Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

In one of my favorite literary quotes, Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room is Jarrell's kind of novel, a good book with a host of flaws. First the flaws. Too much of The Mars Room seems obligatory, cliched, scripted by popular culture. There has to be a prison break in the novel, for example, not because Romy's escape is at all credible but because that's the expected climax of a prison story. There has to be a tough Latina, an outrageous intersexual, etc. not because they add anything to the novel but because that's how our culture imagines women's prisons post-Orange is the New Black. Elsewhere, the entire Richard "Doc" Richards storyline could've been excised by a more stringent editor, and the book would've lost nothing except a character who wandered into Kushner's imagination from the world of James Ellroy. Likewise, Romy's victim Kurt Kennedy seems to have been lifted from a Robert Stone novel. In fact, the entire novel seems to steer too close to Stone, as Kushner's earlier The Flamethrowers foundered on the rocks of DeLillo. (I'm the rare Kushner reader who considers Flamethrowers the weakest of her three novels and Telex From Cuba probably the least flawed.)

So what's so good about The Mars Room? A pathway into the novel's profoundest insight can be found in its ending, which I initially rejected as a failed attempt at epiphany that collapses into the hoariest Romantic nature cliches. Further consideration, however, led me to revise this opinion. The ending's nature epiphany and Romy's ambiguous capture (or killing) actually succeed as an encapsulation of the Kunderan "secret the novel asks about" (quoting from my favorite passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kushner's deepest theme is something we might call "the prison in the garden": the transformation of America, in its citizens' imaginations, from a land of Romantic promise to a carceral state. No, that ending isn't flawed at all; it's Kushner's ticket to the Great American Novel sweepstakes, her book's major statement about the way we live now.

Another plus is Kushner's prose. Like much well-reviewed contemporary litfic, The Mars Room impresses me most at the level of sentence, paragraph, voice. Kushner arc welds some marvelous metaphors, ably ventriloquizes a diverse set of characters, and can orchestrate a paragraph of free, indirect narration into a soliloquy that ironically reveals a character's ultimately fatal narcissism. (I'm thinking specifically of the long paragraph on pages 304-305 of the hardcover, in which Kurt Kennedy thinks around his visit to Cancun and his obsession with Romy/Vanessa.)

But even with these important positives, the book still feels rather 'thin,' a minor novel trying desperately to be major. Given that I had the same thought about Jesmyn Ward's two recent National Book Award winners, this probably points to a larger problem in our culture--about which, see the parenthetical last paragraph of my post on Jesmyn Ward, below.

Swings and Misses: On Jesmyn Ward's First Three Novels

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's first and least heralded novel, Where The Line Bleeds, is the kind of book critics like to call 'promising.' Just good enough to spark interest in what the writer might do next, it's an unexceptional example of MFA program social realism, more a member of the Dreiser-Farrell-Wright school (descending ultimately from Zola) than the Faulkner-Ellison-Morrison line (with ancestry in Melville, Hawthorne, Poe) to which Ward is generally considered heiress-presumptive. This novel lacks any of the gothic strangeness that energizes the best American fiction. Nor does it feel like a tale that particularly needed telling. And Ward's tale and telling are far too predictable. Still, it was a good enough novel to hold my interest to the end (if it had been 200 pages longer, that might not have been the case) and push me forward into Ward's next story of the African-American inhabitants of the southern Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage.

Salvage the Bones begins (here comes that word again) promisingly. There's an immediately engaging narrative voice, an agon with Faulkner signaled by an explicit intertextual relationship to As I Lay Dying, prose that pumps up the lyrical volume, and even a hint of the gothicism notably missing from her first novel. But within the first hundred pages things start to go awry. The intertextual thread is lost or dropped, an initial gothicism gives way to the less interesting realism of Where the Line Bleeds, and even the prose flattens as the Katrina wind rises, causing this reader to lose interest even as the action climaxed. (The fact that this novel is, again, very predictable didn't help.) The beginning of Salvage the Bones makes Faulknerian promises that the Steinbeckian-Caldwellian remainder fails to fulfill. Harold Bloom might have called this an example of a failed agon. Ward faced Faulkner and flinched.

