Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


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McSweeney’s #4 (Box of Books Acquired 6.14.2012)

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The novelist John Warner (The Funny Man), in an act of incredible kindness, sent me a copy of McSweeney’s #4, which he helped to put out years ago. In one of our emails, John offers the following:

It could be the best issue ever, a kind of platonic ideal of the McSweeney’s aesthetic before people started saying that things had a McSweeney’s aesthetic, a more innocent time if you will. My memory is that we were selling them at a live event at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in Chicago that we set up to help promote Neal Pollack’s book, and somehow the leftovers wound up in my trunk and I’ve been hauling them place to place ever since. . .

It’s a sort of fun artifact of the early/carefree days of McSweeney’s before Dave was DAVE, and the whole thing was still very haphazard.

It’s difficult to overstate the range of writers here: Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, a three-act play by Denis Johnson, and much, much more:

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 There are also many short stories, including “On the Set” by John Warner, his second published story:

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It’s wonderfully absurd.

To read something hilarious and absurd and ultimately kind of touching, read John’s interview with critic Kevin Morris, who hated The Funny Man.

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley

Prospero and Miranda–William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.


Six (More) Stoner Novels (And a Bonus Short Story)

A few years ago, to celebrate 4/20, Sam Munson at the Daily Beast wrote an article praising “The Best Stoner Novels.” Not a bad list—Wonder Boys, sure, Invisible Man, a bit of a stretch, The Savage Detectives, a very big stretch, but sure, why not. Anyway, six more stoner novels (not that we advocate the smoking of the weed)—

Junkie, William Burroughs

Burroughs’s (surprisingly lucid) early novel Junkie may take its name from heroin, but it’s full of weed smoking. Lesson: weed smoking leads to heroin. And the inevitable search for yage.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Doc Sportello, the wonky PI at the off-center of Pynchon’s California noir, is always in the process of lighting another joint, if not burning his fingers on the edges of a roach. A fuzzy mystery with smoky corners.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Hal Incandenza, protagonist of Wallace’s opus, spends much of his time hiding in the tunnels of Enfield Tennis Academy, feeding his bizarre marijuana addiction, which is, in many ways, more of an addiction to a secret ritual than to a substance. Hal’s hardly the only character in IJ who likes his Mary Jane; there’s a difficult section near the novel’s beginning that features a minor character preparing to go on a major weed binge. His pre-smoking anxiety works as a challenge to any reader seeking to enter the world of Infinite Jest.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m pretty sure “pipe-weed” isn’t tobacco.

Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem

I kind of hated Chronic City, a novel where characters seem to light up joints on every other page. It seems to have been written in an ambling, rambling fog, absent of any sense of immediacy, urgency, or, uh, plot. Bloodless stuff, but, again, very smoky.

Stoner, John Williams

Okay. Stoner has nothing to do with marijuana. But, hey, it’s called Stoner, right?

Bonus short story: Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Carver’s classic story features a myopic narrator who comes up against his own shortcomings when he meets an old friend of his wife, a blind man who ironically sees deeper than he does. After drinking too much booze, they spark up, share a doob, and take in a documentary about European cathedrals. Great stuff.


Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

William Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer — Gregg Williard

“Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer” by Gregg Williard (More graphs/via).

All of David Markson’s References in The Last Novel to Walt Whitman

All of David Markson’s references in The Last Novel to Walt Whiman:

I am he that aches with amorous love.            Wrote Whitman.

Walter, leave off.

Wrote D. H. Lawrence.

Walt Whitman’s claim — never in any way verified — that he had fathered at least six illegitimate children.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, on realizing that he feels a certain kinship with Whitman:

As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a very pleasant confession.

A writer of something occasionally like English — and a man of something occasionally like genius.

Swinburne called Whitman.

Future generations will regard Bob Dylan with the awe reserved for Blake, Whitman, Picasso and the like.

Said an otherwise seemingly rational writer named Jonathan Lethem.

Before the Euro, the portrait of Yeats on Ireland’s twenty-pound note.

America’s Whitman twenty-dollar bill, when?

The Melville ten?

Twenty-five years after his death, Poe’s remains were disinterred from what had been little better than a pauper’s grave and reburied more formally.

Walt Whitman, who made the journey from Camden to Baltimore in spite of being disabled from a recent stroke, was the only literary figure to appear at the ceremonies.

