Fictional Glances

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1. Ann Beattie's new novel is Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, an exploration, in Beattie's signature glancing style, into the mind and voice of Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon's first lady. A few fragments have been published in the New Yorker. Mrs. Nixon is likely to be compared to Curtis Sittenfeld's similar projection a few years ago into the soul of Laura Bush.

2. I don't know what to do with Nicholson Baker's new metaphysical sex romp, House of Holes, which apparently shows off the great author's infamous "randy side" yet again. I absolutely love Nicholson Baker's work, except when he writes about love or sex. I wasn't too impressed by Room Temperature or Vox, and quit The Fermata after a few pages. House of Holes appears to take Baker's obsessions with bodily humor to a new level, and I could find nothing to like in the first few pages. Does this mean I'm a prude? I don't think so; I'm simply turned off by the obsessive anality, by the intense delight Baker seems to take in the awkwardness and repulsiveness of physical intimacy. This is a concept of sexuality that I just don't relate to at all. Baker reminds me of a guy I once worked with who became a father for the first time. Whenever anybody in the office asked about the baby, this guy only wanted to talk about the experience of doing diapers. He began obsessively using the word "poopy" around the office. "How's the baby?" someone would ask. "Poopy!" he would exclaim. It finally dawned on me that this guy had been wishing his entire life for a situation in which he was allowed to say the word "poopy" in mixed company, and becoming a father had finally placed him in this situation. Well, that's fine for him, but his concept of fatherhood could not have been further from my own. Likewise, Nicholson Baker's concept of sexuality could not be further from my own. I still consider Baker one of the most wonderful writers of our time, without a doubt (start with The Mezzanine, if you haven't started yet). I don't even mind that he writes books like House of Holes every few years. But it's sad to think that he might lose some potential readers who pick up House of Holes or The Fermata, put it down, and never discover how good Nicholson Baker can be.

3. And then ... there's David Foster Wallace, who many still consider a deeply important voice of our times, and whose death by suicide continues to resonate as literary myth. I try constantly to get on this bandwagon. I watched a new Decembrists music video based on Eschaton, an invented tennis variation described in the novel Infinite Jest. I read Maud Newton's New York Times piece, "Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace", which proposes that Wallace's evasive and self-doubting approach to argumentation and debate has taken root as an essential ingredient of blog/Internet culture. Following a tweet while watching Roger Federer in the U.S. Open, I tried to read Wallace's 2006 tennis piece "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" -- but this last piece was an epiphany for me. It must be one of the worst articles he ever wrote. I'm astonished by the byzantine, ponderous prose, the mawkish and unconvincing pose of childlike enthusiasm, the gratuitous tone of arrogance towards the reader. Terrible, terrible piece of writing. I suppose it's time for me to stop trying to appreciate Wallace, even though I hate to miss out on relating to a "deeply important voice of our times" whose sheer power of intellect, I constantly hear, was infinite and unimaginable. I still admire the way David Foster Wallace wore a bandanna.

4. Michael Hart, founder of the still and forever useful Project Gutenberg, has died.

5. The Egoist Okur is a very cool literary publication from Turkey that covers a wide variety of international writers and artists including Elif Shafak, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Orhan Pamuk, Sylvia Plath, Alpine Bugdayci, Maxim Gorky, Ray Bradbury, George Lucas, Amy Winehouse. Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Mark Twain. I can only peruse this publication via Google auto-translate, but I like what I see.

6. Hugh Fox has died. Doug Holder wrote about him for Litkicks a few years ago.

7. Laura Albert sharply ponders the continued existence of Roman Polanski.

8. Innovative publisher Red Lemonade explains "why we're DRM-free (and it's not because we trust you...)".

9. Eleanor Lerman, who told us about her sidewinding writing career in a recent Litkicks piece, has written a new novel, Janet Planet, about the cult of a pop shaman who resembles Carlos Castaneda. (Does anyone remember Carlos Castaneda today? He was sort of the Daniel Pinchbeck of his time, though the fact that Carlos Castaneda is not widely remembered today may not bode well for Daniel Pinchbeck's future).

10. Jack-of-all-trades Sean Kanniff, who invented the short-lived "alphabet system" in the legendary first season of the reality show Survivor, has written an unusual book called Être the Cow, which deals with issues of social structure, employment and ecology via the imagined first-person voice of a cow. Here's Sean explaining it on a news show.

11. Ron Rosenbaum mines John O'Hara's 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 for contemporary relevance.

12. Tiny shards of literature from the siege of Leningrad (via the Saloon).

13. A new generation of Hemingway offspring.

14. Blogger and Dzanc publisher Dan Wickett confesses to loving rock memoirs. As do I.

15. In case you were wondering: Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?

8 Responses to "Fictional Glances"

by TKG on

Most Vital Art Form of Our Time -- yes, and David Foster Wallace is the most vital author of our time, especially his terrific takes on tennis.

As the prophet once said a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, don't believe the hype.

(I definitely appreciated Ethan Hein's analytical breakdown.)

