31 December 2008

Smiley, Jane. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. New York: Anchor, 2006.

All I knew of Jane Smiley was that she wrote Moo, and that Moo was a fictionalized account of her teaching in a midwestern creative writing program (I think). I never knew which one until now, after I just highlighted her name up there and used Mozilla's clever little Ubiquity app to Wikipedia her in a new browser tab.

It was Iowa State.

At any rate, I thought this book would be light and breezy, probably because of ill-informed notions I had of Smiley as a writer (I guess I placed her near Anne Tyler in some kind of continuum), and because of the folksy title. The conceit behind the book is that shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Smiley found herself not just stuck/bored with the novel she'd been writing, but also unsure about the importance of The Novel in general. So she set the book aside and read 100 novels over the next three years. The notes she took on these novels (ranging from The Tale of Genji [1004] to Jennifer Egan's Look at Me [2001]) form the basis for her discovery on what the novel is and can do and should do.

Some of this stuff is arbitrary and valuable only in Smiley's need to construct some new apparatus to set her book aside from the dozens of others like it. For her it's the Circle of the Novel, which is a kind of clock face with some form of discourse at each of its numbers. Going around clockwise it's this:
  1. Travel narrative
  2. History
  3. Biography
  4. Tale
  5. Joke
  6. Gossip
  7. Diary/Letter
  8. Confession
  9. Polemic
  10. Essay
  11. Epic
  12. Romance
So you can put any novel ever written at the center of the clock and start drawing lines to the forms included therein. Smiley's able to show that novels we kind of communally agree to be "great" have lines going off in all directions. Like at least seven of them. But then again, such novels tend to be certain kinds of novels (i.e., 19th century ones; one of the smartest things Smiley says in this book is that Middlemarch isn't necessarily the best novel ever written, as many people like to contest, but that it's merely "the most novelish of novels" [182]). And to, like, plan a fresh, unwritten novel by trying to figure out the best 1-12 combination would be a bad enough idea that I don't think I have to talk about why, do I?

So, it's neat. Lots of the book is Aristotelianly neat in how much sorting and ordering into types gets done. Also, the whole second half contains extended summaries/analyses of the 100 novels she read,* which is handy for any level of English student.

My favorite bit is when she gives a clear precis to Forster's comparison between James and Proust. The former, Forster argues, works too hard to make his readers aware of his novels' perfected structures, due in part to James's interest in elevating the novel as art, which is inherently self-conscious. "I am an object to be appraised," James's novels say to us. Whereas Proust, well I'll just quote it:
Forster proposes that the novelist in search of artfulness substitute the model of music for the model of painting, and that he attempt to attain a kind of internal pattern analogous to rhythm. He uses In Search of Lost Time as his example. [. . .] The huge French novel is not asked to limit itself and fix itself inside a structure, "and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally" (p. 165). (142)
Zadie Smith talks a lot about the "scaffolding" her first three novels have needed, and I guess she means that she's needed to follow an external form (be it Forster himself, or Kabbalah) in order to put her stories together. This idea reminds me of what I learned from Christine Schutt last summer, that stories can grow (and should grow) from the writer's commitment to his sentences. Don't "raise the stakes" or "add to the conflict" as a way to move toward resolution, simply keep being careful with your sentences, connect them and juxtapose them, and when you get to the end you'll have by default a cohesive story.

Turns out you can do this with a novel, too. I'll have to try it in six years or so, because the novel I'll write, oh, someday, already has an external structure to follow: the 18 holes of a golf game.


* Here are the books she read that I've read, just to give you (well, me) an idea:

20. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
23. Stendhal, The Red and the Black
28. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
30. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
33. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
41. George Eliot, Middlemarch
43. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
44. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
46. Kate Chopin, The Awakening
47. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
48. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
51. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
56. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
57. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
[60. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (I read book one, not the whole thing, but I'll include it here because I can't believe Smiley read the whole thing either.) UPDATE: Sorry, Ms. Smiley, I sit corrected.]
63. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
68. P.G. Wodehouse [I read one, but none of the four Smiley read, but aren't they all the same?]
72. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
75. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
91. Nicholson Baker, Vox [didn't finish! it]
98. Zadie Smith, White Teeth
100. Ian McEwan, Atonement

So, 22. God, I kicked your ass on that one.

