol Oates Construction Company. Egan fails to invent a form equal to her subject, and thus she falls back on what the history of the novel has bequeathed to her: a plot dependent upon some truly unbelievable coincidences. To be fair, however, I probably shouldn't fault Egan for failing to invent a new form here. Formal invention is the most difficult thing a writer can do, and this was only her second novel. There is some very good stuff in Look At Me, enough to make it worth reading (I'm thinking of the face-cutting photo shoot, Charlotte Swenson's suicidal leap to her downstairs neighbor's balcony; the characterization of Edmund 'Moose' Metcalf, a character complex and interesting enough to have to have been the center of his own novel, like Kate Gompert in Infinite Jest), but not enough to lift it far above the pack. There's also another problem: Egan's prose is not too many cuts above the horrid novelese of her character Irene Maitlock. This is probably because Egan also writes in novelese, but hers is a more upper-class, country club dialect of the language--a distinction that suggests a largely unnoted (because invisible to bourgeois critics?) bourgeois bias in American literary fiction. It's getting late, so I'll wrap this post up with a bottom line: Look At Me is good, better in many ways than The Corrections, but it's not a great novel.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski

I'm not a member of the Cult of Hank, nor has Bukowski ever been an important writer to me, but even I found his 1971 novel Post Office to be a fast, funny and thoroughly enjoyable read. After being unimpressed by Bukowski's poetry, and even less impressed by the portrait of the artist as an old, bullshit-addicted jerk in the documentary Bukowski: Live Through This (or whatever it was called), I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, a rancidly funny account of drudge-life among the clerks and carriers of the LA postal service. A minor classic of the literature of work (a too-small genre in contemporary American fiction, which spends most of its time away from the places where most Americans spend most of their time: in frustrating, repetitive jobs), Post Office descends not only from the hardboiled California law firm of Hammett, Chandler & Cain but also from Celine, the Henry Miller of the Tropics, and early Hubert Selby, Jr. (Hank must've been reading a lot of Grove Press books during the '60s.) Bukowski's prose comes from the hardboileds, but his attitude is that of an American Celine. The descriptions of work here are reminiscent of Celine's great passages on working in the Detroit auto factories in Journey to the End of the Night. Bukowski in this book is closer to French Modernism than to any of the American Naturalists. Those writers, from Sinclair and Dreiser to, I guess, Oates and Franzen, either embrace, or fail to fight free of, some overarching ideology (be it Socialism, Communism or, for the latter two writers, a tepid, bathwater Liberalism). Bukowski is more nihilistic--and thus more European--more of a Nietzschean beast. (This is not to slight the native American tradition of artistic nihilism, a living one from Melville until now that finds perhaps its most succinct formulation in the famous line from Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues": "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.")

I have a few criticisms, of course: the chapter that consists entirely of memoranda reeks of filler, an author's desperate attempt to pad his book up to 200 pages; there are a few passages that ring false in which Bukowski gives us a Chinaski who's a little too righteous and near-heroic, too much of an authorial wish-fulfilment fantasy; I also noticed a couple of places where an officious proofreader seems to have incorrectly 'corrected' Bukowski's text, producing elementary grammatical errors.

And I notice from the books list at the front of Post Office that death hasn't slowed Bukowski down. His prolificity has been unaffected by his passing. There's even a volume of 'new poems' published 11 years after his death. Even if Bukowski left an enormous amount of material lying around, some of these books must be exercises in barrel-scraping. Next year Ecco will probably bring out You Get Tide For 20% Off Sometimes: The Selected Shopping Lists of Charles Bukowski.

Monday, April 4, 2011

HITCH-22 by Christopher Hitchens

I am reasonably certain that Christopher Hitchens did not intend to write a memoir that would leave readers exclaiming "O what an asshole Hitchens is!", but that's one of the effects Hitch-22 had on me. I say 'one of the effects' because this book is as alternately amusing and infuriating as its author. I've long admired Hitchens's virtuosity as a polemicist (but not as an 'intellectual,' which he isn't, despite his being anointed as such by people who wouldn't know a real intellectual if Lionel Trilling bit them on the bum) and delighted in his demolition of Norman Podhoretz (included in his superior collection of literary articles, Unacknowledged Legislation), his blistering indictment of Henry Kissinger, and his largely valid criticisms of everyone from Mother Theresa to the Clintons, and I found his bestselling atheist polemic, god Is Not Great, enjoyable and necessary although not nearly as important as Richard Dawkins's masterful The God Delusion. So even though I opposed the Iraq war from the start, while Hitchens was and remains one of its most vigorous defenders, even though I was one of those people massing against the war on Dupont Circle the evening it began (Did you hear us, Hitch, in your aerie in the DC air?), I approached Hitch-22 with an open mind and initially found quite a bit to like about it. His account of his childhood and parentage, his education at Ye Olde Birching Shoppe and Oxford, his youthful adventures in homosexuality and Trotskyism, his exploration of his Jewish heritage, his chapters on Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie--these are all very good (but it must be said that Hitchens's memoir doesn't hold even the nub of a candle to Martin Amis's Experience, which recounts some of the same incidents). Yes, there are many wonderful pages here, but unfortunately there are also many pages that deserve to be used as a rough-and-ready substitute for Charmin. These latter leaves cluster predictably in the Iraq chapter, which finds the Hitch at his self-righteous, intellectually dishonest, paper tiger-creating worst. His crude, Fox News-worthy caricatures of the war's opponents and his fawning descriptions of the deservedly disgraced Paul Wolfowitz and that international conman and Iranian agent Ahmad Chalaby deserve to finish Hitchens as a 'journalist' even if cancer doesn't do the job first. (OK, that was mean, I'll admit it. But Hitchens is a big boy, and unlike most Iraq War cheerleaders he can both dish it out and take it.) But Iraq aside--as though one could put it aside, ignore it, in any discussion of Hitchens, something akin to discussing Ezra Pound without mentioning his brief career as an Italian radio personality--but Iraq aside, and the author's curious reticencies and insufficiently explored sexuality (his perennial man-crushes, for example) also to one side, the largest problem with this memoir is the impregnable fortress wall of narcissism Hitchens has constructed around his shabby, post-Communist East Berlin of a self. The Hitchens of these pages is so rapt by self-love, so trapped in Wilde's "lifelong romance" (even the Gore Vidal of Palimpsest is a more self-critical memoirist), so much a Capote-ish look-at-what-a-wonderful-person-I-am-and-listen-to-all-the-wonderful-names-I-can-drop kind of narrator, that upon closing his book I found myself wondering if the author's back was still sore from the performance of this 422-page self-administered blowjob.

