27 June 2008

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire (1962). New York: Berkley Medallion, 1969.

A novel in the form of a work of criticism. After the death of the renowned poet John Shade, his neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote gets hold of the 999-line autobiographical poem he'd been writing; what we read are Kinbote's foreword to Shade's poem, the poem itself, and then more than 150 pages of Kinbote's commentary on the poem. Oh, and an index. What makes the text readable like a novel (and ultimately what saves Pale Fire from being merely a fun exercise in pomo intertextualities) is that Kinbote for one reason or another is convinced that Shade's poem is a narrative of his (Kinbote's) motherland, Zembla—specifically its recent tragic revolution.

This is where most of the book's comedy comes from. Line 12 contains the phrase "that crystal land" and Kinbote makes a note here that begins "Perhaps an allusion to Zembla, my dear country," though of course nothing in the line or those surrounding it appears to make any reference of the sort. In a note about Shade's use of winter imagery, he writes: "One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season." (This sentence shows up in the index, under Kinbote, Charles, Dr.; "his modesty".)

Pale Fire is probably the best novel I've read all year, except maybe for one, which was a reread, which was Lolita, so it goes without saying that I need more Nabokov in my future. He's so incredibly good at exposing villainy and heroism as false, elusive things we try in vain to hold onto as readers. See his treatment of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (alluded to here and there in PF, along with Pnin), and see here his treatment of Kinbote. It's clear from the start that Kinbote is perhaps the worst person possible to edit Shade's final poem—his reading of the text is self-serving and flat-out ridiculous at parts. But by the end of the book he becomes the best and most perfect commentator for it, with his reading lifting what is otherwise a plain and sometimes boring poem (written in rhyming heroic couplets) up to something much more strange and so much more beautiful.

This one and Lolita reaffirm my faith in the first-person point of view. I write fiction almost exclusively in it, these days, and as I do and as I slowly plan a novel in such a POV I remind myself that it is a limited one and that a novel told in such a manner cannot have the wonderful breadth of those told in the third person. Nabokov seems to want to argue otherwise. So much world, here, in 224 pages! So much packed in every sentence! Here's Kinbote on jumping off a tall building:
Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord.
And here he is on senior citizens:
I find nothing more conducive to the blunting of one's appetite than to have none but elderly persons sitting around one at a table, fouling their napkins with the disintegration of their make-up, and surreptitiously trying, behind noncommittal smiles, to dislodge the red-hot torture point of a raspberry seed from between false gum and dead gum.
And here's one that just stuns me for its specificity, for how much it creates just in its collection of nouns:
They used to hand out to the kitchen boys Russian caramels with plums or cherries depicted on the rich luscious six-cornered wrappers that enclosed a jacket of thinner paper with the mauve mummy inside; and lustful country girls were known to creep up along the drungen (bramble-choked footpaths) to the very foot of bulwark when the two silhouetted against the now flushed sky sang beautiful sentimental military duets at eventide on the rampart.

All this, and a queer hero we get to laugh with and not at. This, in 1962!

26 June 2008

Wilsey, Sean. Oh the Glory of It All. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Now that it's the summer I'm supposed to be reading and blogging regularly. And I'm not, though! A few excuses: my writing abilities have been so scattershot lately that when I feel them being, like, good, I put it all on my taxidermy stuff. Here's an example: in the opening sentence to this post I tossed some words around in my end to end it more "creatively" and the first/only thing I could come up with was simply awful (cross out regularly and insert "with the regularity sought after by so many seniors"...that's right a bowel-movement joke).

Oh I need another excuse to justify that plural. Well I spent a week in a workshop with the writer of this book I'm trying to write about. It was his first time teaching, and while I didn't take the sort of notes I took when I had a workshop with Jim Shepard (a privilege any writer should donate body parts to earn), I had a good time. Wilsey's pedagogy stems from the "let's read this very long work of nonfiction and talk about how good it is." Sometimes such an approach is nice, especially when one is burned out on writing workshops (I think this is a form of success; sitting in a room and listening to people talk about writing techniques makes me not to want to think more about writing and its possibilities, it makes me want to leave the room and write).

I'm in the position again of reviewing a book written by someone I can maybe call a friend. I'll do my best. Wilsey's memoir begins with a great three sentences. "In the beginning we were happy. And we were always excessive. Therefore we were happy to excess." The kid was unimaginably rich, living in the penthouse of the San Francisco high rise his father owned, flying via his father's chopper to the Napa Valley house at which they weekended. Then his folks divorce and his life goes haywire.

