Alice Munro Wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

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Canadian writer Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Munro, 82, has written over a dozen short story collections in her career. Most of her stories–composed in a mode of psychological realism reminiscent of 19th-century modernism—focus on the lives of people in a small rural pocket of Canada. Munro’s stories appear with an almost-alarming ubiquity, popping up every year in the big anthologies and the best magazines (Jonathan Franzen’s 2004 claim that “outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership” strikes me as odd).

For an appreciative and comprehensive look at her work, take a look at this guide at The Millions. For a contrarian take on Munro, read Christian Lorentzen’s essay in The LRB.

Or, better yet, make your own informed opinion by reading some of her stories:

“Boys and Girls”

“Gravel”

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

“Fiction”

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I Didn’t Like Joshua Cody’s Memoir [sic]

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Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic] showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago and despite my prejudices, I coasted through it over a few afternoons.

Those prejudices:

1) It’s a memoir.

2) There’s a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover.

3) The title [sic] is an unbearably too-clever pun (and this from a guy who loves puns).

The first thing I noticed about [sic] were the pictures : paintings, maps, charts, sketches, lists, collages, other texts, and so on interspersed throughout the text. I like pictures in books.

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The way that Cody uses these illustrations at first reminded me of  W.G. Sebald, who employed pictures in novels like Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in an oblique, documentary approach.

Cody is less oblique than Sebald, and perhaps flippant too. He doesn’t namecheck Sebald, at any rate, unlike David Byrne, who openly admitted to following Sebald’s path in his 2008 memoir Bicycle Diaries. (Cody does namecheck David Byrne though).

Then I edged my way into the plot, such as it is. I’ll lazily let publisher W.W. Norton summarize:

Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Facing a bone marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with beautiful Ariel, who gives him cocaine and a blow job in a Manhattan restaurant following his first treatment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed.

Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and studded with pages from his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.

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As Norton’s summary suggests, Cody’s memoir is highly discursive and playful, loaded with references to art, music, and literature. Digressions on figures like David Foster Wallace, Orson Welles, or Alexander Theroux lard the book—indeed, they often seem to edge out the story Cody intends to tell, his cancer memoir. He seems reticent to fully engage his own feelings, instead layering reference upon reference. These references become insufferable at times—are we supposed to care that Cody met David Lynch and would like to be his friend, or that Cody briefly studied ancient Greek? Cody is so busy trying to impress the reader that he forgets to express meaning.

We see this reticence, this turning away from, here over two pages: Cody moves from a story about buying a facsimile copy of Pound’s original draft of The Waste Land to a lengthy footnote that manages to name drop James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Woody Allen, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller (in just two sentences!) and then into a facsimile reproduction of one of the stories his brother would write for him as a child:

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The big problem with Cody’s memoir is that it never feels particularly real. I enjoy discursive referential postmodernism as much as the next fella, but [sic] often fails to cohere around a central idea, let alone an emotion. When Cody describes dating a stripper/dominatrix, it feels like a party trick, an inflated anecdote—there’s no emotional core, no contemplative connection to his illness. Other sexual episodes read like a parody of Henry Miller.

As its title suggests, [sic] is a dodge, a bait-and-switch, an evasion. Cody is clearly very clever—but a dazzling display of cleverness can’t sustain a narrative.

“Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man” — Read an Excerpt from the New David Foster Wallace Biography by D.T. Max

 

The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”

He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live … that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”

From D.T. Max’s forthcoming David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost StoryRead the rest of the excerpt.

 

The World Without You (Book Acquired, 4.19.2012)

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The World Without You is forthcoming this summer from Joshua Henkin (Pantheon). Write up from Publisher’s Weekly:

Like a more bittersweet version of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You or a less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Henkin (Matrimony) tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate. One year after the death of their kidnapped journalist son, Leo, in Iraq, David and Marilyn Frankel, non-practicing Jews, call their entire mishpocha to their summer home in the Berkshires to attend his memorial service: Clarissa and her husband, Nathaniel, who, after years of putting off parenthood, are having a difficult time getting pregnant; Lily, a D.C. lawyer who shows up without Malcolm, her restaurateur boyfriend of 10 years; Noelle, an Orthodox Jew who arrives from Jerusalem with her husband, Amram, and their four children; and Thisbe, Leo’s widow, a grad student who flies in from Berkeley with their three-year-old son, Calder. Over the course of the Fourth of July holiday, David and Marilyn will make a stunning announcement; Thisbe will reveal a secret; a game of Celebrity will cause Amram to drive off into the night; Leo will be remembered; and someone will pee on the carpet. The author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.

