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.


Gun, with Occasional Music–Jonathan Lethem

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.

Omega the Unknown

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.

You Don’t Love Me Yet–Jonathan Lethem

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!

Biblioklept: Big Blog Birthday, Unabashed Book Buying, and Nabokov at a Bargain

So today Biblioklept turns a healthy one year old. When I wrote that very first post about A Raisin in the Sun, I had no inkling of the vast riches on my horizon. Ahhh…simple youth. Them were the days, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll celebrate this momentous occasion by recounting my recent trip to my favorite used book sellers, where I loaded up on more than I can possibly read in 2007. Eidetic readers may recall my last book buying spree: I’m happy to report I read 5.5 out of 7 of the books bought on that trip (I’m only counting half of The Portable Faulkner): that’s almost 79%! Not bad. Because that’s what reading’s all about: percentages and stats. Like baseball.

The goods:

Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

I’ve been dipping into the select chapters of FW included in The Portable Joyce for a few years now. I’m currently enrolled in a Joyce seminar but we won’t be reading more than a sentence or two of the book. My professor described it as a “vortex, a black hole from which no one returns.” He said this with a smile and meant it in good humor but maybe he has a point. The book is possibly probably incomprehensible unless you’re someone like, say, Terrence McKenna or L. Moholy-Nagy (whose graphic organizer for FW appears below) or Joseph Campbell.

 

moholy.jpg

I recently listened to a series of lectures given by Joseph Campbell on Joyce; Campbell suggests that FW is the dream that happens after Molly and Leopold Bloom fall asleep at the end of Ulysses. Campbell also posits that Joyce has a final book planned that would finish the four book cycle that began with Portrait; he thinks that the book would be very simple and clear and probably short, and would be thematically based on the mother-as-ocean. Campbell’s lectures are brilliant, beautiful, human, and humorous, and best of all, they are enlightening. Besides explicating the book as a whole, he also guides his audience through select sentences of FW in ways that make you go “!!!” Brilliant stuff.

You and I both know that I will probably never read this book in its entirety. That’s okay. It’s a vortex of fun.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

kav-500pi.jpg

I almost bought this book in the central train station in Rome two summers ago; I bought Eugenides’s somewhat disappointing novel Middlesex instead, because my wife had more interest in it. I’ve actually started the book already (despite having a ton of Joyce and Joyce-related academic crap to read); it’s pretty good. I’ll probably finish it if I can keep up this pace.

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

gunmusic.jpg

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Mr. Lethem around the ‘klept. This is supposed to be a mystery novel involving memory-annihilating drugs and thug kangaroos. My plan is to read this over the Thanksgiving break.

Vanished Splendors: A Memoir, Balthus (with Alan Vircondolet)

balthus.jpg

As with most of the books that I end up buying in labyrinthine used books stores, I found this by mistake. For some reason it was mixed in with children’s hardback picture books. Balthus is one of my favorite painters of all time, so of course I had to buy his memoir. The chapters are short, vague, and achronological, making this a book that you can just pick up and read at random (kinda like Finnegan’s Wake).

Nightfall: Country Lake, David Cunningham and Whistling Thorn, Helen Cowcher

If I wasn’t so lazy I’d go heat up the ole scanner and show you some of the beautiful images in these “children’s books.” I find that lots of children’s “picture” books tend to be condescending or just plain stupid, and finding good ones is not easy. I spent over 40 minutes plumbing through dusty boxes before coming across these two. David Cunningham’s gentle and dark-hued watercolor depictions of a lake at night are deep and soothing, as is the simple text that accompanies the illustrations. Cowcher’s Whistling Thorn details the evolution of acacia, giraffes, and rhinos. Lovely stuff.

Slow Century, Pavement (DVD)

I never look at the used DVDs; I have a Netflix account, library card, and a program called DVDShrink, so if I want to own a DVD it’s a pretty simple operation. Still, there are rare cases where I want the packaging, usually music films like Sonic Youth’s Corporate Ghost DVD. Like the Balthus book, I happened across this two-disc Pavement film among the children’s books. I’d seen it before: the hour long documentary is really good, and the videos are excellent. The concerts…well, I dunno. I’m not really into that kind of thing, unless Martin Scorsese and The Band are involved.

From said documentary: Pavement destroys Lollapalooza in West Virginia:

I think that’s it for this recent trip.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a book theft in our birthday edition, so here goes.

There really isn’t much to this story, and I’m actually deeply ashamed of this one. No irony, no joke. Most of the book thefts I discuss on this site are books that I’ve borrowed and never returned or books that I’ve purloined that no one was going to read anyway. This one is a straight-up theft from an indie book store. Ouch.