29 December 2008

One Word Reviews of Every Book I Finished! in 2008, An Ordered List in Order of the Order I Finished! Them In

  1. O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood = Cruel.
  2. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby = Fast.
  3. Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita = Hilarious.
  4. Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice = Tragic.
  5. Firbank, Ronald. Valmouth = Empurpled.
  6. Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany's = Faggy.
  7. Heller, Joseph. Catch-22 = Klein-bottled. [Hyphens don't count.]
  8. Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo = Wikipedic.
  9. Cooper, Dennis. Closer = Mannered.
  10. Peterson, Adam. My Untimely Death = Roo-roo'd.
  11. Delany, Samuel R. Hogg = Unwise.
  12. Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces = Swindler.
  13. Selvadurai, Shyam. Funny Boy = Forgettable.
  14. Foucault, Michel. A History of Sexuality: An Introduction = Fundamental.
  15. Ferris, Joshua. Then We Came to the End = Masterly.
  16. Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting = Old-timey.
  17. McNally, Terrence. Corpus Christi = Light.
  18. Wilsey, Sean. Oh the Glory of It All = Lyric.
  19. Frazier, Ian. Great Plains = Unblogged.
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire = Best.
  21. Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames = Denouement.
  22. Colbert, Stephen. I Am America (And So Can You!) (abridged) = Audiobook!
  23. Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner (abridged) = Phony.
  24. Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory = Windy.
  25. Schutt, Christine. All Souls = Balm.
  26. Schutt, Christine. Nightwork = Instructive.
  27. Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children = Dull.
  28. DeLillo, Don. White Noise = Ridiculous.
  29. Harrison, Colin. Mrs. Corbett's Request = Spotty.
  30. Tóibín, Colm. Love in a Dark Time = Obligatory.
  31. Gide, André. The Counterfeiters = French.
  32. Monette, Paul. Afterlife = Poor.
  33. Puig, Manuel. Kiss of the Spider Woman = Feline.
  34. Self, Will. Dorian: An Imitation = Polarian.
  35. Mishima, Yukio. Forbidden Colors = Sexy?
  36. Roth, Philip. Indignation = Overpriced.
  37. Vonnegut, Kurt. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater = Cheap.
  38. Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods = Shelveable.
  39. Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina = Rednecked.
  40. Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley = Midcentury.
  41. Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home = Smart.
  42. Atwood, Margaret. The Blind Assassin = More.
  43. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie = Elementary.
  44. Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club = Misguided.
  45. Call, Ryan. Pocket Finger = Tragic.
  46. Kramer, Larry. Faggots = Megaphone.
  47. Saunders, George. The Braindead Megaphone = Dumb-covered.
  48. Simpson, Mark, ed. Anti-Gay = Intrigue.
  49. Rowling, J.K. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. = Christmas.
  50. Smiley, Jane. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel = Unfinished!

27 December 2008

Rowling, J.K. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. New York: Scholastic, 2008.

Oh, I read this, too. My sister gave it to her boyfriend for Christmas. It took me an hour, and I was keeping up with The Family Man playing on the television the whole time, so I could have finished sooner. Then dinner was on, and I missed how it ended. How did it end, can you remember? Nic Cage "goes back" to his flashy life, but surely he gets with Téa Leoni at the end, right? Does he have his, like, designer briefs and eat them, too?

This book contains the following word: simulacrum. I learned this word, oh, four years ago, only after poring over Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation for what was assuredly a failed paper on the use of same in Saunders's short fiction. I was twenty-six at the time. That kids who got this book for Christmas (or my sister's thirtysomething boyfriend, somewhat of a kid himself) will be learning such a word at such a young age is kind of cool.