A Riff on the Kindle Fire

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1. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas this year, and have been using it for about a month now. I’m not sure how to go about “reviewing” this product, so I’m going to riff a bit.

2. Let’s get the whole Amazon-as-Evil-Empire thing out of the way up front: Yes, Amazon’s business practices are unsavory; yes, attempting to decimate the publishing industry as it currently exists is Not Good; yes, their practices threaten brick-and-mortar stores (the kind that actually pay local and state taxes!); yes their practices work to undermine key figures in the publishing industry—y’know, people like editors.

3. Picking up on that last clause: self-publishing (and the self-publishing “revolution” that e-readers like the Kindle Fire entail) may seem fine and dandy cotton candy, but there’s a reason that editors (and publishers and publicists, etc.) exist. These people make books better. These people make books. (And no, by the way, I’m not interested in reading your self-published ebook, so quit sending me email blasts).

4. Seems like I’m riffing out a lot of context, so let’s keep going: Perhaps you read whinypants Jonathan Franzen decrying the impending moral failures/societal breakdown that will result from ebooks replacing print editions. Franzen’s position is, of course, reactionary and conservative, and deeply rooted in the fear that the perfect Platonic permanence of books will be subverted or decimated.

5. Franzen’s reaction is rooted in part against a (common, teleological, utopian) misconception about the longevity and stability of digital content. Simply put, many people are operating under a dramatic misunderstanding of just how unstable digital content is. Where will all these books be stored, and in what format? Who will be responsible for archiving these materials?

6. A simple thought experiment, germane to item 5 above: Think back on all the obsolete media that you have used in your lifetime. I am in my thirties; my list would include cassette tapes, VHS tapes, laser disks, floppy disks, minidiscs, CDRs . . . (I don’t include vinyl records in this list. I still own hundreds of them and play them regularly).

7. To recontextualize: Printed books are a far more stable format than ebooks.

8. To wit: Ursula LeGuin in her essay “Staying Awake” from a 2008 issue of Harper’s:

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you are fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

9. Points 2-8 seem like so much hemming and hawing, so much reticence to discuss what I seemed to promise at the outset: Some sense of what reading on the Kindle Fire is like.

10. Some things I like very much about reading on the Kindle Fire:

It creates its own light for night reading.

It’s easy to highlight and annotate passages (and then open up a new screen to look at just those highlights and annotations, isolated from the text proper).

It’s lightweight and ergonomic and, when I read with it over my head, my wrists don’t constrict and go tingly.

It holds a lot of books.

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11. Some things I like about the Kindle Fire that I would think I wouldn’t like about the Kindle Fire, were I to read such a list from another person:

I can determine how far I have read into a book as a percentage.

I can stop and browse the internet in the middle of reading.

I can look up words or even wikis as I go by simply hovering a finger over a word or phrase.

12. My daughter loves the thing. Loves loves loves it. She is probably the primary user. She is four and a half. I think the interactive books she adores are marvelous.

13. Some things I don’t like about the Kindle Fire:

No book smell.

One texture for all books: This is probably the biggest problem I can see with the Kindle Fire.

It requires a battery charge, so there’s a built in level of accessibility; a sense that one must needs “prepare” ahead of time to read, perhaps (unlike our old friend the print book, which only requires a light source).

No bath time reading.

I can’t read it around my daughter, because she will attempt to take it, or, at minimum, curl up in my lap.

It is not possible to have like three or four books open at once.

Can’t read .cbr files. Why? Why?

I had to buy a USB micro B cable to connect the Kindle to the computer that I use to store digital content. Why not include this cable, Amazon? (It’s almost as if the company wants consumers to be solely reliant on Amazon’s services as a content provider . . .)

14. I’ve found it nearly impossible to read an electronic book on the Kindle that I started as a print book. For example, I’m about half-way through Teju Cole’s novel Open City; the kind publicist who sent it to me also sent me an electronic version of the text. I began the print copy in earnest, but the other night, after reading a bit of Hawthorne on the Kindle, I found myself wanting to sink back into Cole’s Sebaldian orbit. When I found my place in the text though, I felt alienated, bleak even, as if I were not reading the definitive version of Cole’s book but instead its cheap ghost. There is no intellectual or objective justification for this feeling. Call it a vibe or a habit.

