Now coming to you, ironically enough, from Brooklyn.
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The first page of this collection made me laugh out loud (“… and there was serious pain in his underpants”) so I shouldn’t be too critical.
But what the hell.
This is a perfectly respectable group of stories. Tower knows how to turn a phrase and he’s not afraid to reach for a good sentence.
Problem is that I’ve been there, done that, read this. Tower is the progeny of Barry Hannah and Tom McGuane, at least when he’s writing about men behaving badly. I got some chuckles and I admired the verbal acrobatics but I couldn’t help thinking, "Really? You think I don’t know where you got that? Really?"
Talented kid, though, and willing to take chances. Got to admire that.
A dark comedy set in a second-rate college in New York (the narrator calls it “Mediocre College in New York”, nice). The writing is tough and sharp and funny, ultimately it’s not fully readable (finishable) because the plotting is artificial and rickety. And because we don’t care about any of the characters, the thinness of the plot feels ever more apparent.
Lipsyte is a mean-spirited observer and he’s not afraid to create unsympathetic characters — traits I admire — but ultimately the cartoonishness of the plot (and characters) feels, false. Satire only works if the exaggeration somehow results in a sense of heightened reality, rather than altered or falsified reality.
Lipsyte also has some very nice turns of phrase. He has a trick where the narrator steps back and reveals his own tendency to exaggerate: “We often called it ‘The Mediocre University at New York,’… By we I mean Horace and I. By often I mean once.”
That is very nice indeed!
Still, the unreality, and the mean-spiritedness, drove me away long before the end of the novel.
Nowhere Man shares a lot of the strengths of Lazarus and Bruno, but it’s hard to read yet another consideration of the difficulties of being an unwilling Bosnian immigrant in America. The sheer sameness of the focus of these books begins to pall on Volume 3.
I’m worried that Hemon can’t escape his demons (memories) sufficiently to write anything other than the same book over and over. He’s talented beyond belief but if his mind always comes back to the circumstances of his forced repatriation… I’m pretty sure I will not pick up another volume by him if I have the sense he’s retreading.
Is it possible that John Irving is America’s greatest living writer of fiction?
Obviously, no. Philip Roth is the greatest living American writer.
(Slightly less obviously: No, Toni Morrison is the greatest living American writer.)
The thing is, Philip Roth has written precisely one great book in the last 30 years, and most people (myself excepted) actually found it pretty repugnant — “Sabbath’s Theater.”
The other thing is (and I know I’m an outlier here), Toni Morrison has written only one really great book: ”Song of Solomon.” I know, I know, “Beloved” is the greatest book of the last blah blah years. I pledge to go back and read it again sometime soon. But when I first dug into Morrison, “Solomon” was the keeper, the really shining, giant book. And then it seemed like there was a lot of dreck. Well written dreck, but still dreck. Isn’t it possible “Beloved” is just a wee bit drecky too?
As for Roth, well, he’s gone stale. (I think I may be an outlier here, too. His recent books keep winning awards, which baffles me.) His springy sentences have stiffened up like a 55-year-old knee. His howls of outrage have been replaced by lawyerly arguments. Worse, his books have become high concept — you can imagine them germinating in a pitch session at a movie studio: “Uh, OK, what if it turns out that the narrator is black!… What about this? Let’s say the daughter was a terrorist in the ’60s!… In a world where Charles Lindbergh is president…”
There was no studio pitch for “Portnoy’s Complaint,” that’s for sure: “Um, it’s about this guy who masturbates a lot as a kid — well, no, it’s not really…” Same goes for his two other greatest novels, “The Professor of Desire” and “The Ghost Writer.”
So, given that Roth and Morrison seem vulnerable, can anyone topple them from the perch?
Let’s start with a consideration of the ones that preceded them, the dominant forces of postwar American writers lit, the Big Names, AKA "the once thought to be among the greatest living American authors, but unfortunately they are dead": John Updike; Saul Bellow; I.B. Singer
While we’re at it, let’s consider another group, one I’ll call "writers who were more beloved than those once thought to be among the greatest living American authors, and yet somehow not considered quite worthy of that group, and also unfortunately dead": J.D. Salinger; Joseph Heller; Kurt Vonnegut
The there are "the dead ones that just kind of fell out of the running for one reason or another": Ralph Ellison; Vladimir Nabokov; Norman Mailer
For good measure: "the young dead ones": David Foster Wallace
OK, then, who among the living can be considered a credible challenger to King Phil and Queen Toni?