“The Empty Room” — Jonathan Lethem

You can read “The Empty Room” by Jonathan Lethem in full at The Paris Review; the piece is part of the new summer issue, which is pretty great so far (Bolaño, William Gibson, poems, art, etc.). From “The Empty Room”—

Earliest memory: father tripping on strewn toys, hopping with toe outraged, mother’s rolling eyes. For my father had toys himself. He once brought a traffic light home to our apartment on the thirty-somethingth floor of the tower on Columbus Avenue. The light, its taxi yellow gone matte from pendulum-years above some polluted intersection and crackled like a Ming vase’s glaze where bolts had been overtightened and then eased, sat to one side of the coffee table it was meant to replace as soon as my father found an ­appropriate top. In fact, the traffic light would follow us up the Hudson, to Darby, to the house with the empty room. There it never escaped the garage.

The Novelist’s Lexicon

The Novelist’s Lexicon, new in hardback from Columbia University Press, is an auspicious and at times bewildering project originating from an international literary conference hosted by Le Monde a few years ago. Over seventy authors from more than a dozen countries were asked to write about a “key word that opens the door to his work.” A list of just a few of the authors here is probably more than enough to pique interest: Rick Moody, Helene Cixous, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Thirlwell, A.S. Byatt, David Peace, Dennis Cooper, and Annie Proulx all contribute pieces, mostly short, somewhere between 100 and 500 words. By nature, The Novelist’s Lexicon is a fragmentary affair, discontinuous, open to multiplicity, and unified only by its authors’ sense of craft, as well as an abiding intelligence.

Some authors take the project in earnest, like Lethem, whose piece “Furniture,” (which we excerpted late last year) pinpoints a fundamental yet largely unremarked upon element of novel-writing. French author Nicholas Fargues taps into etymology, offering a bit of advice in his piece “Novice”–

Don’t ‘make’ literature. Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a ‘writer.’ Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims; that’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow; let the aptest words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord.

Anne Weber’s piece “Waiting/Attention” suggests that a key word — or any key, really — is an impossible dream–

It would be a word that encapsulated my aspirations and expectations, my sadness and my joy, my amazement at the quince’s hairy skin, the wash of the sky, and the delicate pattern of the cyclamen’s leaves. And since everything would be contained in this single, essential word, since it would express everything, I wouldn’t need to write anymore. And good riddance, too!

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who goes with “Un-” also points to language’s simultaneous limitations and possibilities–

Un- as in never being satisfied with the language we have. Un- as in the realization of how difficult it is to communicate with people in a language you have invented yourself. Un- as in doubting whether you will ever succeed. Un- as in continuing to try even so. Un- as in suddenly launching yourself over a coffee table and transforming a dictionary into confetti.

Khemiri’s frustration with language (and paradoxical love) is thematic throughout Lexicon; we see it, for instance in David Peace’s “Plague.” Peace comes off like the crotchety old man in the group–

To be honest or stupid or both, but not churlish or contrary (I hope), I am uncertain I understand the premise of this lexicon. However, I am against the presumption of all premises and, equally, I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.

After this radical caveat, including the claim that he is under “duress” (did the folks at Le Monde put guns to these authors’ heads?), Peace goes on to discuss the word “plague,” tracing it through Western lit and showing how it evinces in his novel Occupied City (which we reviewed here, by the way).

Perhaps Peace should’ve just ignored the assignment, like Dennis Cooper, whose piece is “Signed D.C.” is simply a work of microfiction, imagining what would happen if Olive Oyl and Popeye who “peel like decals from the TV and live in the world.” The story is a clever, short five paragraphs, and ends with at least a trace of insight into Cooper’s writing process: “I am heavier than my constructions understand.” Maybe he didn’t ignore the assignment.

Cooper is not the only writer to let fiction reign — there are poems and meditations and strange riffs here, largely divorced of discussion from technique or craft. In any case, those interested in getting into the heads of some of the 21st century’s most prominent (and skillful) writers will wish to take notice of The Novelist’s Lexicon, a fun and repeatedly rewarding book. Recommended.

