Teju Cole’s Dictionary of Received Ideas

Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some hilarious funny, all perceptive.

The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.

Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:

AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.

HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”

HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.

HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.

INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.

JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.

LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.

POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.

Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:

BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.

CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards  them, when people are about.

INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.

LITERATURE — Idle pastime.

METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.

OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.

POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.

THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.

I Review Object Lessons, Where 20 Contemporary Authors Select and Introduce 20 Short Stories from The Paris Review


Object Lessons anthologizes 20 stories published in the Paris Review over the past fifty years. “It is not a greatest hits anthology,” advises the brief editor’s note, “Instead, we asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from the Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Hence, we get Ann Beattie introducing Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” Amy Hempel introducing Bernard Cooper’s “Old Birds,” and Sam Lipsyte introducing Mary Robinson’s “Likely Lake.”

Most of the introductions are short—most are fewer than three pages—and each author approaches his or her selection differently. Ben Marcus, prefacing “Several Garlic Tales,” tells us that, “Donald Barthelme was a magician of language, and it would be most respectful, perhaps even ethical, not to look too closely into the workings of his magic.” Marcus proposes a few approaches to find meaning in Barthelme’s surreal tale, but never over-explicates. In contrast, Lydia Davis’s surprisingly long intro to Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” is a sentence-to-paragraph close reading; Davis interrogates Bowles’s diction and syntax and concludes her little essay by situating Bowles’s (underappreciated) place in the canon. Davis’s insights are compelling, but one wonders if they wouldn’t be better appreciated after reading the story.

Davis also appears as author of one of the selected stories—Ali Smith picks Davis’s excellent number “Ten Stories from Flaubert.” Smith’s intro is wonderful, explaining the genesis of “Ten Stories,” which “came about when Davis (who is also a translator) was working on a a new translation of Madame Bovary and reading through Flaubert’s letters to his friend and lover Louise Colet.” I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis, whose work defies easy definition. Smith wonders about her selection: “Are they translations? Are they by Flaubert? Are they by Davis?” The questions are better than answers.

Occasionally an author veers close to spoiling the story he introduces, as does Jeffrey Eugenides when he gracelessly steps all over Denis Johnson’s already-much-anthologized classic “Car Crash While Hitch Hiking.” Elsewhere, Jonathan Lethem mashes and minces misplaced metaphors in his confusing and forgettable introduction to Thomas Glynn’s story “Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That.” Lethem’s sloppy, unrestrained attempt to dazzle is regrettable. He’s like the warm-up act that tries too hard to show up the headliner and winds up falling on his face.

For the most part though, the introductions simply allow readers new ways to see a story they’ve perhaps read before, as in Aleksandar Hemon’s preface to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” or David Means’s preface to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.” Means suggests that “A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally . . . We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life.” Surprisingly good is Dave Eggers’s intro to James Salter’s “Bangkok,” which reads almost like a loose riff of notes that a harried but talented adjunct might bring to his Creative Writing 101 workshop. Eggers showcases keen intuition about Salter’s narrative coupled with an eagerness that makes one want to read the story.

And what about those stories? If I’ve focused more on the introductions than the stories themselves, it’s perhaps because I’ve taken for granted that the selections are solid for an anthology. Sure, any reader might have his or her gripes, but the range of talent here is undeniable, and the spectrum of stories is satisfying. Object Lessons would make a fine addition to the syllabus of any beginning writing course, and any young person interested in honing her craft could do worse than attending the examples collected here. To be clear, Object Lessons is in no way some master course in How to Write a Short Story, but it does provide the most valuable writer’s tool—good reading.

Books Acquired, 2.16.2012


The Chihuly book was too beautiful not to pick up for my wife—cloth bound and so orange. I picked it up along with Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary this afternoon at my fave used bookshop; ostensibly, I was searching for a copy of the Mutis book Noquar reviewed here this week, but who really needs a legit reason to browse the stacks?


Gustave Flaubert’s Death Mask

“The book educates you about the book” — NPR Profiles Philip Roth

In case you missed it: NPR’s All Things Considered spoke with Philip Roth about his new book Nemesis earlier this week. From the profile–

Nemesis is Roth’s 31st work, and at age 77, he still continues to take risks with his narrative style. In Nemesis, he doesn’t reveal the identity of the narrator until well into the novel.

“It just dawned on me as I was writing along,” Roth explains. “The book educates you about the book.”

Though Roth developed the novel’s narrative structure unexpectedly, he was motivated to do so by a novel that continues to inspire him: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In the novel’s first scene, the reader is introduced to Charles Bovary, Madame Bovary’s husband-to-be, as a schoolboy. The scene is narrated by the collective voice of his mocking classmates — a voice that then disappears.

“Well, I don’t have the guts for that,” Roth says, laughing. “That’s what made Flaubert Flaubert, you know. But indeed, it is from the charm of that opening of Madame Bovary that I took my lead.”


Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil tells the story of a writer named Henry whose follow-up novel to a surprise smash hit is rejected. He moves to a large metropolitan city, gets a dog and a cat, takes clarinet lessons, joins an amateur theater group, and slowly forgets about writing fiction altogether. One day a stranger sends Henry a short story by Gustave Flaubert called St. Julian the Hospitator.” The sender has highlighted passages about Julian’s delight in slaughtering animals and also included a few pages of an original manuscript, a Beckettian play featuring two characters, Beatrice and Virgil. There’s also a note asking for help. Intrigued, or maybe bored, Henry visits the mysterious author, an old, creepy taxidermist (also named Henry). His play features two characters, Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey, who are trying to come to terms with a series of events they call The Horrors. The taxidermist’s project reignites Henry’s passion for writing and he’s soon helping the would-be playwright with revisions, blind to the inconsistencies and gaps in the old man’s strange behavior.

Beatrice and Virgil is 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. Martel displays his keenest literary skill in the early part of the novel, flitting through the kinds of subjects that bookish nerds of a certain postmodernist bent tend to obsess over: the possibilities and challenges of writing in a particular language, the complexity of pseudonymous fame, the intellectual allure of the essay versus the power of fiction to narrativize higher truth. To address this latter problem, Henry proposes that his new book comprise two sections–a work of narrative fiction and an essay to explicate that work. Why the need for an essay? Henry proposes to write an artful, fictive account of the Holocaust. The essay, which Henry wants published on the flip side of the fiction, thus eliminating a front/back cover distinction, is meant to explicate the fiction. In many ways the first section of Beatrice and Virgil functions as counterpoint to Henry’s proposed essay, concisely addressing the problems of using anything other than historical facts to represent the Holocaust.

After Henry gets the taxidermist’s package and reads “St. Julian the Hospitator,”Beatrice and Virgil moves into a faster rhythm and continues to accelerate to its end, never sagging. At times, Martel relies on stock phrasing and overt exposition to afford this pacing. I found myself wishing a few times that he would trust his audience a bit more. Is it really necessary to directly explain the titular allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy? He could also be a bit less free with his narrator’s everyman style of questioning, a device employed often to propel the plot, but one somewhat inconsistent with Henry’s obvious intellectual acumen. Martel’s occasional use of lazy devices of the Dan Brown school directly contrasts the more experimental or postmodern aspects of his book. There’s the book’s initial section, which reads very much like a lyric essay; there’s the exegesis of “St. Julian”; there’s the taxidermist’s play, Beatrice and Virgil; there’s the book’s final section, “Games for Gustav.” This final section comprises thirteen short epigrams written in second-person perspective. “Games for Gustav,” Henry’s Holocaust art, demands audience identification with the victims of the Holocaust. Its brevity and ambiguity correlate to the narrative’s ahistorical engagement with the Holocaust and communicate a sense of apprehension and distance toward the subject. Is that subject Martel’s or Henry’s? In a piece I wrote last month about Beatrice and Virgil and the challenges of an aesthetic response to the Holocaust, I suggested that “Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure.”

Is Beatrice and Virgil an authentic response to the Holocaust? I won’t accuse Martel of using the Holocaust as a mere prop in his novel; indeed, anticipation of such an accusation is precisely what leads Henry to suffer over an essay to explicate his fiction. Martel’s book is about murder, horror, and how one might witness to or otherwise narrativize murder and horror; Henry’s “Games for Gustav” is just one of those attempts to witness. The novel engenders multiple readings then. We can take Henry’s “Games” as part and parcel of Martel’s program, read them perhaps as Martel’s own attempt at poetry after Auschwitz. This reading would subscribe to a traditional narrative arc–Henry faces a challenge, endures a perilous task, and finds resolution in his art: a valid artistic response to the Holocaust is possible. I think, however, that there is another, more complicated reading available, one far more ambiguous, one that places any aesthetic response to the Holocaust under suspicion. If we scrutinize the elements of traditional narrative fiction at work in the novel, we can see multiple ironies in Henry’s “hero arc,” ironies outside of Henry’s otherwise perspicacious gaze. To write an authentic aesthetic response to the Holocaust, Henry must face some kind of deathly extreme that will license such art. But is such a licensing, a conferring of authority possible? I won’t point to spoilers here but will say that I read the novel’s climax ironically. I believe it complicates Henry’s (and perhaps Martel’s) attempt to engage the Holocaust via metaphor and artifice and calls the novel’s resolution into question.

But these matters are probably better reserved for the detailed dialogues the book will no doubt inspire. Beatrice and Virgil raises essential questions of post-postmodernity, exploring the porous boundaries between autobiography and fiction, history and myth, and the limits of allegory. Its rewards are not in its answers but in its questions.

Beatrice and Virgil is new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau on April 13, 2010.