12 April 2008

Selvadurai, Shyam. Funny Boy. Toronto: Emblem Editions, 1997.

The only thing this collection of stories (billed as a novel, but no way) adds to the coming-out genre is its setting: the Sri Lankan Civil War. This is probably enough. Probably, we should have variants of the coming-out novel in every possible culture of the world. But for someone who's about waist-deep in coming out novels these days, Funny Boy has so little to offer.

And the writing, despite claims from the blurbs in the back, is not exquisite; is, in fact, never very creative or beautiful. "As in a dream, I felt myself slipping into a blackness where all my thought disintegrated. The entire world became the sensation in my mouth and Shehan's tongue probing, retreating, intertwining with mine."

There seems in the plainest books of the coming-out genre to be no other way to describe a first kiss. Every word here has come from everyone else. And some of it is downright awful. "With a heavy heart, I slowly went back up to the beach." Where is the talent this book's covers promise?

This novel would be interesting had it been written in 1983, or in the year or so after the Sri Lankan conflict escalated. But for 1994 it just seems redundant.

10 April 2008

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Grove, 1980.

This book isn't as good as you remember it. It's funny, but it's only funny. Well, it's more than just funny, it's offensive and bitter and bleak and nihilistic and it's pleased with its own snobbishness. I write these words as a consummate snob.

In the novel gays mince and obsess over decor, and lesbians brawl and wear their hair cropped close. Blacks all have a kind of folksy wisdom and terrible English. Ignatius is exposed as a belching tub of lard, but in the end you know he'd be pleased with this account of this chapter of his life. Toole adores Ignatius and amid his wide-scattered criticisms can't quite do him any real harm.

Here's Andre Condrescu on the book (from Chronicle of Higher Education):
A Confederacy of Dunces was a book that swam upstream, against the flow of time in which it was written. The early '60s saw the awakening of a social conscience that even the great postwar comic novels Catch-22, Cat's Cradle, and Portnoy's Complaint were part of. Their charges were delivered pretty squarely from behind the barricades of anti-establishment liberalism. The incipient tentacles of what came to be known in the '90s as political correctness were already waving within the embryonic culture of the '60s.

The South, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, was America's designated hell. Southern writers were a suspect species, with a few rare exceptions, including Walker Percy, who eventually (after Toole died) championed the book into print. Confederacy's unabashed use of Negro dialect by Jones, the floorsweeper, and the fun-poking at the spirit-filled black factory workers must have repulsed New York's publishers. There was also the matter of a slew of prancing queens, an evil madam, and a bumbling cop who was a victim, not a villain. And then there was Myrna Minkoff, the Jewish firebrand sexual revolutionary, whose sheer silliness was matched only by Ignatius's megalomania.

It was as if Toole had set out deliberately to turn the stereotypes on their heads, which is, of course, precisely what he did. The failure of American publishers to see this is unforgivable, and proof, more than anything, of a New York brand of provincialism. I am not sure if John Kennedy Toole's suicide was a direct result of his rejection, but even if this played only a small part, the fools have a lot to answer for. Toole's job was far from done.
Setting aside my confusion as to how this novel's inability to engage with anything larger than itself (a chief concern of Heller's, Vonnegut's, and Roth's novels, each one funnier and more inspiring than Toole's) can be read as some subversive act, the question remains of how these stereotypes have been turned on their heads. What such a thing even means.

And re, Andre, that little murderous accusation of those of us who like something more than ridicule and laffs in the novels they read, see Hardin's "Between Queer Performances" essay, which posits the suicide as a factor of Toole's own closeted sexuality.

04 April 2008

Peterson, Adam. My Untimely Death. Boulder: Subito Press, 2008.

