Posts tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’

April 20, 2013

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

by Biblioklept

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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June 29, 2012

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

by Biblioklept

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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.

June 17, 2012

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

by Biblioklept

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.


April 20, 2012

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

by Biblioklept

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.


April 1, 2012

Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

by Biblioklept

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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.

March 26, 2012

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

by Biblioklept

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

March 8, 2012

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

by Biblioklept

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.

June 20, 2011

“The Empty Room” — Jonathan Lethem

by Biblioklept

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.

January 15, 2011

The Novelist’s Lexicon

by Edwin Turner

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.

November 30, 2010

“Furniture” — Jonathan Lethem

by Biblioklept

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.

 

November 21, 2010

Jonathan Lethem Talks to Patti Smith

by Biblioklept
August 10, 2010

The Paris Review Interviews Jonathan Lethem

by Biblioklept

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.

May 11, 2010

Vice Interviews Bret Easton Ellis

by Biblioklept

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?”

April 19, 2010

Jonathan Lethem’s Self-portrait

by Biblioklept

From McSweeney’s 34, out now.

March 3, 2010

Book Covers: Brits vs. Yanks

by Biblioklept

Thanks to C. Max Magee at The Millions for making Biblioklept’s Book Covers Week so much easier. What can we say, we’re lazy. Here’s his fun post on American book covers versus British editions. And, just to prove that we’re not that lazy, we did two of our own:

The American version of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, on the left, attempts to capture some of the book’s wistful tone and convey its sense of desert geography and handling of epochal time. But against this background, the book’s vaguely military name enclosed by that infinity loop all sort of looks a bit like like an espionage thriller. We’re not really thrilled about the British cover either–black, white, and gray might look better than the cool blues here–but its energy and sense of disconnection better suit DeLillo’s spare, sad novella than the American cover.

We like both of these covers more than we liked the actual book, but damn if the British cover (on the right) isn’t one of the best editions we’ve ever seen. Someone give the designer a cookie. Or a prize. Or something.

November 28, 2009

Cormac McCarthy’s Issues of Life and Death, Hans Fallada’s Complex Resistance, and Jonathan Lethem’s Bloodless Prose

by Edwin Turner

In a 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy famously said that he only cares for writers who  “deal with issues of life and death.” He disses Proust and Henry James, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Because he has granted so few interviews–and come off so guarded in those he has done–McCarthy’s dictum on “good writers” has perhaps become a bit inflated, elevated from one man’s opinion to a grand litmus test of literary worth. Still, I often find myself putting the books I read under the McCarthy stress-test: do they narrativize the Darwinian drama of life and death? Or are they simply bloodless spectacles of rhetoric, ephemeral social critiques, or faddish forays into solipsism? McCarthy’s targets, Proust and James, arguably do address life and death issues in their works, but when compared to McCarthy’s heroes–Melville, Faulkner, Dostoevsky–the social fictions of Proust and James seem wan, or at least too subtle and overly-coded. The two novels I’m currently working through, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, illustrate not just the poles of McCarthy’s dichotomy, but also why many readers (myself included) tend to prefer that their novels address matters of life and death.