I wonder how, in their silent reading minds, they'll pronounce this word. I read Catcher in the Rye at age 12, a hand-me-down from my H.S.-senior sister (the other sister), and when I got to the word sonuvabitch I pronounced it /sawn-YOO-vuh-bitch/. I went to my sister (the same other one, the older one) and asked her, "What's a sonuvabitch?" And I had to go grab the book and show her the word before she knew what I was asking her and was able to laugh, fully, in my face.

25 December 2008

Simpson, Mark, ed. Anti-Gay. London: Freedom Editions, 1996.

Well, see below. There were more crappy and useless essays (the more personal/memoiristic tended to be the more worthless), but there was lots of stuff that was smart and that I liked. I should for the purposes of my comprehensive exams' annotated bibliographies go over this stuff in learned paragraph form, but I'll go unordered list on you jokers:
  • John Weir's argument that identity politics are useless after AIDS, seeing as how they've killed off empathy. To assert "I am gay" is not just to assert alongside it that "You, het, are not," but also, "You can't ever know what it's like." Identity politics refuses earnest attempts at empathy, and, as a (hopeful, one-day) novelist, this seems like poison.
  • Weir's other argument that it's easy for white men to own and champion gay identity, and then to demand the same from other homosexuals, because before coming out their identities were pretty nonexistent. I mean, what white man identifies as a white man? But this choice? It's not so easy for, like, gay black men or lesbian Asian-Americans. Which identity trumps the other?
  • Weir's other argument (I gotta find more from this guy) that gay criticism of the military (for the latter's discriminatory policies) is the privilege of a mostly urban, bourgeois gay culture which
    overlook[s] the fact that enlisting in the armed forces is often the most viable economic alternative for working-class young men. If you're seventeen-years-old [sic] and you don't like musical comedy, and you don't want to move to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, and you don't have enough money for college; and if you know that you like sweaty, male environments; and if you want to get the hell out of your small town, why not the Marines? (33-34)
    From what I've read (in private) online, it's not so inhospitable an environment for us.
  • Paul Burston's really, really smart criticism of gay film critics (and gay moviegoers) who seek always to see themselves reflected on the screen, and who get angry when gay characters aren't depicted "truly" by the filmmakers, because what on earth is a "true" homosexual? And also, the desire for cinematic self-identification is stupid. "In an adolescent," Burston writes, "this fixation would be entirely understandable; in an adult, it begins to beg a few questions" (85). In other words, a gay film theory that seeks out only known, familiar, gay characters is an immature theory. We need more.
  • Burston's extension of this to gay criticism in general, and how shitty it is. Two quotes and then I'm done: "Despite a growing trend towards 'queer', 'oppositional' readings within some (mainly academic) circles, the bulk of what we refer to as 'gay film criticism' still starts from the premise that what matters most is not what the film in question contributes to the art of cinema, or what pleasures it might hold for a queer-literate audience, but the degree to which it explicitly serves the gay political cause" (85-86). And: "One of the arguments made against so-called queer readings is that, far from constituting a legitimate critical strategy, they are merely a convenient, fashionable way of suspending moral judgement [. . .]." (96).
I've been guilty of all the thoughts and action critiqued above, and so it was a pretty fun book to read. I realized about halfway through that these critics are writing from a very privileged position. Like, they're probably themselves living in New York or L.A. or wherever, and able to go through their days-to-days without getting, say, killed or hit or otherwise abused. And rather than this being a nitpicking thing I want to fault the whole book for, I think it's a good thing. This lack of defensiveness is giving them clear enough heads to point out rather obvious hypocrisies and problems that other gays—those more oppressed, say, or more dedicated to asserting their still-forming queer identity as not insane or unhealthy—may be too busy defending their lives to see, which, of course, isn't their fault either.

24 December 2008

Tatchell, Peter. "It's Just a Phase: Why Homosexuality is Doomed." Anti-Gay. Ed. Mark Simpson. London: Freedom Editions, 1996.

I'm probably going to do a whole thing later on Mark Simpson's Anti-Gay, but I'm at this point only halfway through, and because all the bloggers I read are signing off until January and because all I have to do this week is watch TV and repeatedly launching my browser to see what new things I can find to click on, and also because this essay in particular is causing me some trouble, I feel the need to post something today about it.

