28 March 2007

Ozick, Cynthia. "Literary Entrails." Harper's Magazine April 2007, 67-75.

Here's famed writer Cynthia Ozick's response to Ben Marcus's 2005 response to Jonathan Franzen's 1996 essay about the state of the novel and the readers of novels in America. Guess whose literary legacy is most likely to last?

I adored this essay, mostly because of its inarguably true tone from start to finish; the way you know from the first paragraph—where Ozick cites L. Strachey's asking V. Woolfe's sister if the stain on her skirt is from semen—that Ozick is smarter than you'll ever be and that she means business. I adored also the way she's earned the right to dismiss Marcus's silly whining. By reducing the "debate" between these young writers to "a fight rather than an argument [. . .], a fight that mostly mimics a gang war, which is not so much a vigorous instance of many bloodletting as a dust-up over prestige" (69-70), she's I think rolling her eyes at Marcus, whose essay spends altogether too much time trying to convince its reader why Franzen is a pox on American letters, whereas the latter's essay simply tries to understand why people should even bother to write novels in an age of nationwide television addicts.

Ozick's answer to the fight over how to attract readers (or, rather: whether attracting readers is even the point of writing "serious" fiction) is elegant and simple: cultivate more serious critics. And by critics she doesn't meant reviewers. Here she is, here:
The professional reviewer [. . .] must jump in and jump out again: an introductory paragraph, sometimes thematic though often not, a smattering of plot, a lick at idea (if there is one), and then the verdict, the definitive cut—yes or no. A sonnet, with worse constraints, or a haiku's even tinier confines, can conjure philosophies and worlds. A review, whose nature is prose, is not permitted such magickings. Nor is criticism. Yet what separates reviewing from criticism—pragmatically—are the reductive limits of space; the end is always near. What separates criticism from reviewing—intrinsically—is that the critic must summon what the reviewer cannot: horizonless freedoms, multiple histories, multiple libraries, multiple metaphysics and intutions. Reviewers are not merely critics of lesser degree, on the farther end of a spectrum. Critics belong to a wholly distinct phylum.
It occurred to me on reading this passage that I wasn't doing enough criticism here and that I should do more. I promise to try.

26 March 2007

Zola, Emile. Germinal (1885). New York: Signet Classics, 1981.

If I were a character in this novel I'd never last. I'd be dead by Part Three, and I don't think the first death happens until Part Five.

Everyone knows mining is hard work. Everyone knows danger happens. In the summer of 2002 I was drinking with my pal S. at Zythos Bar in Pittsburgh's South Side when nine miners were pulled out from the depths of the coal-clogged earth where for days we'd been assuming they'd been killed. So I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but Zola is such a good and careful writer that I really had no idea of the amount of heat and wetness and claustrophobic spaces in the bottom of mines that workers slogged through.

There's a scene in which a pre-pubescent girl who's already been working in the mines for years is so hot that she has to strip down to her "shift" which is like old-school 1800's underwear, and this shift itself gets so damp and sticky with the inky mud of the mineshaft that it clings to her body like an extra skin and in order to continue working has to take this off too, so that she's crawling around naked with only a lantern helmet in a very tight space with half-a-dozen other naked men, all of them covered in black, black muck.

As far as difficult scenes to read through, this is nothing compared to the one where a mob of angry women storm the freshly killed corpse of a storekeeper and rip his genitals off with their hands.

Theme Assignment
Explain why such things make a book good.

This book is good not because it gives us such physical detail of such rough, animalistic activities. This book is good because such detail keeps a reader deep in the world of the novel. I write this even if to admire a book for doing such a thing—i.e. keeping a reader dreaming Gardner's fictional dream—is so completely uncool these days.

21 March 2007

Lee, Chang-Rae. Aloft. New York: Riverhead, 2004.

This is a book for the unfortunate reader who never got enough of Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Bascombe in the three books each that Updike and Ford, respectively, devoted to them. What a dull book! What tired, irrelevant character types! When will people stop wanting to read first-person accounts of middle-aged New England men who, despite being past their primes in terms of careers, still get to bed sexy, younger women and still utter long-winded banalities in the interests of coming across as poignant?

Why are people still even allowed to write novels like this?

Q: Isn't it interesting that this is written by an Asian-American man who, in his jacket photo, looks to be much younger than those boring, bald assholes named above?