Every Man Dies Alone, first published in German in 1947, is available for the first time ever in English, thanks to translator Michael Hoffman (if you’ve read Kafka in English, you’ve probably read Hoffman’s work) and the good folks at Melville House. Fallada’s novel tells the story of German resistance to the Nazi regime, not at an aristocratic or militaristic level (this isn’t Valkyrie), or even a literary or philosophical level, but at the level of every day, ordinary existence. After the death of their son in battle, Otto and Anna Quangel initiate a campaign of resistance to the Nazi party, one that is of course doomed from the outset. The Quangels soon involve Eva Kluge, among others, in their covert resistance cell. Kluge is a letter-carrier who becomes disgusted with the moral implications of the regime; she’s also deeply embittered by the way Nazi rule has systemically destroyed her family. Kluge’s peripatetic job helps to enact Fallada’s major rhetorical gesture, a sweeping busyness that vividly recreates the life of ordinary Germans during the rule of the Third Reich. We might begin in Kluge’s mind as she embarks to deliver a letter, only to find ourselves awash in the thoughts of its recipient a few pages later. Fallada’s omniscient third-person narrator moves freely from one character’s consciousness to another’s, shifting fluidly from the immediacy of present tense to the solidity of past tense. It’s modernism (whatever that means)–Tolstoy without the rich and famous, Joyce without the mythos and erudition, but deeply engaging in its scope. WWII has produced a seemingly endless myriad of narratives, yet Fallada’s tome is the first that I’ve experienced of its kind. Perhaps its subject matter–the lives of ordinary Germans and their unsuccessful attempts to resist the mundane evil all around them–is simply not the stuff that we want from our war stories, and perhaps this is why the book has been absent so long from an English translation. It’s evocative of a world that I had never really considered before: after all, the narrative of WWII is far easier to comprehend if you retain the simplicity of the good guys (the Allies), the bad guys (the Nazis), and the victims (the Jewish population of Europe). Ordinary Germans have only one place in this uncomplicated system, which is why the story of the Quangels and their cohort is so profound (oh, the Quangels are based on the real-life Nazi resisters Otto and Elise Hampel, if you must know). Driven in part by despair, they seek to forge meaning in their lives, even if its at the cost of death, or the horrors of a concentration camp. To return to McCarthy’s caveat, Fallada’s novel is a work that dramatizes life and death against a decidedly unheroic backdrop, a novel that makes its reader repeatedly ask himself whether or not he would be, to use another McCarthyism (from The Road) one of the “good guys.” Great stuff, and so far one of the better novels we’ve read this year. Go get it.

It’s perhaps unfair to lump Lethem’s latest in a review with Fallada, given the historical complexity of Every Man Dies Alone‘s milieu. Still, I’ve been reading my review copies of both novels over this long weekend, trying to catch up, and I find that I would almost always rather pick up Fallada’s book. It compels me, whereas, half way through Chronic City, I still find nothing to care about, no risk, no cost, no guts. No matters of life and death. The novel centers around former-child actor Chase Insteadman, whose directionless existence seems to thematically underpin the book. Chase moves from party to party in a fictitious Manhattan, charming various socialites and keeping boredom (marginally) at bay. He soon hooks up with Perkus Tooth, a marijuana-addicted pop culture critic, whose characteristics will be familiar to pretty much anyone who earned a liberal arts degree in college. Tooth seems to function largely as a mouthpiece for Lethem to espouse various opinions on movies and books and art. It’s a clumsy device as it doesn’t shade the character–it’s simply Lethem couching his cultural criticism in the comfort of a work of fiction. In a particularly telling scene, Perkus picks up a copy of The New York Times and thinks that it feels too light. He looks up at the right-hand corner: “WAR FREE EDITION. Ah yes, he’d heard about this. You could opt out now.” Perkus seems to deliver the line as a criticism, but it’s Lethem who’s opting out. He drops hints of destruction and annihilation and disintegration in the novel–there’s a giant tiger on the loose somewhere in Manhattan; Chase’s fiancée floats estranged in space, stranded on the International Space Station; a crooked mayor is up to dastardly shenanigans–but Lethem protects his characters from it all in an insulating cocoon of marijuana smoke and pop trivia. Their forays into the darkness of Manhattan’s mysteries are meant to play both humorously but also with enough danger to fully invest a reader’s attention (think of Lethem’s more successful sci-noir Gun, with Occasional Music, or his detective thriller Motherless Brooklyn). Instead, the adventures fall flat, collapsing back into Perkus’s apartment, a vortex of (ultimately meaningless) pop culture. While the novel is by no means terrible–it’s well-written, of course–there is simply a tremendous lack of the “life and death” stuff that McCarthy–and other readers–require. In short–and in contrast with Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone–it does not compel itself to be read. Which is a shame of course. I still think Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude was one of the finest books of the decade, and I was deeply disappointed in his last novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Chronic City is a much finer book than that silly train wreck, but it lacks the urgency of Lethem’s finest works, Fortress and Motherless Brooklyn, which temper a love of popular culture with genuine characters and an affecting plot.