"The once greatly admired, now… not so much": Thomas Pynchon; John Barth; Don Delillo; Paul Auster
"The heirs to Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver": Richard Ford, Ann Beattie
"The ones who are too popular and/or approachable to be considered viable candidates for ‘best living author’ awards": Ann Tyler; Richard Russo; John Irving; E.L. Doctorow
"The great/near great writers who must not be included once we recall that they are actually Canadian": Alice Munro; Margaret Atwood; Michael Ondaatje
"The genre artists": Steven King, Elmore Leonard
"The great avant-garde writers": American avant-garde writers?
"The tough guys, AKA ‘writers whose names appear to be spelled wrong’": Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson
"Not prolific enough to make the cut": Norman Rush; Marilyn Robinson
"Too prolific": Joyce Carol Oates
"The younger ones (most in their 30s and 40s I guess, and mainly writers whose oeuvre is just too thin at this point to judge, even though I’m largely willing to do so)": Jeffrey Eugenides; Dave Eggers; Aleksandr Hemon; Jonathan Franzen; Michael Chabon; Jonathan Lethem; Nicholson Baker; Gary Shteyngart; Jonathan Safran Foer
“The ones I mention just to cover my bases”: Louise Erdrich, Richard Powers
So the question is, who among those many names could realistically be called the most significant/best/greatest/etc. American novelist? Who could go one to one with Phil or Toni?
Surely no one would nominate any of the writers in the Pynchon group, including Delillo, whose enthusiastic readers now seem somewhat mystified as to what it was that they ever really liked about him — sort of the same thing you see amongst former listeners of King Crimson. And Pynchon himself seems ever less relevant (and ever more annoying).
Cormac McCarthy could be a contender, I’ll admit. ”Blood Meridian” came in third place in a New York Times survey of “greatest novels of the past 25 years” that was published back in 2006. (Admittedly Delillo’s “Underworld” came in second — to winner “Beloved” — but I will take the position that that’s just nostalgia.) Anyway, McCarthy has written two truly great books — “Blood Meridian” and “All the Pretty Horses” — which would put him one ahead of Toni Morrison (by my admitted outlier view) but one behind Roth. The thing is, though, how many people have read those books more than once? I was blown away by “All the Pretty Horses” when I first read it (I learned the word “guttering” from it) but whenever I pick it up again in the hopes of re-enjoying it, I grow restless almost immediately. And “Blood Meridian” has parallels to “Absalom Absalom” — a self-evidently great book of an almost impossibly high order, and yet one that is equally almost impossible to finish.
Of the others, I’d argue that only John Irving could possibly stand alongside P and T without being dwarfed. ”Garp” and “Widow” are not only outlandishly wonderful books but, like all the greatest books, they are written in a recognizable voice that is the author’s alone. And, again like all the greatest books, their greatness is not so much reduced by their flaws but patina’d by them. Yes that is not a word.
Like Morrison (less so like Roth at this point), Irving has inspired hosts of imitators (overuse of the italics is a giveaway), and like Roth (less so like Morrison), he has continued to publish novels that are widely read and commented on.
More than anyone on this list (the living ones, at least), Irving could be described as beloved. There’s a generation of readers (and writers) who probably would never think to put Irving at the top of this kind of list, and yet would admit to loving his greatest books with adolescent ardor. Reading his best books can feel like falling in love… the way you felt reading “Catcher in the Rye,” or “Stoptime,” or “Portnoy,” or “Slaughterhouse 5,” or any of the books that blew your heart and mind to pieces when you were a teenager thinking that all you wanted to do in life was to create one thing that was one-tenth as wonderful as that. (By ‘you,’ of course, I mean ‘me.’)
So I don’t know. I’m not really suggesting John Irving is our greatest living novelist. I just wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand.
***Incidentally, I think Anne Carson is the greatest living author, but she’s not really a novelist and she’s not American born. So she gets a pass here.***
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I don’t want to be a book-reviewing bore. The point of writing about books — at least for me — is not to recommend them or inveigh against them. I’m more interested in the way that books weave themselves into your (my) life than in persuading you, my imaginary reader, to read them yourself.