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15. Books that I enjoy reading on the Kindle Fire:

David Markson’s The Last Novel, which perhaps begs to be read on such a device.

Anything by Nietzsche, but his aphoristic works especially.

A .pdf version of Luigi Serafini’s rare and expensive book The Codex Seraphinianus (one of many verboten tomes on my Kindle, but remember the name of this site if you please . . .)

Anything by Whitman, especially letters and other non-essentials that I would not normally pursue.

Ditto Hawthorne.

Ditto Dickinson.

Ditto Melville.

Oh, and beyond the overlooked and underfamous works of certain American Renaissance faves: Moby-Dick too, which seems looser, freer, more aphoristic on the Kindle. (Why?)

Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which seems simultaneously dated and futuristic. Like William Gibson with a strong streak of Pynchonian sillies.

And Gibson: Rereading Burning Chrome. Had forgotten how good some of these shorts are.

Houellebecq’s Whatever: its brevity, its succinctness gels with my nascent Kindle habits, or perhaps instructs my Kindle habits, or more likely creates my Kindle habits.

16. To return to a point in #13 above: The Kindle Fire necessarily imposes a uniform texture on every book that one reads on it; this would be true of any e-reader. Sure, you can change the background (white, black, or a sepia color, which is what I prefer), fonts, sizes, spacing, etc. — but there is no sense of physicality, of individual identity, of, dare I say it, specialness, to the texts. I am aware that these are terribly subjective and overtly Romantic terms, but hell, I like physical books. I like their covers and their smells and their discolorations. I like leaving bookmarks in every book that I finish or abandon—I almost always find a new bookmark for every book that I read (the autobookmark on the Kindle is useful, but how can it compare with a photograph of my son or drawing by my daughter or a postcard from a stranger or a scrap of poetry from a discontinued textbook or an old grocery list of my wife’s from years before we were married?).

17. I titled this post “A Riff on the Kindle Fire,” but that’s a bit ambiguous I suppose: I did not compose the post on the Kindle Fire, which I find awkward re: blogging/wordprocessing. I used a laptop (with some help from an iPhone). Maybe the preposition “about” would be more suitable.

18. By way of closing, after four weeks with the thing:

It’s light.

It’s convenient for night reading, but you probably shouldn’t take it in the bath.

No book smell.

I Riff on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel J R (From About Half Way Through)

1. I want to write about William Gaddis’s novel J R, which I am about half way through now.

2. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version, read with operatic aplomb by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been rereading bits here and there in my trade paperback copy.

3. What is J R about? Money. Capitalism. Art. Education. Desperate people. America.

4. The question posed in #3 is a fair question, but probably not the right question, or at least not the right first question about J R. Instead—What is the form of J RHow is J R?

5. A simple answer is that the novel is almost entirely dialog, usually unattributed (although made clear once one learns the reading rules for J R). These episodes of dialogue are couched in brief, pristine, precise, concrete—yet poetic—descriptions of setting. Otherwise, no exposition. Reminiscent of a movie script, almost.

6. A more complex answer: J R, overstuffed with voices, characters (shadows and doubles), and motifs, is an opera, or a riff on an opera, at least.

7. A few of the motifs in J R: paper, shoes, opera, T.V. equipment, entropy, chaos, novels, failure, frustration, mechanization, noise, hunting, war, music, commercials, trains, eruptions of nonconformity, advertising, the rotten shallowness of modern life . . .

8. Okay, so maybe that list of motifs dipped into themes. It’s certainly incomplete (but my reading of J R is incomplete, so . . .)

9. Well hang on so what’s it about? What happens?—This is a hard question to answer even though there are plenty of concrete answers. A little more riffage then—

10. Our eponymous hero, snot-nosed JR (of the sixth grade) amasses a paper fortune by trading cheap stocks. He does this from a payphone (that he engineers to have installed!) in school.

11. JR’s unwilling agent—his emissary into the adult world—is Edward Bast, a struggling young composer who is fired from his teaching position at JR’s school after going (quite literally) off script during a lesson.