I’ll conclude by returning to Cormac McCarthy, this time to his latest interview (in The Wall Street Journal). He says, on writing novels: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” And later: “Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything.” For McCarthy, literature, in its final product–the reader reading the book–is the direct communication of the pain of creation, the awkward and incomplete translation of ideas exchanged from author to audience. Perhaps the pain was too much for Fallada, who died in 1947 of a morphine overdose, but that pain–that spirit–exists in the book. A similar spirit exists in Lethem’s earlier works; I’d love to see him tap into it again in his next venture.

Every Man Dies Alone is now available in hardback from Melville House.

Chronic City is now available in hardback from Double Day.

June 21, 2009

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

by Biblioklept

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.


April 23, 2008

Gun, with Occasional Music–Jonathan Lethem

by Edwin Turner

Jonathan Lethem’s novel Gun, with Occasional Music blends hardboiled crime noir with trippy sci-fi to examine the ethical ramifications of murder in a dystopian future where evolved animals work along side humans, mind altering drugs are not only free but encouraged by the authorities, and asking questions requires a license. Conrad Metcalf is a Private Inquisitor trying to solve a murder case involving a urologist, a baby-head (a failed evolved baby), and a gun-wielding kangaroo.

Two of the blurbs for Lethem’s debut describe the work as a marriage of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, but for my taste their wasn’t enough PKD. The details involving the “make” that Metcalf compulsively snorts, the genetic evolution techniques society now uses to produce children, and the genital nerve-ending swaps that people now enjoy are never fully explored. Sometimes bizarre details left unexplained create the dramatic immersion that the best SF achieves; Gun seems to throw ideas up against a wall to see if any stick. Many of the SF tropes that Lethem evokes are simply under-utilized. His ideas are playful, so why doesn’t he play with them more?

On the noir, end, the book also disappoints a little. The case is solved, but Metcalf’s solution–delivered entirely in a brief chapter crammed with exposition–seems hardly believable, or even really that interesting. This isn’t to suggest that Lethem’s/Conrad’s Chandlerisms aren’t enjoyable, and at times downright genius. Even when Lethem cranks out a clunker of a simile–and there’s more than one here–the rhetoric comes across more as satire of the genre as opposed to bad writing. The book also moves at a nice clip, with short, snappy chapters that always propel the narrative action. Eventually though, it just runs out steam. The story doesn’t really add up, and towards the end, it becomes clear that Lethem’s not going to fill us in on all of the cool ideas he initiated. I recommend those new to Lethem start with Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude instead. Or Men and Cartoons. Or The Disappointment Artist. Avoid You Don’t Love Me Yet like the plague.

December 19, 2007

Omega the Unknown

by Biblioklept
omegatu1.jpg

Earlier this year, in an interview with the AV Club, Jonathan Lethem briefly mentioned that he was working on “kind of an emo comic book” for Marvel Comics. The first issue of that comic–part one of a ten issue run–came out back in October, prompting me to go to a comic book store–something that I haven’t done in years. Lethem’s Omega the Unknown is essentially an update of the original Omega the Unknown series, written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes with art by Jim Mooney. The original ten issue run was published by Marvel Comics twenty years ago.

Lethem’s Omega the Unknown centers on robotically erudite teenager Alex Island and his new life after the bizarre death of his parents (who turn out to be–gasp!–robots). Alex has a strange (and still unexplained in the first three issues) relationship with a superhero who doesn’t speak, but who seems to be watching over him, protecting him from alien androids who are out to get him. Also watching over him after his parents’ deaths are a callow young nurse and a cynical social worker. All the while, local Brooklyn “superhero” The Mink tries to figure out how he can turn this new superhero and his robot villains into an opportunity for more publicity.

I haven’t read Marvel comics in over 15 years, but Omega the Unknown is quite a bit better than even the best comics I remember reading in the late eighties/early nineties (um, Chris Claremont’s X-books). Still, despite its introspection, lack of huge splash pages or silly, purposeless fights, Omega is deeply entrenched in superhero terrain: this isn’t an indie comic. Also, I was able to wait a week between reading issues two and three, even though I had both of them in my possession–compare this to a “superhero” comics like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which I had to read in one sitting.

omega03.jpg

Farel Dalrymple’s art is fantastic, especially given Marvel’s current penchant for anime-inspired overly-muscled cartooning. Dalrymple’s figures recall many of my favorite artists, capturing the quintessential stark simplicity of Jack Kirby’s squarish hulks and the wild energy of early John Romita Jr. coupled with the attention and detail to line Art Adams always puts into his illustrations.