More seriously, if the former neocon court jester Christopher Hitchens is what passes for a public intellectual in America today, and if books like this--the second-rate ramblings of a second-hand mind--are what passes for intellectual discourse, then I suppose it's safe to conclude that our culture has paddled so far up Bullshit Creek that we might as well rename it the River Of No Return.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Here's an amazing discovery. The Flanders Road by Claude Simon (who won the Nobel in 1985 but remains largely unknown outside France) is one of the great underappreciated novels of the 20th century. Published in France in 1960 and beautifully translated into English by the poet Richard Howard, it is an absolute masterpiece, easily the equal of any French novel since the death of Marcel Proust. This book and its author deserve to be as widely known and read as Sartre, Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, et al. On the rare occasions when Claude Simon is mentioned outside France, it's usually in a list of nouveaux romanciers like the one that ended my last sentence, but the achievement of The Flanders Road is best appreciated in a less nationalistic, more High Modernist context. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are at least as important as Alain Robbe-Grillet in any list of this novel's influences, and the most important and obvious influence of all is William Faulkner, whose Absalom, Absalom! Simon comes close to quoting in a few places. But all of my praise, however richly deserved, is perhaps only a strategy to delay the impossible task I have set myself in this post: to briefly describe this deceptively short (231 pages) and extremely intelligent novel. Here's my attempt: A stream-of-consciousness WWII novel centering around the rout of French forces by the invading Germans in 1940, The Flanders Road is a complex, difficult work that moves through time and space with the fluidity of Proust and views both the horrors of war and the ecstasies of love with the darkly poetic eye of an Atomic Age Baudelaire. Rarely has any war novel so effectively captured the atmosphere of an ignominious defeat: the mud, the rain, the filth, the fear of capture, the stench of death. Stock phrases like 'existentialist fiction' and 'the absurdity of existence' don't even come close to the terrible realities this novel describes. No reader will understand everything in this book on a single reading (I didn't), but it's beautiful and terrible and impressive enough to compel multiple re-readings. Seek out a copy and read it, then read it again. And then tell everyone you know about it. The Flanders Road should not remain a secret.

FIRST LOVE by Ivan Turgenev

In the crystal-clear Penguin Classics translation by Isaiah Berlin, Turgenev's First Love is a wonderful, surprising little novella (or long short story; 19th-century writers frequently blurred the not-yet-solid line between the forms). The plot is simple, the stuff of Oedipal melodrama and grand opera: a sixteen year-old boy falls in love with a 21 year-old girl, only to discover that his rival for her affections is his own father. Turgenev's handling of youthful passion and infatuation is remarkable. Few readers will soon forget the night of silent lightning or the narrator's silly, more-comic-than-romantic leap from a 14 foot-high wall, but I was most impressed by the events of chapter twenty-one, in which the narrator, unable to injure his father with the knife of Freudian castration, chooses instead to identify with him. The two men ride together, and the father's horse, a thoroughbred mare, is described in terms that recall the 'thoroughbred' Princess Zinaida, the apex of the family love triangle. The narrator's first experience of love threatens to become an initiation into phallocentric misogyny. But he then witnesses his father's rough treatment of Zinaida, treatment explicitly paralleling the father's equestrian exploits: he strikes the girl with his riding crop before bursting into her home and, it is strongly suggested, riding her. After the shock of this scene, Turgenev swiftly wraps up his tale with a flurry of convenient deaths and a suggestion that all the complexities and contradictions of life are subsumed in the one death that puts a period to us all... But I don't quite buy this proffered interpretation. The events of the penultimate chapter overshadow even the deaths of the final chapter; the revelation of the violence of passion is what continues to haunt the narrator--and his readers.