If Salvage the Bones was 'a swing and a miss' at William Faulkner, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a too-slight, minor attempt at an agon with the Toni Morrison of Beloved and Song of Solomon. It's a very well written book--there are nearly perfect sentences, similes, metaphors scattered (albeit too thinly) throughout all three of Ward's novels--but the supernatural elements somehow fail to Morrisonianly mesh with Ward's more topical concerns (mass incarceration, police violence), and the book overall seems a thin, too-predictable, un-rereadable thing. Ward's rather tepid magic realism doesn't grant her novel the "anything can happen" quality we find in Garcia Marquez and Morrison. I was impressed, but not overly impressed. Still, I'm hopeful. Jesmyn Ward's first three novels chart a progression toward artistic excellence and imaginative originality--also, a movement from strict realism to a gothic-tinged Morrisonian magic realism--so I await with interest her fourth novel, hoping it will blow me away. Her first three did not exactly strike me with gale force.

(And now to parenthetically turn to the elephant in the room. Why did Ward's two relatively minor novels win National Book Awards, the same honor given to such undeniably major works as Ellison's Invisible Man, Bellow's Augie March, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Styron's Sophie's Choice, Walker's Color Purple, etc.? I suspect that the answer has less to do with individual judges advertising their wokeness than with a general decline in the quality of American literary fiction. Litfic in America has hardened into a safe, delimited, academicized genre that no longer has much room for huge groundbreakers like Invisible Man or Gravity's Rainbow. Of recent NBA winners, only William Vollmann (who won for Europe Central, one of his more accessible books) imagines novels on that fearless level. Our culture also seems to have lost the 'sweet spot' where high artistic quality and bestsellerdom can coexist, a spot occupied forty-some years ago by The World According to Garp, Song of SolomonRabbit is Rich, The Executioner's Song, Sophie's Choice, etc. We have a smaller literary fiction today, I sadly and pessimistically suggest, because our high culture is contracting under pressure from a low, lucrative, relatively mindless, and wildly popular techno-culture. People who spend their ever-contracting semi-free time looking at antisocial "social media" aren't in the market for difficult fiction. The fictions that move them are provided by Russian intelligence.)

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

If Junot Diaz's Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the definitive contemporary American immigrant novel, Colm Toibin's defiantly old-fashioned Brooklyn, written around the same time, is an immigrant novel Jane Austen could (almost) have written. (Since I don't idolize Austen, that's not exactly a compliment.) Indeed, Toibin even lifts the lineaments of the typical Austen plot, hinging on the central female character's single life-defining decision of whom to marry. But unlike the best of Austen (Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Emma), Brooklyn is a too comfortable, too sentimental, overly nice novel; duplicitous characters, unlikable characters--in short, interesting characters, are kept carefully minor. But perhaps the harshest criticism I can make of Brooklyn as a work of literary art (and I should probably mention here, parenthetically, that I rather liked the book--almost as much as I'm liking slagging it) would be merely to mention that the novel adapted perfectly to film. I think virtually everything in the book made it to the screen, with only a few minor alterations. It translates to film as easily as a men's room sign translates to Spanish. This is an indication not of the film's Stroheimian greatness but of the novel's slightness. No one who has seen the movie need read the book, a work that comes to seem, weirdly, like a slavish novelization of the film adapted from it.

HOTEL DE DREAM by Edmund White

In a conversation about Jean Genet (on KCRW's "Bookworm" program), Edmund White described himself as a "minor novelist," and his late, short novel Hotel de Dream might have been written to prove this uniquely modest self-characterization. It's an interesting minor novel--not great, not even exceptionally well written, little more than an intriguing jeu of the literary imagination. When I heard that the Nabokov-praised author of Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, A Boy's Own Story, the definitive biography of Genet, a good brief life of Proust, and The Beautiful Room is Empty (my favorite of his novels) had written a novel on the topic of Stephen Crane's perhaps apocryphal male prostitute novella, my hyperliterary mind was intrigued. But another part of that mind suspected that Hotel de Dream would be what it is: yet another 'piggyback' novel in the imaginatively bereft subgenre Michael Cunningham made lucrative (with help from Nicole Kidman and a fake nose). This novel finds White doing Cunningham's already unoriginal thing. It's clever and interesting, but nothing more... For the real problem see below:

At age 51, I no longer have time to waste on books that don't blow my mind. Or at least breathe on it strongly enough to redden the coals.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

After reading a half-dozen Cambridge Companions...