You really have to read Infinite Jest to see the power and importance of Wallace's writing. I know, it's really long and has endnotes, for chrissake.
But Ulysses is really long, and Proust is really long and a lot of really other good stuff is really long. You just have to take on a marathoner rather than sprinter attitude.

Too bad about Hugh Fox. The guy wrote hundreds of books. Check out "Way, Way off the Road" for an intro.

Ah Carlos Casteneda. Back in the day I was almost able to trip to his books. Don Juan turning into an eagle or whatever. I spent sometime in the Southwest, so it wasn't to hard to get on the spaceship when old Carlos was driving.

by Lisa Peet on

Hey, thanks so much for linking back to the piece by Eleanor Lerman. I'm a fan, and it's always fun to be given a little glimmer by a good writer...

by Burcu Yıldızer on

I really shocked and got happy when ı read your sentence about Egoist Okur. İt is a wonderful web-site that you can find everything about literature, history and also interview with singers, writers etc. Egoist Okur means : "selfish reader" and in my opinion we are very lucky because of this beauty and being selfish about literature. Thanks for site owner Gülenay Börekçi to bring us in Egoist Okur. Greetings from Türkiye. :)

Wrong on Baker and wrong on Wallace. If you can't get behind HOUSE OF HOLES, then you are most definitely a prude and against scatological humor. Sex is as ridiculous as it is intense, and Baker knows this. By the way, it is possible to occupy a station in life where you can laugh at poop jokes and ponder the state of the universe. And, believe it or not, although I'm a big fan of DFW, I think the Federer piece is one of his weakest. As Michael Norris says, you really need to read the entirety of INFINITE JEST to understand his power. I'd recommend instead the cruise ship essay (the title essay of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN) and many of his insights into language and the way that we express ourselves. Stop making the same foolish mistake that Maud did (I thoroughly refuted her essay here: http://www.edrants.com/when-the-flock-changed-david-foster-wallace-maud-...) by judging an author on a snippet and finding a specious connection to the aesthetic you hate. Also, if you're going to hate on DFW, I think you should come clean by declaring your own inherent prejudices for what you call "byzantine, ponderous prose." That's a dishonest position, Levi, and you know it.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Ed, is there really such a thing as a critic being "right" or "wrong" when describing a reaction to a work of literature? I would never use those words in this context. To say I am "wrong" about Baker and/or Wallace makes no sense. Do you mean I don't understand my own feelings about these writers? That would be the only way I could be "wrong", since I am sharing my own private feelings about their works.

I considered linking to your critique of Maud Newton's piece on David Foster Wallace (which you linked to above) but I didn't for exactly the same reason: I felt you were treating a matter of taste and aesthetic opinion -- the domain of literary criticism -- as if it were a matter of right and wrong. Maud was riffing on David Foster Wallace. She was describing an idea that had occurred to her, that she felt was worth sharing. How can a conversational, chatty piece like her piece on DFW be "debunked", as you say? It makes no sense to me.

Also, Ed, I think you meant in your last paragraph that I should come clean by declaring my inherent prejudice against, not for, "byzantine, ponderous prose". Again, the word "dishonest" seems overly harsh here. It's definitely a fact that I hate byzantine and ponderous prose, but I figure I've made that plenty clear to anybody who reads Litkicks regularly. What you call "dishonest" is me just trying to avoid repeating myself.

Anyway, I do enjoy the feedback here. Why do I consider it important to trash the works of a writer who sadly took his own life? I wonder this myself, and felt some doubts about posting these words about David Foster Wallace. But then I thought of all the young readers out there who might feel there's something wrong with them because they tried to read "Infinite Jest" -- tried really hard, as of course I have too -- and simply couldn't stand it. Somebody has to tell these young readers that this doesn't mean they're stupid, and that they're allowed to stop trying if they want to. That's why I write these things.

Levi: When I say that your position is "wrong," it is because (like Maud) you failed to come clean with your aesthetic biases (see also Updike's Rules of Reviewing!) and that you're basing your opinion on little more than an insufficient skim of DFW's oeuvre. That doesn't come close to what DFW was about. In Maud's case, she failed to establish a suitable link between DFW and Internet writing, which is highly irresponsible and misleading and should have been addressed by her lazy editor (but wasn't). Far worse than what you did here, by the way. But still bad. She also (like you) damned DFW on merely a handful of essays. That's an irresponsible and dishonest argumentative position. Like hating on FINNEGANS WAKE because you gave up on the first sentence. It's the literary equivalent to Tea Party thugs listening to Wolf Blitzer, not understanding the basic underpinnings of healthcare, and then applauding for an uninsured man to die. You're too good for that type of behavior, Levi. But that's just what you've done here!

And what of someone who comes into Litkicks for the first time and isn't aware of your prejudice AGAINST what you view as "byzantine, ponderous prose" or complexity? I don't see anything wrong with repeating (or even linking back to previous posts) so that people can understand your position. Isn't that, after all, what THINKING is all about?

by Bill_Ectric on

I'll take Aldous Huxley over Carlos Casteneda any day.

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