(After all, if I had my druthers I’d come to every book as an utter mystery, with no idea about the subject matter, format, style, or author — the better to experience the work truly fresh.)
But more to the point, there’s not a lot of value in reviews of books that were published years or even decades ago. Only occasionally do I crack open a new or newish book. I’m more likely to be at least a few seasons behind the times, and more than likely the book has been reviewed dozens of times or more. What can I add to that, and why would I want to?
So it’s hard to say what there is to say about “Unaccustomed Earth.” It got wonderful reviews that to some extent were valid. Lahiri writes believably about Bengali Americans and the complications of first and second generation immigrants. She’s an earnest, careful writer whose sentences just kind of lie on the page. I mean, get a load of this one:
Guests were gathered under a beautiful tree where a bar had been set up, offering cocktails before the ceremony.
Really? A “beautiful” tree? Not an elm that had somehow survived the blight? Not a sugar maple? Was it a hickory tree? Or possibly it was not deciduous. And how illuminating to learn that the bar was offering cocktails. And it’s helpful to hear that this is happening before the ceremony, which the reader knows hasn’t happened yet but a little redundant info never hurt anyone, right?
This kind of lumpy, sloppy writing crops up fairly frequently in Lahiri’s writing, and I think the reason must be this: Because very little happens in her stories, she must fill the space left by plot with something. This is not a short collection — 333 pages in the paperback edition I read — and most of the stories run very long, 40, 50, even 60 pages. The first story, the title story, is a full 57 pages, the plot of which (no kidding) is this: A widowed father comes to visit grown daughter and her young son. He wonders how to tell her he has a sort of girlfriend. He stays for a bit. Then he flies home. The end.
Now, that snotty summary of the story purposely ignores the psychological shadings of the story, and some interior twists. But in her apparent desire to remain “real,” Lahiri seems to resist even dramatic psychological shifts as plot devices (or reading aids!). There are no piercing epiphanies in these stories. After all, life is not really full of epiphanies, is it?
The best of these stories is the comparatively short, and awfully titled, “Hell Heaven,” and the longer, more complex “Nobody’s Business,” both of them about thwarted or failed love affairs, and inherently more dramatic than the others.
The second half of the book is a series of interrelated short stories that is fairly cleverly structured (clever but irritating until you understand the narrative device, which really doesn’t become clear until fairly well into the second of the three stories.) It ends on a really tawdry, icky note that I won’t go into, and it features a man whose profession, it turns out, is a globe-trotting war/disaster photographer (novelists can’t seem to resist war photographers as protagonists, and with no disrespect to photographers and photography, let me simply say that I have known more than a few of the very few that there are at any given time in the world and believe me when I say they aren’t that interesting).
So all of this is an odd preamble for saying, in fact… that I liked this book. It was well done. It gave me some insight into the lives of Bengalis in America and despite the limited stories and the sometimes insipid writing, I did want to know what (if anything) would happen. The affectless prose, the sympathy of the writer for her characters, and the repeated figures from story to story brought to mind Anne Tyler, a writer whose appeal mystifies me, and yet as I have said I do love much of her work. Likewise I can imagine looking back 15 years from now and thinking, “Huh, I’ve actually read nine Jhumpa Lahiri books.” She’s good, I’ll read more, but I’ll also hope for more — more drama, more muscular writing, more chances.
I was unexpectedly moved by J.D. Salinger’s death last month. I was not one of those readers who still wondered if or when a new Salinger work might become available. I never dug up “Hapworth 16” from the archives of the New Yorker, nor had I chased down and read the uncollected stories that he published in the 1940s.
So I’m not a completist by any means.
What I am is an unadulterated fan. I don’t look down my nose at “Catcher.” I consider it a work of art in full. I have long considered “Franny and Zooey” one of the signature volumes of Post-War American fiction, and “Nine Stories” contains several pieces that are damn near perfect.
In fact, “perfect” is a word that seems oddly applicable to Salinger’s output as a whole. What novel could be closer to perfect than “Catcher”? What novella is so nearly without fault as “Franny”? And a many of the pieces in “Nine Stories” — I’m particularly thinking of “For Esme,” “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” and “The Laughing Man” — are likewise impeccable.