A: No. It's not at all interesting. This book is a total fucking bore, all 343 pages of it.

13 March 2007

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. New York: Picador, 2000.

It is a stupid thing to say of a novel that it is too long and this is one of the few about which I'll ever say it: this novel is too long.

At some point all I could do was watch as Chabon pushed and pushed his initial situation into the furthest reaches of his abilities to create what he hoped was an epic novel. I suppose it's an admirable feat, but at some point his story runs away from him. He takes one of his protagonists to Antarctica to fight in WWII, because this is a story very much about German prosecution of Jews in the 1930s and '40s, and yet this weird, brief section dropped into the final third of the novel does absolutely nothing to tell us about WWII, to open up the experience of that war to us, nor does it finally endow the character with abilites or attributes we've been waiting to be unveiled all along. Kavalier is a magician, an escape artist. What is he doing fighting through the hoar of the Antarctic? "He's escaping," you could say. "He's getting himself out of a dicey situation using his own wits and abilities." But no, he's not. He escaped his life in NYC simply by enlisting, which any old schmuck can do,* and his escape from that frozen landscape is done through a matter of luck or coincidence or other people being in the right place at the right time. This coincidence, also, isn't treated as a kind of tragic failure on the part of the escapist not to escape. It just happens because Chabon knows that any decent reader is going to work like a dog through this section to get—for the love of god, please—back to NYC where he's been comfortable all along.

This, though, happens once the novel gets back on track: The government comes to inquire about comic books leading to degeneracy among their readers. One of them asks about Batman and Robin, and actually a whole spate of younger sidekicks that started popping up in comic books of the time. Why do they live together? Why do they wear those tights? Aren't they gay, really? That is: aren't they homosexuals?

Sammy, who writes comic books and is Chabon's requisite gay character in his novel, has this to say about it, albeit long after the government was around to hear it:
[I]t was obvious that Batman was not intended, consciously or unconsciously, to play Robin's corrupter: he was meant to stand in for his father, and by extension for the absent, indifferent, vanishing fathers of the comic-book-reading boys of America. Sammy wished that he'd had the presence of mind to tell the subcommittee that adding a sidekick to a costumed-hero strip was guaranteed to increase its circulation by 22 percent. (631)
In a culture that's completely consumed Freud with perhaps only minor indigestion, it still seems shocking to do this, to equate homosexual love between men with the love between a boy and his father. Or to read the one as a replacement for the other. Isn't this what straight men do when they hoist up their eyebrows and whistle and say, "Whoa, Mama!" at some passing gal?

Straight men still do this, right? Television isn't lying to me, is it?
* Fortunately I'm not running for office, and I can call people who enlist "schmucks" with only mild fallout.

08 March 2007

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary (1857). New York: Signet Classics, 19??.

The way I see it, my sympathies are with Charles, all the way. You probably know this story—Emma Bovary marries Charles, a provincial "doctor" (he doesn't have a medical degree), and very quickly becomes unhappy and unsatisfied, so she takes on a string of lovers and a lot of debt and eventually commits suicide to end the unhappiness in her life; this affects Charles drastically—and maybe you didn't know the end but there it is. And I know about how Flaubert isn't trying to write toward a subject or a moral or a meaning, he simply wants to present things as they are in life, but I think I'm right in his wanting us to feel for Charles in the end. Why else open the novel with him, and close it with his death?

If you're at all interested in the novel as form, you have to read this book right away. The story itself is pretty banal (Flaubert dealing quite deliberately and explicitly with mediocre people; indeed, the life of mediocrity maybe be his true subject here), but what's amazing is the way he shifts point of view from one character to the next so smoothly. This happens on a "macro level", in how we open from the point of view of one of Charles's classmates, then move to a classic 19thC omniscient narrator, then into Charles's point of view when he's an adult, and then, only after he marries one woman (who dies) and then marries Emma do we gradually move to her point of view for much of the rest of the novel (until of course she dies, which death, I'm pretty sure, is narrated from a distant POV).

But it's on the micro level (i.e., within paragraphs) that the effect is truly stunning. I don't have a copy of the book with me to give you an exemplary passage, but read Rousset's "Madame Bovary: Flaubert's Anti-Novel" to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Or just read the book. Today.