At the end of a week spent reading six volumes in the Cambridge Companions to Literature series (namely, the CC's to Narrative (i.e., narratology), American Gay and Lesbian Literature, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner and Herman Melville), I declared myself disappointed and underwhelmed--and unsurprised. These collections of essays by various academic specialists in the eponymous writers and fields display no enthusiasm, no passion, no wit, no humor, no joy in the writing, and very little in the way of original ideas--although I know the academy well enough not to have expected much of the last. The Gay and Lesbian volume taught me little I didn't already know (I'm fairly well-read in Gay Studies / Queer Theory and, more importantly, the best of the literature these theories foreground.) and demonstrated the depressing extent to which potentially revolutionary ideas have been carefully sealed away inside 'Academia Inc.' by means of exclusionist jargon, the numbing repetition of dogma, and the embrace of an identity politics-motivated counter-canon that's actually narrower and much less inclusive than the lists in the back of Harold Bloom's Western Canon. On the positive side, queer theory impresses me as the polymorphous perverse side of contemporary intellectualism, and I'm impressed by Judith Butler's idea of heterosexuality as an anxious mimesis of an imaginary ideal. That's an idea good enough to steal--except in my case no larceny is necessary, for I've independently developed an existentialism-influenced concept of personality-as-performance that subsumes sexuality into a more general performance of subjectivity.

In the Pynchon volume, I was briefly intrigued by Brian McHale's notion of the Modernism-Postmodernism distinction as a shift of focus from epistemology to ontology, from questioning knowledge to questioning the 'subjects' who claim to possess it. It seems a powerful abstraction until you apply a bit of intellectual pressure and watch how quickly epistemology and ontology become inextricably intertwined. A theory of knowledge, pushed far enough, becomes a theory of being, and every ontology necessarily implies an epistemology. But at least McHale's idea, unlike most in these volumes, is good enough to mentally argue with. For the most part, these books consist of essay after essay in which academic minds cruise along institutionally-approved rails and arrive at expected conclusions. It's all as predictable as the train from Leonardo da Vinci Airport to Termini Station. To adapt a line Henry Miller wrote (and attributed to Anais Nin), the English Department needs a blood transfusion. Indeed, it needs more than that...


Lorrie Moore, for whom I had hope, disappoints me with the first half-dozen of her COLLECTED STORIES, a hefty, great-looking Everyman's Library volume that deserves better contents. The stories are alphabetically arranged, so the first six form a mini-retrospective of her career, and from this I judge her to be an above-average 'program writer'. Her prose is surprisingly good, her voice sometimes flashes a caustic humor, but her work doesn't approach greatness. These aren't stories on a level with Munro or Proulx or Carver. There's nothing shockingly new or wow-inducing in Moore's work, no revelations. She composes the sort of entertaining, work(wo)manlike stories typical of MFA program professors (we can even fairly classify her as an 'academic writer' a la David Lodge); and like most capos of the MFA mafia, she's handicapped by the 'write what you know' dogma. Like her professorial contemporary George Saunders, she's too traditional for her own good (Saunders' overpraised oeuvre consists mostly of warmed-over Donald Barthelme, and his stories' irrealistic surfaces serve to advance an underlying, and ultimately conservative, sentimental humanism.), and like her fellow prof Richard Ford, her reputation has likely been artificially inflated by her institutional affiliation. She's worshiped by former students (like the one whose hagiographic introduction dubiously graces this collection), but I can't find the knockout greatness in the work. What I did, repeatedly, find was a tendency to end her stories with unearned epiphanies. Instead of putting in the hard imaginative work required to bring a complex story to a satisfactory conclusion, she simply pulls an arbitrary epiphany out of her buttcrack and calls it an ending. Lorrie Moore leaves my mind unblown. What Gore Vidal grandly called "the matter of America" deserves a better teller.

THE DEER PARK by Norman Mailer

Coming to Mailer's Deer Park after Play It As It Lays throws into relief the weaknesses of the former novel: a prose too-often clumsy and cliche-ridden, only rarely rising above mediocrity and sometimes suffering pratfalls in the attempt (and in many spots descending to near-Dreiserian dullness); characters that either strain credulity or seem the merest ciphers from Central Casting; a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Hitlerian posterboy of a narrator who seems an obvious (and slightly sicko) authorial compensatory fantasy; sex scenes sadistically bound by mid-1950s censorship (for which we certainly can't blame the author, but still... Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch around this time.) All of this detracts from the novel's major plus, an exploration of sexuality (including, by more than implication, the homoerotic element in male friendship) that at least equals Lawrence.

Another negative: early in the novel, Mailer's choice of an impotent (anti-)hero narrator signals an intertextual relationship to The Sun Also Rises. Always boxing Papa, Norman here follows up his Farewell to the Bell Tolls (The Naked and the Dead) with a post-WWII California Sun. But, as in all of his many rounds of Ernest-fighting, Mailer's merely shadowboxing in the ring of his mind; Hemingway has already won the bout. Having established his hero's impotence, Mailer wastes no time curing it, an artistic and imaginative failure of the first order that figurative transfers the stigma of impotence from character to author. Norman's the one who can't get artistically hard (and keep his hero soft), while Hemingway stands there rigid, pharaonically displaying a novelistic dong impressive enough to keep Jake Barnes soft for the duration of Sun.

