Reviewing the Review: February 14 2010

Fiction Lit-Crit Postmodernism

I can't ever seem to get on board with the hot new young writers selected by our literary/critical/blogosphere group mind. I haven't gotten into Joseph O'Neill, or Marisha Pessl, or Junot Diaz, or Tower Wells, or Joshua Ferris. Is it my fault? Am I carrying too many prejudices with me, or not trying hard enough? Mark Sarvas recently seconded some comments Joshua Ferris made about readers or reviewers who don't like his latest work. Ferris said:

... they don't allow the book's rules to establish themselves before applying their own aesthetic criteria to it which I think is a mistake. I think a careful and adult reader allows the book to establish its world and then evaluates it on how well it does so.

But, really, the reaction that takes place when a qualified reader or reviewer picks up a new book is more about taste and instinct than about "applying aesthetic criteria". I don't know exactly how this happens, but my body tends to react more quickly than my mind when I attempt to discover a new writer. Reading a book's first page feels to me like licking the spoon of a meal I may or may not eat. Aesthetic criteria? Well, really what happens is that I like it or I don't. For me, all too often lately, that first lick fails to please.

But I don't want to be a literary curmudgeon, so I'm glad this weekend's New York Times Book Review presents some young new writers I haven't sampled yet and, based on the evidence here, may actually like. I've run into 27-year-old Justin Taylor's name at a rather fun literary blog called HTML Giant. He also seems to have good taste in music, and I'm excited to see a rave writeup by Todd Pruzan for his Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever.

A couple of pages over, Adam Massbach is very impressed by a young postmodernist named Zachary Mason who seems to have pulled off some kind of Danger Mouse remix of Homer's Odyssey. I don't know if The Lost Books of the Odyssey will turn out to be the kind of book I love to read or merely the kind of book I love to read about. But even a book I love to read about is worth something.

Then, Liesl Schillinger puts Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett on my must-try list. This novel attempts to deal with the humanity behind the greedy financial conglomerates (the "Union Atlantic" of the title is a bank) that recently crashed our economy, and apparently succeeds. This is intriguing:

The actors in this extroverted drama are closeted (or not-so-closeted) introverts. The screen of their surface behavior hides their obsessions and hopes, as well as their shame — just as the balance sheet of a shady debt bundle can appear spruce and clear while concealing a thicket of machinations.

I guess it's time to pull out the spoon again. As always, I'll be sure to fill you in on the results of the taste test once it occurs.

This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: February 21 2010. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: February 7 2010.
23 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: February 14 2010"

Levi, Juno Diaz's novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is well worth reading. His use of language - both Spanish and English - is quite incredible. And it's not a long book (noting your preference for shorter works). I found it quite an excellent novel, with mutliple narrrators, lot of scenes in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, and a Domincan nerd kid that gets named Oscar Wao after a mispronunciation of Oscar Wilde. What's not to like?

by asheresque on

Hey Mike -- yeah, I know a lot of people with good taste like Diaz's book a real lot. I tried to get into it, just didn't get pulled in. I'm sure all of these writers have a lot to offer.

by Dan on

Levi, I agree that most of the 'new literary' writers leave a lot to be desired. Ferris has it backwards: it is the responsibility of the writer to produce a book that immediately interests 'careful and adult' (!) readers and maintains their interest throughout. This is true whether the author is Homer, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kerouac, or Mickey Spillane.

Nabokov said a novelist should be an enchanter. I put it this way: don't bore me. The first paragraph you posted of Ferris's novel was trite and terribly written - beyond boring.

Just a random test for the peanut gallery to see if the following opening sentences float your boat (I'll reveal the authors later):

1. "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on house with no mortgage."

2. "This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they'd been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were."

3. "He came there in the off-season. So much was off. All best were off. The last deal was off. His timing was off, or he wouldn't have come here at this moment, and also every second arc lamp along the peninsular highway was switched off."