12. Echoes of Bast: Thomas Eigen, struggling writer. Jack Gibbs, struggling writer human. Gibbs, a frustrated, exasperated, alcoholic intellectual is perhaps the soul of the book. (Or at least my favorite character).

13. Characters in J R tend to be frustrated or oblivious. The oblivious characters tend to be rich and powerful; the frustrated tend to be artistic and intellectual.

14. Hence, satire: J R is very, very funny.

15. J R was published over 35 years ago, but its take on Wall Street, greed, the mechanization of education, the marginalization of art in society, and the increasing anti-intellectualism in America is more relevant than ever.

16. So, even when J R is funny, it’s also deeply sad.

17. Occasionally, there’s a histrionic pitch to Gaddis’s dialog: his frustrated people, in their frustrated marriages and frustrated jobs, explode. But J R is an opera, I suppose, and we might come to accept histrionics in an opera.

18. Young JR is a fascinating study, an innocent of sorts who attempts to navigate the ridiculous rules of his society. He is immature; he lacks human experience (he’s only 11, after all), and, like most young children, lacks empathy or foresight. He’s the perfect predatory capitalist.

19. All the love (whether familial or romantic or sexual) in J R (thus far, anyway) is frustrated, blocked, barred, delayed, interrupted . . .

20. I’m particularly fascinated by the scenes in JR’s school, particularly the ones involving Principal Whiteback, who, in addition to his educational duties, is also president of a local bank. Whiteback is a consummate yes man; he babbles out in an unending stammer of doubletalk; he’s a fount of delicious ironic humor. Sadly though, he’s also absolutely real, the kind of educational administrator who thinks a school should be run like a corporation.

21. The middlebrow novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has the unlikely and undeserved reputation of being a literary genius, famously called Gaddis “Mr. Difficult” (in an essay of the same name).

22. Franzen’s essay is interesting and instructive though flawed (he couldn’t make it through the second half of J R). From the essay:

“J R” is written for the active reader. You’re well advised to carry a pencil with which to flag plot points and draw flow charts on the inside back cover. The novel is a welter of dozens of interconnecting scams, deals, seductions, extortions, and betrayals. Between scenes, when the dialogue yields briefly to run-on sentences whose effect is like a blurry handheld video or a speeded-up movie, the images that flash by are of denatured, commercialized landscapes — trees being felled, fields paved over, roads widened — that recall to the modern reader how aesthetically shocking postwar automotive America must have been, how dismaying and portentous the first strip malls, the first five-acre parking lots.

23. Franzen, of course, is not heir to Gaddis. If there is one (and there doesn’t need to be, but still), it’s David Foster Wallace. Reading J R I am constantly reminded of Wallace’s work.

24. But also Joyce. J R is thoroughly Joycean, at least in its formal aspects: that friction between the deteriorated language of commerce and the high aims of art; the sense and sound and rhythms of the street. (Is there a character more frustrated in Western literature than Stephen Dedalus? Surely he finds some heirs in Gibbs, Bast, and Eigen . . .)

25. Gaddis denied (or at least deflected) a Joycean influence. Better to say then that they were both writing the 20th century, only from different ends of said century.

26. And then a question for navel-gazing lit major types, a question of little import, perhaps a meaningless question (certainly a dull one for most decent folks): Is J R late modernism or postmodernism? Late-late modernism?

27. Gaddis shows a touch of the nameyphilia that we see (out of control) in Pynchon: Hence, Miss Flesch, Father Haight, the diCephalis family, Nurse Waddams, Stella Angel, Major Hyde, etc.

28. To return to the plot, or the non-plot, of J R: As I’ve said, I’m only half way through the thing, but I can’t see its shape. That sentence might need a “yet” at the end; or, J R might be so much chaos.

29. In any case, I will report again at the end, if not sooner.

Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages

Genre fiction gets a bad rap from some readers and critics because it often rigidly follows a set of formal conventions, from plot to character to prose, to satisfy reader expectations. One mark of literary fiction, in opposition to genre fiction, might be that the literary work disrupts or destabilizes these conventions (works that get called experimental tend to explode these conventions or radically recombine them). Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon (and elsewhere), argues that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power; in some cases, he argues, this strangeness assimilates us (the readers, the culture) to the point that we can no longer recognize its strangeness. While Bloom may be a pompous windbag (and really, what literary critic worth his salt isn’t?), and I don’t always agree with him (especially in his unrelenting agon with “The School of Resentment”), I think he’s given us a good rubric by which to measure or understand what sets great literature apart from the ordinary, the conventional, the ephemeral.