As much as a fan as I am and have been for 30+ years, I hadn’t read any Salinger in at least five years and probably more like 10. So, when I learned of his death, I dug up a copy of F&Z and NS and gave them a read — trying, if I could, to see them with new eyes.
And in many ways I could in fact read them fresh. Of course there are sentences that had stuck with me, and that I looked forward to reading again, and those sentences did not disappoint. Like this one from the beginning of “Franny”:
The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.
Those baroque creations were Salinger’s specialty, of course, but he could also write with beautiful economy. The final sentences of “The Laughing Man” are simple, direct, heart-breaking.
It was rather amazing to re-read these flawless gems of fiction in the wake of his death. The obituaries and even the considerations of his work were more about his life — his reclusiveness, his unsavory relationship with the young Joyce Maynard, the hoarding of his writing — than his writing and the effect it has had on several generations of readers. The headline of the New York Times obituary put it this way: “J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91.”
It’s extraordinary to think that, in the 1950s, serious literary writers were hard-pressed to find a way to write their way out from under his shadow. His work was so powerfully influential, so widely read and admired, that John Updike said it sometimes felt as if it would be impossible to set an original sentence on paper — that is how powerful and original Salinger’s voice was in the 1950s.
The problem is that we loved Salinger so, and he refused to grant us what we wanted, which was simple: more. No writer so beloved (not that there are many) was so stinting with his work. And that fed the love and raised Salinger up ever higher — if only he had published more, he surely would have failed us, and we would have taken him down from the pedestal, and we could consider him more generously. But he didn’t write, or at least he didn’t publish, and so we were all forced to read our favorite books over and over, and we associated them with our teenage selves and our teenage viewpoints, and after a while we came to think of the works themselves as teenage artifacts — rather than adult art.
Supposedly “Catcher” and Salinger’s other works are losing some of their appeal — many teenage and college-age readers prefer a plucky hero (Harry Potter) to the self-conscious, sarcastic, and generally powerless Holden Caulfield. And it was striking to me how many of Salinger’s characters are similarly helpless, however wealthy and privileged their families and upbringing.
And something else: Reading these stories in 2010, I was struck by the nearness of World War II. The war cast a huge shadow over these characters. These are not heroic warriors. At best they are survivors, like the narrator in “For Esme,” and at worst they are failures, like Franklin in “Just Before the War With the Eskimos.” Mostly they were observers, and self-conscious ones at that. They did not look at the war and think that they would have been heroes. Quite the opposite. Salinger captured the sense of what is like to be “untriumphant” in a triumphal world.
I suppose that was Salinger’s great sin — to focus on the small, and to be willing to be small himself — small in output, small in life, occupying a small corner of a small state, rather than taking a place at the head of the literary table in New York as others would have done. But choices like that do not preclude greatness in art, and without question his output stands alongside the great works of 20th Century literature.
The headline should have read: “J.D. Salinger, Giant of 20th Century Fiction, Dies at 91.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays, by Martin McDonagh
Whoosh. This is a set of dark-ass plays. Unlike “The Pillowman,” I didn’t have the sense that I might titter nervously during a performance of this work (which doesn’t mean, in fact, that I wouldn’t titter, or that there aren’t threads of humor worked into the plays, just that the complexity of tone is just slightly less than the later play — McDonagh is still working out the kinks in these earlier works.) The titular play was the best of the bunch, with several reveals that, like Pillowman, left me gasping.
The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh
The best book I read last year was actually a sprawling set of five loosely linked novellas, “2666,” about which here and here. It cast a long shadow over everything else I read that year, and one segment of the novel so frightened me that I had trouble sleeping and ultimately had to set the book aside for several months before resuming (without reading the troubling segment to the end).
The second best book I read last year was a collection of spiky modern folk tales, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.”
This play is sort of a strange combination of those two volumes — violent, gross, disturbing, occasionally (uncomfortably) funny, original, powerful. I certainly wouldn’t want to see the play on the stage — too violent, too horrible.
But on the page, an incredible work of art.
Because it was so short (it’s a play, after all) I didn’t inhabit it for long, and so at the moment I haven’t much to say about it, except that I found it profoundly moving, even if grossly violent.
The craft of this play is really amazing. McDonagh pulls off several reveals that chilled me — literally, my flesh crawled with fear and amazement.