4. "I knew my way to Alice. I knew where to find her. I walked across campus that night writing a love plan in my head, a map across her body to follow later, when we were back at our apartment. It wouldn't be long."

by Levi on

Interesting taste test, Ed. I can't identify any of the four authors, but I think #4 appeals to me the most. Others?

by Dan on

Ed, I don't know the authors but they are wonderful - I'm hooked and 'enchanted' immediately. Can't wait to see who the authors are. (Ferris and company should bow down.)

by Muzzy on

Levi,

Sarvas wasn't seconding Ferris' asinine comment. He was only quoting.

Dan's right -- the premise of "The Unnamed" is fantastic, but that first page's prose is so purple, it's almost impossble to read.

by Levi on

Thanks for comment Muzzy, but I don't get why you say Sarvas wasn't seconding. "I should say that I share the interviewer's sentiment, that the The Unnamed is a wrenching, harrowing work, and I also share Ferris's incredulity at the one-dimensional reading he's been afforded by too many critics." That's seconding ...

Oh man, that's hilarious. I'll reveal the four authors tomorrow. Want to see what everybody else has to say first.

by TKG on

2 and 4.

1 is like what??

3 is ho hum

by Levi on

Great, Ed, it's probably Lethem. Hah.

Number one is from The Corrections by Franzen.

by Milton on

Number 1 is truly awful. As for the rest, I'd feel very strange casting judgment without knowing the context in which they appeared.

I think Ferris is an incredible potential talent, with emphasis on the potential. "And Then We Came to the End" was a very good first novel, with tons of promise and just as many rough edges to work out, and I'm worried that the effusive praise that book received might not encourage his more indulgent impulses. What I've read of/about his new one makes me worry that is the case -- I'm still curious to read it, though.

Junot Diaz is truly The Shit, though. I'm all praise for "Oscar Wao."

by Levi on

#1 was The Corrections? Whoa. I even finished that book. Now I'm not sure how.

And ... okay, peeps, I will give Diaz and "Oscar Wao" one more shot.

by Bill_Ectric on

I like # 3 and none of the others. I haven't read any others replies yet because I didn't want a spoiler. Now I'll go back and read everyone's comments.

by Bill_Ectric on

DAMMIT.

I meant to say I like # 2 and none of the others.

by Bill_Ectric on

My theory of writing a book is, if the reader doesn't like the first page, then they can fucking go to hell.

Alright. Here are the answers.

1. Jonathan Franzen, THE CORRECTIONS.
2. Don DeLillo, LIBRA
3. Denis Johnson, RESUSCITATION OF A HANGED MAN
4. Jonathan Lethem, AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE

I deliberately selected writers who tended to write in that post-DeLillo, noun-heavy manner that we were trying to identify a while ago in the Ferris passage. Just to see where sensibilities lied. (Well, that, and I wanted to see if an earlier Lethem volume might appeal to Levi, the obdurate Lethem-hater.) Interesting that 4 appealed to some of you, while 1 clearly did not.

by Mark on

#3 Is DeLillo's Libra

by TKG on

1 was mentioned - Franzen "The Corrections"

2 is DeLillo "Libra"

3 is Denis Johnson "The Resuscitation of a Hanged Man"

4 is Jonathan Lethem "As She Climbed Across the Table"

Loving this thread, Gents. Clear the dead wood. It's nature's way.

by Bill_Ectric on

I like # 2 because I immediately know I'm on a subway. And I'm moving. And there is so much information and imagery.

# 1 and # 3 are more vague, even though they're a bit more poetic, but where am I?

# 4 is okay but seems commonplace for some reason, although I can identify with it.

Bill!
What a great eye you have. I'm reading Libra now and it's juddering like the third rail delivering juice for the locomotion. Here's the last line of that very same first chapter:

"Never again in his short life, never in the world, would he feel the inner power, rising to a shriek, this secret force of the soul in the tunnels under New York."

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