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

 I should have read this thirty years ago... Why didn't I read this back in the early nineties?... These thoughts recurred several times while I read--belatedly, inexcusably--Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Long an admirer of Didion's journalism--Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are beautifully written cultural landmarks that deserved their 'instant classic' status--I have inexplicably avoided her fiction. (Similar story between Susan Sontag and me, equally inexplicable: enjoy re-reading the essays, haven't read the novels.) So when the first volume of the Library of America's collected Didion came into my hands, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence and risky beauty of her second novel. (Here's hoping the LOA soon publishes a two-volume edition of Sontag's fiction so I'll have another opportunity to be surprised.) Play It As It Lays, seemingly an artsy, au courant (for 1970) novel of affluent angst among the Fitzgeraldianly careless moviemaking side of Sixties Los Angeles, surprised me by turning explicitly existentialist at the end, Maria's journey terminating (or, more precisely, continuing) in nihilism and death, existential anxiety taken to its limits. Stylistically engaging and formally original, this short novel is, at the very least, what critics call 'a minor classic' (maybe we should lose that minimizing adjective) and deserves to be as much of an LA landmark as the Getty Center or LACMA. It's the kind of artful, existentially engaged novel no American writer writes anymore. (Well, Rachel Kushner at least tries to write them.) I finished it mourning the fact that it has birthed no native sons or daughters.

FLOW CHART by John Ashbery

Eighty pages into Ashbery's Flow Chart, in the restored Library of America edition, I found myself just beginning to understand it--this book-length poem that ideal readers will perpetually 'begin to understand,' without any of that Keats-derided "irritable reaching after fact and reason"--I began, that is, to understand it as a kaleidoscopic late-late-Surrealist love poem. As such, it belongs to the line of Surrealist art about love and sex highlighted in the ca.2002 exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound--an exhibition JA probably saw at the Met (incidentally, for our purposes, since it arrived a decade after the poem's publication). I also find obvious affinities with Dada, Pop Art and, more pointedly, the assemblages and 1960s paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--as well as their ancestors in the collage paintings of Picasso and Braque from the 1910s. Ashbery's text also winks and nods--obscurely, its gestures clouded by Cubist cigarette smoke--towards other, more specifically literary precursors (of the sort that might have popped into the late Harold Bloom's echo-capturing mind as he read the poem): The Bridge, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, and that lodestar of Modernist difficulty, The Waste Land. And of course (bien sur), Mallarme and the French Symbolists are in here too, swirling in the Ashberian cyclone.... Ashbery's poem, however, embodies a difficulty beyond the High Modernist, a difficulty we might consider characteristically 'postmodernist,' due to the work's anarchistic skepticism with regard to language, meaning, narrative and form. If such earlier Ashbery books as The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror might be collectively considered JA's Ulysses, Flow Chart is his Finnegans Wake. A work of remarkable local beauty (line by lovely line, image by startling image), it presents difficulties of global interpretation (the Alfie question: "What's it all about?") that might keep its select few readers guessing for lifetimes--or lead them to run up the white flag of aporia and surrender to France, reducing the poem to a textbook illustration of Derridean radical skepticism, the post-structuralist circulation of meaning, and any number of other ideas powerful enough to keep grad students off crack during the 1980s.

Upon finishing this first reading--complete but necessarily inconclusive, like any reading of Ashbery's best works--I thought Flow Chart a remarkable enigma, an exquisitely difficult pleasure with enough moments of beauty to inspire multiple readings and the desire to pluck the mystery out of the poem's heart. I hesitate only slightly before calling it a great poem (the hesitation a first-reading's hedge); it is Ashbery's magnum opus. And as to what it's all about: all is what it's about. It's a tragic, comic, goofball meditation on life, death and everything in the indecent interval between. It is 'about' (in the sense of 'man about town') the Lucretian-Epicurean rain of imagistic atoms flowing from John Ashbery's mind to his writing hand as the nineteen-eighties stumbled to a close.

This is all but a raw, tentative reaction to a first reading of Flow Chart, and as such it fits the blog, because Mindful Pleasures for the past 12 years has been a place to prose-out my raw readerly reactions. Pretty much everything here is a trial piece. If I'm ever able or willing to write the book-length commentary that Flow Chart deserves, I will title it, from the poem, Exquisite Nitpicking.