Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A FAN'S NOTES by Frederick Exley

"To talk about oneself a great deal can also be a means of concealing oneself." --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Exley's A Fan's Notes isn't bad, but it certainly isn't great either. It doesn't live up to its most hyperbolic back cover blurb: "The best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby." Thus spake Newsday. Well... I know it's unfair to hold a book responsible for what a publisher's marketing department decides to slap on the back cover, but this kind of egregious hyperbole demands to be smacked down. The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! are perhaps slightly better than A Fan's Notes and were both published between Gatsby's 1926 and Exley's 1968. But enough blurb criticism. The book itself is an interesting autobiographical fiction, a good literary drunkalogue with some excellent moments. The description of undergoing insulin and electroshock 'therapy' was especially well executed--no mean feat in dealing with subject matter that can easily slip into Snake Pit melodrama--and Exley actually managed to make interesting reading out of his months spent on a davenport staring at his feet. But I often found myself wondering what Exley wasn't telling us. What is he leaving out? I finished the book with the feeling that there was another novel (or 'fictional memoir,' to use Exley's term) concealed in the lacunae of A Fan's Notes. I also left the book thinking that for all Exley's eloquently expressed self-loathing, he probably didn't loathe himself as much as many readers will. And for all of his tough-writer, warts-and-all self-examination, there are major elements of Exley's character that remain tellingly unexamined (most strikingly, his homophobia), suggesting that at book's end, after all the apparent confessions, Exley's still living a life Socrates would consider hardly worth the effort.

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