(Mark Simpson, for the record, is a British journalist/columnist who coined [and has now disavowed] the term "metrosexuality".)

At any rate, Tatchell's essay starts off strong enough, when it gets to its point that homosexuality—as a distinct identity—has not always existed and, thus, will not always exist. I mean, it's pretty hard to argue with. "The Homosexual" as we know him (or her) today is about as old as Oscar Wilde, and yet people have been having sex with those whose genitals they share forever, but Socrates, we imagine, didn't wear velvet and green carnations in order to assert himself as such.

And then he continues to make an interesting point when he says that the inevitable death of "the homosexual" is connected to the death of heterosexual superiority, because the former (and its offshoot homophobia) is a product of the latter, invented in order to supress the otherwise attractive same-sex desire:
It is not in the interests of lesbians and gay men to maintain barriers based on sexual difference. Our liberation is irrevocably bound up with the dissolution of separate, mutually exclusive, rival orientations and identities. (44)

Okay. So I'm on board. It's kind of the reason I'm reading this book: I've come to understand in my reading and in the past five years of living as an out gay man that an identity defined solely by one's sexual orientation is limiting and dangerous not just to the self but also to homosexual and heterosexual people in general. Dangerous in that it's limiting. Dangerous in that it reduces selfhood in a selfish and maybe tragic way. So I'm not as interested anymore in arguing how my sexuality makes me and my existence completely different from a straight person's.

Anyway, all of the requisite Kinsey/Freud shit is thrown up on the opening pages of this essay in order to show how we all have multiple sexualities lying dormant inside of us, and while this isn't something I care or disagree too much about, repeated citations of Kinsey's sex-spectrum statistics are, for me, gradually failing to have any significance. Sure, everyone's capable of same-sex attraction, but I don't think it's fair to then assume that for a person never to choose to act on that attraction (and, likewise, for a gay person never to act on a latent opposite-sex attraction) that person must be in denial, or, like, isn't Living Their Lives To Their Sex-Positive Potential.

At any rate, given that everyone's a little queer, Tatchell's use of this is where his essay starts to go haywire. Because his main thesis is that in order for the barriers between hetero and homo to be completely dissolved, homosexual liberation must be fully granted and accepted. Or, in his words: "Only when sexual difference is fully accepted and valued will it cease to be important and consequently slide into oblivion" (45).

Really? So what's the problem, exactly? What's the thing holding us all as a human race back from our eventual goal of getting rid of the hetero/homo divide? It's the fact that some of us are refusing to acknowledge the Kinsey spectrum? Or, if they're acknowledging it, they're not accepting it? That because of those people who refuse to believe that somewhere inside them lies this even teeny tiny other part, we aren't able to get to the point where said other part is no longer significant?

The worst comes next, when Tatchell contrasts the "conservative gay rights" movement (aimed at highlighting our sexual difference, making us deserving of the same [marriage] rights of heterosexuals in the culture they've created) and the "more visionary queer emancipation project" (aimed at completely overhauling the [patriarchal] het order). He argues that the latter:
seeks a far-reaching sexual revolution to transform sexuality in ways that ultimately benefit both homosexuals and heterosexuals [. . .] such as the reduction of the age of consent to fourteen for everyone, the repeal of the puritanical laws against prostitution and pornography, and the introduction of explicit sex education in schools from primary classes onwards. (47-48, his emphasis)
More on this in a sec, but I guess the dumbest part actually comes right after: "If everyone is born with the potential to be queer, as the evidence suggests, then the struggle for queer freedom is obviously in everyone's interest and we should all be working for that freedom side by side, regardless of our sexuality or gender" (48, my emphasis).

So, like, really? This is in everyone's interest? Why can't it be enough to end the possibility and desire for discrimination? Is it really an important goal that we have consensual sex among 14-year-olds? Or "explicit sex education" for gradeschoolers? And if so, where did these arbitrary divides come from? What's "explicit" mean? A kind of demonstration right out of Barthelme? And why 14 when we can go to 10?