I bring all of this up because it seems to me that literary fiction is its own genre, one with its own conventions, tropes, and formulations. The genre of literary fiction is as much a marketing tool, of course, as it is a set of conventions, and publishers release these books because the author’s Great Ambition and Sterling Prose and Big Ideas (in theory) cast esteem back on the publisher. And while there are plenty of great books with major houses behind them, many books claiming to be “literary fiction” are simply conventional retreads of an antiquated formula, outfitted in the grand themes of the day (these days, that tends to “identity”). These books offer no strangeness, make no attempt to open the realm of literary possibility. They are intellectual comfort food. And there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with a good mystery novel. But I think we lie to ourselves when we overinflate the powers of our “literary” novelists. I enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’s middlebrow Middlesex as much as the next lad, for example, but still find it wildly overrated. Another example: Michael Chabon is not my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t argue against his talent. Still, even when he attempts the strange (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, for example), he’s blandly trying territory already colonized by others. Give me Philip K. Dick or George V. Higgins any day.

My favorite novels tend toward strangeness; they upset or confound or baffle me. I love it when I have no idea what the novelist is doing. And while reckless innovation or experimentation for its own sake can sometimes fall flat (or fall apart), an interesting failure is better than another complacent, forgettable entry in the non-canon of contemporary “literary fiction.”

Which brings me to Chad Harbach’s wildly over-hyped novel The Art of Fielding.

Let me be up front: Yes, this is backlash. The acclaim directed at this novel deserves backlash—although I’d like to be clear up front that I’m not trying to attack the novel itself; that would be like attacking a run-of-the-mill sci-fi novel for indulging in run-of-the-mill sci-fi tropes. My aim is simply to point out that Harbach’s book is no great feat of literature, no work of astounding genius—it’s just run-of-the-mill literary fiction. And yes, I didn’t read past page 100, which conveniently is the last page of chapter 11. Why would I slog it out through 400 more pages when there are so many great books in the world that I haven’t read and precious little time in which to read them? And that’s the point of the rant that follows.

The book is not entirely terrible. It just isn’t very good, certainly not good enough to warrant the excessive praise that’s been heaped upon it. Cardboard characters, cliché after cliché (plot, character, prose), and plenty of bad writing. The dialogue is particularly heinous; I’m fine with unrealistic speech, but Harbach lacks subtlety or style. In fact, the book lost me on page 18, when the character Owen Dunne introduces himself to the protagonist Henry Skrimshander with this groan-inducing nugget: “My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” I suppose that the line is meant to be heard in a perhaps ironically self-reflexive sense—a metafictive gesture that extends from Dunne to the audience, like a knowing wink (and bypassing poor boring Henry), but it strikes me instead as utterly tone-deaf, showing us nothing about Dunne and his (supposed hip) cleverness and everything about Harbach’s inability to create concrete, real characters.

Dunne is a particularly grating character in a novel full of grating characters. The worst aspect of this character is that he is presented as an intellectual, but Harbach fails to harness his intellect in the text. We are told the names of some of the authors in his library; we hear some of his pretentious speech; he tells us how smart he is, and one senses that Harbach would have us believe him—only at no point in the first 100 pages are we treated to any real aspect of his intelligence. Critics, or people who write about books, have bent over backwards to call Fielding a smart book, to liken it to Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace or, Jesus Christ, even Herman Melville. But Dunne is the simplest illustration that Harbach’s bench isn’t very deep; there is nothing here to approximate the mind of Hal Incandenza or the heart of Don Gately; there’s certainly no one here on par with Ishmael. But this is hardly Harbach’s fault, of course. Who can make an Ishmael?

If I appear to be attacking Harbach, please let me clarify: I think that he’s written a passable novel in the genre of “literary fiction” (which I contrast here now, for the sake of clarity, with strong literature or even canonical literature, if you like). But this book isn’t another Infinite Jest or Moby-Dick (as if one could even speak of “another” Moby-Dick); it isn’t even in the same league, and its champions do it no favors in overpraising it.

Let’s take a peak at some of that purple praise:

Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who, granted, manages to be wrong about almost everything all the time, but her gushing here is especially egregious—

Chad Harbach’s book “The Art of Fielding” is not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud and “The Southpaw” by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.