Part two of the book tells the story of all the schools Wilsey was shipped around to, starting at an ultraelite New England prep school, which he failed out of. Then a New England boarding school for flunkies that he flunked out of. Then a crazy psychotic superChristian school he escaped from. Then an enlightened school that saved his life. Fortunately for him, it's in Tuscany.

I skipped through much of this section. I gave this book an unfair reading because of my own ideas about rich people. At first I was all, "Okay so I'll need to find a way to care about this person's problems when he has incredible amounts of money at his disposal," and watching young Wilsey be used grossly as a pawn in his parents' divorce (his father almost immediately remarried his mother's best friend, who almost immediately became a total ruthless C-word) was enough for me to give him all the sympathy he deserved. Plus the details are so good.

But I don't think his difficulty in schools makes for a compelling narrative. I'm in a living room in Virginia right now and my copy of the book is, last time I saw it, in my office in Nebraska, so I can't give you an example. We watch as Wilsey befriends an impopular kid then sees how to strategically publicly destroy this kid in order to make better friends, then to feel some remorse about it. It's every high school narrative, transposed to rich-kid milieus.

The final section of the book synthesizes the antithesis of his boyhood's thesis, if I can be allowed to destroy whatever a Hegelian dialectic is. Again, I'd give you some idea of how, but I Finished! this like two weeks ago, if not more. My midyear resolution is just to sit down and write about a book right when I Finish! it. It's not like any of you are looking for quality, you just want this thing updated with the regularity of an infant not yet switched to solid foods.

10 June 2008

Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1980.*

"Contemporary fiction" here means 1950 to, oh, 1975, maybe. A small window, and it's a shame that Adams didn't do his study ten years later, once Stonewall's effects had filtered into the literature and certainly once AIDS changed the whole idea of homosexual heroism. The biggest shame about this book, though, is in its approach—Adams doesn't try to say anything about the homosexual as hero, as his title promises. No theories are put forth; the words "hero" and "heroism" are strangely absent from much of the commentary. Instead he looks at a dozen or so homosexual heroes in specific: Forster's Maurice, Genet's prisoners, Baldwin's David, Ackerley's Frank, Rechy's dull hustler.

The whole book amounts to a lot of very good close-reads of novels. This is not to criticize the book; such is its aim. But in the end its this limited aim that prevents the book from being relevant today, not merely in regard to its pre-AIDS-era publication. Why can't someone write a study, given everything I've picked up from the laziest of readings of Mann and Huysmans, that works out a theory of gay heroism (N.B.: not "gay heroics") that runs alongside, if not counter to, a heterosexual one? Surely someone has. Let me know if you know it.

Harris, Daniel. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture. New York: Hyperion, 1997.*

The central claim of this book is that since Stonewall, whatever it is that has formed and shaped gay culture has transformed. Well, of course; such a thing is inevitable when the people that make up a culture move from being hidden and shameful to being public and proud. Harris's argument, though, is that such gay cultural artifacts as diva worship, camp, drag, kink, and pornographic film and literature have become inversions of their former selves. Whereas gay men once worshiped Hollywood divas for the strength and wisdom in their over-the-top performances, now those divas are lampooned. Whereas porn directors edited sex scenes such that the rhythm of the cuts replicated the sexual experience in the point of the view of the men having sex, now video-porn is structured with extended takes that create (rather than replicate) a distant, voyeuristic experience.

These transformations are for Harris lamentations, but complexly so. For much of the book, it seems he's a kid of gay Andy Rooney wondering where the good, simple times of the 50s and 60s went. It's almost as though he's sad we've fought so hard to be assimilated into the mainstream. "[A]s oppression decreases," he writes, "[t]he unfortunate consequence will be that our need to produce art will begin to wane, and we will feel less inclined to assert ourselves as the proverbial tastemakers of our society" (7).

It's a ridiculous claim, but one thing he's right about is that gay culture seems stuck (well, U.S. culture seems stuck; and that's really one of the problems with these essays: how much of porno's POV transformations can be seen as a result of increased gay liberation, and how much are really just a factor of the switch from film to video?) in a kind of perpetual adolescence. Harris twins the coming-out narrative with the coming-of-age narrative, and for him the surplus of such novels since 1980 has kept gay literature in a kind of thematic rut, or as he terms it, "an emotionally stagnant state of euphoria." "Homosexuals," he writes, "are not permanent intellectual convalescents," and while it's a good point to make, Harris doesn't try to locate any means of salvation for gay culture. Re-adopting the poses and practices of our pre-Stonewall culture of fear and exile isn't any kind of solution.