I guess my beef in the end is how careful this essay begins, and then how stupid it becomes. How Tatchell is completely unable to consider a viewpoint other than his own "sex-positive" one. (Just look at the above italics.) It's just these kinds of splintered, meandering, kitchen-sink manifestos that let Santorum connect equal rights for gay people with marrying your dog.

We're never going to win an argument by insisting to straight people that we know what's best for them, too. I know I began this splintered, meandering post claiming such a thing, that gay liberation is good for straight people, but not because it'll change the entire basis of their culture. Not because it'll help them become as fabulously sex-positive as we are. Instead, it'll make us all a lot more trusting of one another, a lot less suspicious.

I think.

UPDATE: Oh, I just realized that far more objectionable than consensual sex between (or, well, among I guess) 14-year-olds is consensual sex between 14-year-olds and, say, 40-year-olds. Or maybe I'm just sex-negative.

21 December 2008

Saunders, George. The Braindead Megaphone. New York: Riverhead, 2007.

I'm feeling the need to compose this entry elsewhere, revise it, and then copy it into my Blogger dashboard window, as opposed to typing up what comes as it comes, scanning it over for typos (or not) and hitting "PUBLISH POST". Why I'm doing this is because of the metaphor Saunders titles his book of essays after: a general loudness and lack of sophistication in the parlance these days. And how it's a cause for some complex kind of ruin:
Megaphone Guy* [who stands at a party and dominates the conversation merely through volume] is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate—they go out too fast and to too broad an audience. Storytelling is a language-rich enterprise, but Megaphone Guy does not have time to generate powerful language. The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don't know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us [...]. (9-10, emphasis mine)
There's a number of essays that deal with this general theme of dumbing down and lack of empathy, and readers of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech (among other recent nonfiction) will maybe scan through a lot of this, filing it under "old hat." This, I think, is a good thing, because maybe doesn't it show that people are listening? In the same title essay, Saunders comes up with a laughably bad run-on sentence of the sort that seemed to fall hourly from Sarah Palin's mouth, and mentions that, these days, when this shit is uttered, nobody laughs, or cries, or otherwise points out the problem.

But is this still the case? Palin looked unassailable on paper—her narrative, positions, and family situation (well, until the dirt got dug up) perfectly tailored to a Bush-era ethos, and yet wasn't part of her downfall her idiocy, her inability to put together a sentence? If you want, if you're like me, you can read 2008's presidential race as a failure of the subliterate to outyell the literate. They gave the presidency to the guy who'd written books.

At any rate, I'm clearly not going to heed Saunders's passionate urging for careful revision here. I've got some notes of things I want to cover and I'm not even halfway through. This is what happens when you have two days of travel woes (hence my quick-reading of this book) and now a whole week of sitting around with family members. You have time to ramble. And still, I want to talk about revision for a bit. Ramblingly, probably.

That emphasized part of Saunders's quote above ("The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively") is one of the best articulations I've read of something I've always felt, and it also reads (only now as I was typing it out) as the reason why so much "online fiction" (by which I mean the shorter, language-driven stuff I often find in online journals) rarely holds my interest. Or, like, it does, but only as I'm reading it. Then I click elsewhere and it's immediately forgotten.

What's missing in these situations, I think, is that truth-seeking impulse. It's hard for me to figure out what they're saying, really. What they're trying to mean, or what they're even trying to do with meaning. I'm not implying that these fictions aren't revised, but I'm not sure they're revised "extensively," as Saunders asks for. What revisions are done seem to be language- / image-oriented, making the prose "tighter" to more optimally suit its eventual medium. And this is, sure, important work to do as a writer, but it's later work, it's finishing stuff, corresponding to what Carol Bly calls "literary fixing."

We writers, particularly those of us who go through graduate programs, are very, very good at literary fixing. We can trim excess and sharpen images better than anything. But what we're not as good at, or at least what I'm not as good at, because it's so much harder to teach and talk about, is what Bly calls (I think), "spiritual deepening," which is, yes, one of the shittiest terms ever (I think she also calls it "empathic questioning"), but it refers to the stage after the initial drafting when the writer looks at his story and asks himself some hard-to-answer questions. What have I written, here? What is it saying? What is it about? Where might it position itself along a continuum between the virtuous and the morally reprehensible, and why? And what questions does it itself ask?