Mr. Harbach, a co-founder and co-editor of the literary journal n + 1, has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds. He also manages to rework the well-worn, much-allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life’s dreams, disappointments and hopes of redemption) and injecting them with new energy. In doing so he has written a novel that is every bit as entertaining as it is affecting.

She gets a few things right: Harbach’s characters are “quirky,” in the completely-unrealistic-and-totally-annoying sense; also, yes, the book is full of “tired tropes.” But the rest? I metaphorically throw up in my brain when I read her claim that these “vulnerable and fully imagined characters . . .  instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds.” Get me the fuck out of your pronouns, Kakutani. Because Kakutani’s honeyed spewing was not enough, for some reason, the Times ran another glowing review just a few days later, where Gregory Clowes suggests—

Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers (Harbach is a founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1), “The Art of Fielding” is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved. There’s some strained humor in the early going, when Harbach seems unsure of his register, but once he settles into a mildly satiric mode of psychological realism — the mode of latter-day Jonathan Franzen, rather than the high turbulence of David Foster Wallace — the book assumes an attractive, and fitting, 19th-century stateliness.

Franzen, whose blurb blazons Fielding’s cover, is an apt comparison (over-hyped, turgid, boring, middle class, middlebrow). And even though Wallace’s The Pale King was over-hyped in the wake of his suicide, I think the Franzen/Wallace disjunction is informative here: Wallace’s work is challenging, disruptive, strange.

When Clowes points out how “old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved” Fielding is, he signals the same sense of comfort that Kakutani finds in the work: Like most middling works of the “literary fiction” genre, Fielding provides its audience a sense of comfort, a confirmation that the literary constructions (and worldviews) of yore still exist.

Clowes then brings up the Herman Melville references in Fielding, which aren’t so much allusions as they are lazy infodumps about more interesting books. At least Clowes has the good sense not to find parallels between Melville’s grand, strange writing and Harbach’s bland business, unlike Ellen Wernecke at The AV Club, who wrote—

Harbach takes plenty of cues from other great baseball novels, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, but more so from Melville, in a display of cleverness that wraps around Westish life.

Harbach’s “display of cleverness” is absolutely the problem. Who wants a display of cleverness? To me, the first fifth of Fielding reads like a self-congratulatory wankfest of cleverness, where the audience is invited to alternately smirk or nod sagely (blankly), with protagonist Henry playing the small town rube (butt of the joke) and the fish out of water (audience surrogate in what is supposed to be the fascinating world of Westish, a stand-in for Harvard in the Midwest, which, let me just stop to say, is one of the more unconvincing settings I’ve ever read). There is no challenge to the reader; even worse, Harbach seems to rely on some sense of fellow-feeling or shared common ground from his readers to land his points. Home games are always easier. The reward Harbach offers seems to be a simple reconfirmation of the forms and tropes and tired language of the “literary fiction” genre.

I detest negative book reviews as much as I hate overpraise, so let me conclude by offering a short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask,  Lars Iyer’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise . . . but now I am riffing wankerishly—never my intent here. Just didn’t want to end on a negative note. I’d love to hear what I missed on this list.

Book Acquired, 9.06.11

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The kind people at Picador sent me a copy of the trade paperback of this book called Freedom by some guy named Jonathan Franzen. The hardback came out last year, but it kinda went under the radar; one of those obscure underground reads. Maybe he’ll have more success in the paperback (it’s certainly lighter). The book has apparently been BeDazzled, too—a nice touch. The bird’s eye is this bumpy little bumpy bump—I tried to angle the cover so you might see it in the closeup below, but I’m not sure if it comes across.

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Heroes of 2010 — Those Guys Who Stole Jonathan Franzen’s Glasses

On October 4th of this year, right in the midst of Franzen-mania (and Franzenfreude), two ballsy Londoners jacked Jonathan Franzen’s signature spectacles during a Hyde Park bookstore launch party for Freedom. They left a ransom note asking for $100,000, but were eventually caught, and the glasses were returned. Now, if only someone could do him a favor and steal his silly leather jacket because, jeez, c’mon.

Books of 2010 — Noteworthy, Notorious, and Neglected

Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–

Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.

Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.

David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.

Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.

Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.

Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”

DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).

The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.

Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.

Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).

So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.