When I was a young stupid college freshman (note the defensive tone)–it was my first semester in fact–I had to go to a certain Gainesville book store to buy my course texts. They seemed outrageously overpriced and I was outraged, despite the stipend the state of Florida was giving me as part of my scholarship to buy books (I thought of this as beer money). In order to “get even” with these high prices, I not-so-subtly swiped a copy of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark: I simply picked it up after I’d paid for my course texts, walked out of the store with it, got on my bicycle, road home, and never read it. That was about ten years ago. Mea culpa. I’ve never done anything like that since, and, like I said, I feel bad about it now, so bad that every time I pick up the book to give it a shot, a small shudder of shame creeps through me and I put it down.

So there you go: new books and a book theft. Here’s to another year of cranky commentary with elitist overtones.

Another Serving of Alphabet Soup

Dis for Daedalus, kid Icarus’s papa. From Joseph Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, a book that has given me more joy than is probably normal or healthy :

“del II: cut; carve; harm. GK daidalos: cut with art; Daedalus, the inventor who built the labyrinth for Minos, king of Crete, to confine the Minotaur. This monster—half man, half bull—was conceived by Minos’s wife Pasiphae with Poseidon’s sacred bull, which Minos had refused to return to Poseidon. Imprisoned, Daedalus made wings for himself and his son Icarus; they few away; but the son flew too near the sun, the wax fastening his wings melted, and he fell and drowned in what was thereafter called the Icarian Sea. Hence daedalian: skillful; Icarian: rash and ruinous” (Shipley 58).

D is also for Dedalus, Stephen, James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical stand-in in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus also is prominent in the first couple of chapters of Ulysses, before Leopold Bloom’s journey through Dublin becomes the novel’s focus. Despite the heroic help of my college roommate’s Ritalin prescription, I never finished Ulysses, but I’m enrolled in a Joyce seminar commencing this fall (should be good). I did however read Portrait a number of times; I can’t think of a better example of an experimental writing style that evolves and adapts as its main character grows, learns, and rebels.

E is for Ebdus, Dylan, the hero of one of my all-time favorites, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fortress is a bildungsroman, a novel that details the development of its main character from childhood to maturity. To this end, each chapter of the first section of Fortress covers approximately a year in the life of young Dylan as he tries to make meaning out of his strange Brooklyn neighborhood and race-relations in the seventies.

E is also for Essrog, Lionel, the would-be detective who narrates Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, and his tics and yelps punctuate the novel with a weird and fascinating rhythm, a play of re-signification that would make Derrida proud. This is one of those Sunday afternoon books, the kind that you sit down to read with a glass (or four) of sangria and pretty much finish. Japanese monks, Brooklyn mobsters, hot dogs and papaya juice, plenty of verbal tics. And orphans. Lots and lots of orphans.

Jonathan Lethem, Emo Comic Books, Realism, Meta-textual Quotes, History’s Actors, and Lazy Writing

There’s a good (and rather long) interview with Jonathan Lethem at the AVClub today. Mr. Lethem is one of our favorite authors here at Biblioklept, Inc. (you may recall our review of his brilliant Fortress of Solitude back in September of 2006 (a mere 1,111 days after the book was initially published)).

In the interview, Lethem references the Talking Heads a number of times, claims to be slowly writing “kind of an emo comic book” for Marvel Comics, goes in-depth on his style and approach to writing, and discusses his new book, You Don’t Love Me, which I have not read yet.

The interview begins with an interesting discussion about realism (specifically, literary realism) which reminded me of an essay I’d read a few days before in the February issue of The Believer by Chris Bachelder (yes, I’m aware that I lazily linked to a Believer article earlier this week).

In “Doctorow’s Brain,” Bachelder ponders on whether such a thing as literary realism can really exist, and if so, what types of books and literature represent that style. I found the essay fascinating–I love all things literary, and I could point plenty of books that could be called “magical realism,” but I would have a really difficult time defining “realism.”  So Bachelder’s inquiry provoked a lot of deep questions about the very nature of writing, communication, memory and history. One of the most fascinating (and scary) pieces of writing he discusses is a quote from one of George W. Bush’s senior advisers, published originally in an October 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind. From Bachelder’s article:

“[…] Ron Suskind’s “Without a Doubt” introduced the Bush administration’s derision of what it calls the “reality-based community”–those reporters who, according to a senior adviser to Bush, “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” As the adviser explains to Suskind:

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””

Yikes!