Without taking this step (which is what I think Saunders means when he says "extensive"), fiction becomes a gorgeous mess. Or like a beautiful void. How many stories have we all read that say nothing, but say it incredibly well? This problem is the same problem Saunders writes about happening on a national scale: how often have we heard the television say something that sounds convincing and true, but is really vapid and ridiculous?

It's an important point to make, and Saunders makes it several times. If you've read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" you'll want to skip a lot of it. Or skim. Particularly the part where Saunders cites a euphemism-filled quote from a Nazi official regarding the killing of Jews in concentration camps that makes the same point as Orwell does with his "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results from doing so." You almost sort of wish Saunders would just say "If you really want to understand this point I'm trying to make about language and thought, you should go, as I have, time and again, to Orwell."

Because he's all about pumping up other authors in this book. The best stuff in it (besides maybe the reportage stuff he did for GQ in Dubai, Nepal, and along the U.S.-Mexican border) are the essays about Vonnegut, Barthelme, and Twain. I won't dawdle on this, but these essays are the best I've read on why Slaughterhouse Five, "The School", and Huck Finn are so good. I wish now that I'd brought all three with me on my trip.

Instead I've got Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (almost halfway through), Mark Simpson's (ed) Anti-Gay, and Bill Reichard's first book of poems. And lots of time. So more surely to come.


* One really awesome moment of symmetry, maybe, comes later in the book, where Saunders is reporting on a demonstration in Texas between the Minutemen and the Unión de Trabajadores del Suroeste, in which the latter have megaphones of their own and are chanting loud enough for the former's own "Deport them now!" chants to be all but drowned out. There's a black Vietnam vet standing on the side of the Unión, talking earnestly about how the Minutemen are only looking for a new minority to keep down, but that "the brown man built this country" &c., and he's making it hard for the Minutemen to counterargue, and but the whole thing is being drowned out by the Unión's megaphones, and so Saunders, perhaps aware of this metaphor that will run through his book and seizing a golden opportunity, actually runs over to the Unión, and points out what the vet is saying, and they run a bullhorn over to this vet so he can make his point more loudly. The Minutemen soon drive off to another location.

If this whole book were an essay, this would be its ultimate scene, or maybe penultimate, but as it stands in the book it's somewhere in the middle, and like not even heralded in any way like I would try to do. ("See? See, the megaphone can be put to good use, when in the right hands. Do you get it?")

15 December 2008

Kramer, Larry. Faggots (1978). New York: Plume, 1987.

Right from his choice of a title, Larry Kramer—one of the founders of AIDS activist group ACT-UP and still today a vocal, vehement critic of both AIDS policy and queer promiscuity—positions himself and his novel as a harsh critique. This won't be a glowing portrait of gay men in New York City nearly a decade after the Stonewall Riots. It probably won't even be a fair one. Instead, the book is a mix of loathing—of the self, of other gay men—and celebration, an attempt at gathering strength. Or, as Kramer attributes to his stand-in, Fred Lemish, "[D]id he not hate that word 'gay'? He thought it a strange categorizer of a life style with many elements far from zippy. No, he would de-kike the word 'faggot,' which had punch, bite, a no-nonsense, chin-out assertiveness, and which, at present, was no more self-depracatory than, say, 'American'" (31).

The novel takes place over Memorial Day weekend 1977, when the historic Everard Baths burned down, killing nine men. This event concludes the book's opening act, continuing through the death of Winnie Heinz, the Marlboro Man, during the opening of a new disco the next night, and the start of the summer season on Fire Island that culminates in the novel's climax: the public, orgiastic double-fisting of Fred's paramour, Dinky Adams, in the "Meat Rack"—an off-the-beaten-path area of the Fire Island Pines.