How to Write about a Book Written by a Close Friend
  1. Stall. Make excuses. Buy yourself lots and lots of time without exactly knowing why you might need all this time, or what it might get you.
  2. Read the book during an open swath of vacation time, over a matter of an hour or so if it's as short as this one is, feeling like some kind of monster in taking so much time to get to it, because certainly, over the last two months, you've had uncountable hours to spare, and very unproductive ways you've filled those hours.
  3. Mention to the close friend that you've Finished! his book. Bring it up in conversation out of the blue, as though bragging, as though he should be proud of you.
  4. Stall some more.
  5. Erect cutesy, very-Nineties, pop-po-mo gimmicks to cover for the fact that you aren't doing the requisite work of engaging in the book as it's asking you to.
  6. Make explicit po-mo reference to these Nineties po-mo gimmicks.
  7. Repeat, and repeat, and stall, and repeat, not because you didn't like the book (which you did, so much), and not because the book didn't say anything to you (which it may have, but in slippery oblique ways you're not adept at putting down in words), but because the tiny book seems after reading it and rereading it to stand just slightly out of reach, or to exist in this place where some kind of cool magic is made just by throwing words together, and that to sit down and write about what the book is doing or why it's great or important would be to either ruin the magic, or run the risk of you not getting the joke, in a sense, and as you consider this to yourself you know both that it's a cop-out and also that it seems to point to something maybe mentionable, not about untimely deaths or the point of writing about them (which seems gimmickly cool on one superficial level, given everything they say in fiction workshops about making sure your narrators don't die at the end of their stories, and on another nonsuperficial level seems such an incredible idea, because of the way talking about one's own untimely death is immediately hilarious and immediately tragic, and so finally you're at what might be the whole dark problem behind your writing about the book: it has gotten at that mix of funny and sad in ways you've always tried, and yet in ways far funnier and far sadder than anything you've ever written), but about the fruits and failures of jokes and joking.
  8. Finally, amid all your hemming and hawing, resort to what you always do, and just quote the most moving and awesome (in that classic way) passage from the text so you don't actually have to say anything about it, and because you know the author so well, steal an entire story, and fistfight about copyright issues later.


My untimely death comes at the hands of natives. They suffocate me with wonder and love, but I do not die yet. They hold me tighter than I have ever been held before in smallpoxed forearms, and my nose is in one chest, many chests, breathing in antiquities, beads, cornsilk. How were you made this way? I ask. How are you, clay pot? How are you, glass circle?

The natives are bashful. They take pipes from their clay pots and knock out the blood and dust and dirt. The natives say they want to tell me a joke.

Deep in America, the one behind the Kum and Go, three men are captured by a tribe of natives.

Not Joke.
At this point they look deep into each other's beads and nod appreciatively.

The natives tell the tourists they can choose death or bunga-bunga. The first chooses bunga-bunga.

Not Joke.
The natives are bashful. This might be a little off-color, they say. I tell them I have heard this joke before. Where I'm from it was roo-roo, not bunga-bunga, I say.

The natives are not pleased. What's roo-roo? they ask. They twist their beads and beat their pots. I tell them like this.

The one that chooses roo-roo is led into a grass hut.

Not Joke.
I am bashful. I look at the ground and cannot say the words. The natives threaten death or roo-roo if I do not tell them what roo-roo is. I tell them roo-roo is like bunga-bunga, but we have all forgotten so much. They scream and throw corn. They call it maize. I tell them what we call turtles and puppies and remote controls and Kum and Gos. My untimely knowledge comes in handfuls. The natives calm down, blow nutmeggy smoke out their pipes, and sit on their Stain-Master carpet. They ask again in proud voices, but I cannot stop blushing.

My untimely death comes at the hands of natives. I go last and choose death. They smile. Death comes at the hands of braves and tribesmen and witch doctors and regular doctors and Lou Diamond Phillips, who smiles widest, as he straps me to the gurney and rubs pungent alcohol on my forearm.

Not Joke.
Where I am there are words I cannot say and stories I cannot tell.

How to Write about a Book Written by a Close Friend — Addendum

Don't bother to resist the petty urge to say that regardless of how incredibly funny and heartbreaking you found the story you quote from in full, that certain jokes about maize and Lou Diamond Phillips are cheap jokes, unworthy of their author.