I’ll continue to pick up the issues of Omega the Unknown, but so far, it’s hardly essential Lethem, or, for that matter, essential comic reading. Still, for now, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

November 27, 2007

You Don’t Love Me Yet–Jonathan Lethem

by Edwin Turner

you-dont-love-me-yet.jpg

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Jonathan Lethem so far–Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, Men and Cartoons, and his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist. So, while perusing the library’s excellent collection of audiobooks for the perfect aural accompaniment for the longish drive from/to Jacksonville to/from St. Pete Beach, I was excited to discover a copy of Lethem’s new novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, read by Lethem himself. The six and a half hour unabridged recording was just the right length to get there and back. The prospect of hearing an author read his own work is always encouraging, and I didn’t imagine I’d have a chance to read the book any time soon.

So. Well. Anyway.

About halfway through You Don’t Love Me Yet, my darling lovely wife turned to me with the most charming of smiles and said: “This isn’t a very good book.” I agreed with her sheepishly. After all, I’d been toting Lethem as a pop genius. Unfortunately, she was right. I’d been secretly waiting for the book to get good: for the characters to charm me, for the plot to intrigue me, for the writing to wow me. Instead, I was repeatedly disappointed.

The dull plot of You Don’t Love Me Yet centers around Lucinda, bassist for an “alternative” band (Lethem’s words) in LA, trying to get their shit together. Improbably, Lucinda answers phones for a living as part of an art installation complaint line. A mysterious complainer intrigues Lucinda; she ends up falling in love. She also uses the complainer’s complaints (which she recorded as part of her job) as the basis for song lyrics that somehow magically transform the band from rank amateurs to rank amateurs with something. Unfortunately, that something, that kinetic potential, is never quite explained to the novel’s audience. Additionally, the band’s music is never really adequately described (I think that some of the generic “transition music” that precedes each new chapter is supposed to inform the reader that the band is kinda Pixiesish, maybe even a little White Stripesish). Most glaringly, the complainer’s lyrics that somehow stun the band and their audience–built around phrases like “Monster Eyes” and “Astronaut Food”–are really nothing special.

Other elements of the plot that only sound interesting include: kangaroo theft, a dance party where everyone listens to their own playlists on headphones, and lots of sweaty ugly sex (Lethem seems to want You Don’t Love Me Yet to be something of a sex novel). Lethem’s characters have a tendency to prattle about ephemera, often of the pop culture stripe; this was one of my favorite elements of The Fortress of Solitude, but it’s almost unbearably cloying in You Don’t Love Me Yet, with the single exception of the guitarist Bedwin’s fascinating analysis of obscured signs (like, literal signs, posted signs, advertisements, y’know) in the background of Fritz Lang’s Human Desire.

lethem.jpg

Plot has always been a secondary consideration to rhetoric in my critique of books, and Lethem here allows a number of awful lines–pure groaners–to infiltrate his text (the worst offender: a description of the complainer attesting to his “penisy glamor”). Lethem’s writing is in no way aided by his clipped, earnest delivery. The right reader can often imbue an audiobook with the perfect cadence, delivering the story with added dimension and depth. Lethem delivers each line in one of two different and exact rhythms; by the book’s end the effect is somewhere between numbing and grating.

So yes and well yes this is something of a negative review. But. My love for Lethem is still strong. So instead of ending with a “Not recommended” (and of course I can’t recommend that you spend your precious time on You Don’t Love Me Yet), I implore you to pick up Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude, or, if you’re pressed for time, The Disappointment Artist. And to prove that there are no hard feelings, I vow to read Lethem’s debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music over the Christmas break. So there.

I dare you to watch Lethem talk about his new novel (in which he calls it a “deliberately silly book,” incidentally) for fifty minutes on Youtube. I dare you!

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