The amount of sex in this novel could rival all of Edmund White's autobiographical trilogy, but for Kramer, sex isn't always (actually, it's rarely) the self-affirming experience many gay men of his generation paint it to be. Instead, it's reckless, drawn here in his novel so often as a caricature. This is part of my attraction to the book; the way it quite smartly makes fun of the idea that rampant fucking is somehow intrinsic to gay identity. Here's how Richie Bronstein, the closeted son of a wealthy film executive, puts it:
[H]e knew there was a pit of sexuality out there and that he longed to throw himself into it.

I have to! I have to! he would torture himself before several hours napping in his lofted bed. Because it's part of the faggot life style—to find abandonment and freedom through ecstasy—fucking and being fucked and light s & m and shitting and pissing and Oh I want to be abandoned! and where's my copy of the Avocado... (60-61)
In watching the man he's been for years obsessed with get fisted by two strangers while dozens of leering men watch, Fred is finally able to see Dinky's inherent sadness and emptiness, and that night they amicably "break up" (quotes because Dinky can never be said to be with any one man). The final pages of the novel show gay men simply together, not fucking or fighting or both, but just sitting together on the sand as the sun rises over Fire Island, and passing from lips to ears and lips to ears is one repeated phrase: "I love you."

It's a sentimental ending to an otherwise angry novel, and it comes a little out of nowhere, but what's important about it is that it pushes Kramer's argument toward a kind of solution: less fucking, more loving. That this book was written four years before AIDS broke in the newspaper makes it all the more important.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook (1962). New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.*

A novel fascinating in its structure: Free Women is told in five parts, each with a third-person narrator, telling the story of Anna Wulf and her friend Molly, and the men and children that fill out their lives. These sections are interrupted by Anna's notebooks, in which she tries to sort out her own life story (told in the first person), by allocating different aspects of her life into different colored notebooks.

For instance, her time in Africa is told in the black notebook, and he gradual straying from communism is told in the red notebook. Eventually she falls in love with an American writer, and is driven to bring all these disparate elements together in the golden notebook of the title.

This fractured structure enables Lessing to cover not only a great breadth of narrative, but also to fully investigate her themes of communism, class, and the feminist movement in such a way as to not have to privilege any of them.

01 December 2008

Call, Ryan and Christy. Pocket Finger. Baltimore: Publishing Genius, 2008.

A lot of the new fiction I read online these days does good work with language and image, but not good work with character or story. Sometimes it's simply bad work, these things haven been lately short-shrifted in a, oh, post-whatever world. Call me old-fashioned, but when I want language and image I can go to poetry. I want my fiction to take me somewhere and show me some people I don't know and let me spend enough time with them that I can watch how something happens in their lives that makes me reconsider me own.

I also want brilliant sentences, and all of the images to be inscrutable. Too much to ask?

No! says Ryan Call, a buddy of mine who just released this great chapbook illustrated by his sister, which is appropriate as the story is about two siblings living quietly in the margins around a sick mother and a very sullen and terrifying father. I think what makes Ryan's book work so well is that he's (or his narrator's) directing all his best sentences, all his close watching and description, at this father and not at himself, and so what results is this close relationship between the observer and the otherwise distant observed, which the goings-on of the narrative then work to develop:
What Father had suffered during his brief absence, what he had inflicted upon others in his derangement, my sister and I could only imagine. We each held for his abilities a newfound, horrified respect, and with this respect we carefully guided him away from the estuary when he grew distraught by his failure to draw a single bite. [. . .]

My sister distracted him by locking her thumbs together and flapping her delicate hands softly about his face to coax him onto the pathway home. And I pressed lightly my tiny head into the small of his back and motored him along, occasionally losing my footing in the fetid mud, sobbing, filthy.
Pocket Finger is the exact sort of thing I would love to see in The Cupboard, but alas the good folks over at Publishing Genius got it. You can read the whole thing online if you like, or if you don't like, like I don't like, they'll mail you one with color images and a nice handwritten note. Go buy it, it's only like four bucks.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Owl Books, 1997.

I'm not sure whether I've ever read a novelization of a movie, but reading Palahniuk's book is like reading a novelization of David Fincher's movie.

This is not a credit to whomever wrote the screenplay. This book is awful.