“Furniture” — Jonathan Lethem

In The Novelist’s Lexicon (new from Columbia University Press), over 70 prominent writers (including Rick Moody, A. S. Byatt, Etgar Keret, Annie Proulx, Elif Shafak, Colum McCann, and Tariq Ali) choose a single word as an inroad to discuss their work. Here’s Jonathan Lethem on furniture–

However appalling to consider, however tedious to enact, every novel requires furniture, whether it is to be named or unnamed, for the characters will be unable to remain in standing positions for the duration of the story. For that matter, when night falls—whether it is depicted or occurs between chapters—characters must be permitted to sleep in beds, to rinse their faces in sinks, to glance into mirrors, and so on. (It is widely believed that after Borges, mirrors are forbidden as symbols in novels. However, it is cruel to deny the characters in a novel sight of their own faces; hence mirrors must be provided.) These rules apply no matter how tangential the novel’s commitment to so-called realism, no matter how avant-garde or capricious, no matter how revolutionary or bourgeois. Furniture may be explicit or implicit, visible or invisible; may bear the duty of conveying social and economic detail or be merely cursorily functional; may be stolen or purchased, borrowed, destroyed, replaced; may be sprinkled with crumbs of food or splashed with drink; may remain immaculate; may be transformed into artworks by aspiring bohemians; may be inherited by characters from uncles who die before the action of the novel begins; may reward careful inspection of the cushions and seams for loose change that has fallen from pockets; may be collapsible, portable; may even be dragged into the house from the beach where it properly belongs—but, in any event, it must absolutely exist. Anything less is cruelty.

 

Jonathan Lethem Talks to Patti Smith

The Paris Review Interviews Jonathan Lethem

Spanish-language blog La fortaleza de la soledad has republished The Paris Review’s interview with Jonathan Lethem. Cool interview–Lethem talks about his hippie parents, going to school with Bret Easton Ellis, explains why William Gibson is the new Thomas Pynchon, and discusses his novels at length. From the interview –

I felt I ought to thrive on my fate as an outsider. Being a paperback writer was meant to be part of that. I really, genuinely wanted to be published in shabby pocket-sized editions and be neglected—and then discovered and vindicated when I was fifty. To honor, by doing so, Charles Willeford and Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Disch, these exiles within their own culture. I felt that was the only honorable path.

Vice Interviews Bret Easton Ellis

Vice interviews Bret Easton Ellis at length. Topics include troublesome editors, that “Cranky old bastard” J.D. Salinger (“who hated us all, by the way”), the weirdness of L.A., and his forthcoming novel Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to his first big hit Less Than Zero. Here’s a taste of the interview, where BEE talks (mild smack) about Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and former classmate Jonathan Lethem:

Vice: [I]t seems like people will never get tired of probing you about how much of your fiction is autobiographical.
BEE: I wonder why? No other authors, when I read about them, get asked this. Michael Chabon doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Lethem doesn’t get asked this. I get asked this. Maybe because I’m just not as good a writer as they are.

Vice: No. You’re as good or better than all of them. But I don’t know, I don’t want to get off topic too much. Never mind.
BEE: I want you to just briefly get off topic. You can say anything you want to me. I really don’t know any of them. I mean, I know them kind of, but I’m not friends with any of them.

Vice: I like Chabon, but I get this weird sense that I wouldn’t like him as a person. Not that that matters, of course.
BEE: No, it doesn’t matter. Always look at the art, not the artist.

Vice: But it’s difficult for me sometimes. I think there’s something kind of too cute about Lethem, or at least something too cute about his last novel, Chronic City.
BEE: I really like The Fortress of Solitude. That’s the only book of his I’ve liked. And the only book of Michael Chabon’s that I really liked was Kavalier & Clay.

Vice: That was great.
BEE: And I really don’t like anything by Jonathan Franzen but The Corrections, which I think is a great American novel.

Vice: Those are kind of their inarguable books I guess, those three.
BEE: Yeah, but everything else by those three is just, you know, I go, “Grrrrrr.” You know, I went to school with Jonathan Lethem.

Vice: Oh, really?
BEE: We were in the same class at Bennington.

Vice: I didn’t know that. What was he like in school?
BEE: Nice. He was a nice guy. I had no idea that he wanted to be a writer. He wasn’t in any of the main workshops. Like Donna Tartt would be in there, and Jill Eisenstadt. You know, the people who really wanted to write were the people who always managed to get into the major workshop that term. And Jonathan never got into any of them. And then I got a galley in the mail a long time after we graduated, and it was for a novel by Jonathan Lethem about talking animals or something. And I was like, “What the hell is this?”

Jonathan Lethem’s Self-portrait

From McSweeney’s 34, out now.