Fiction

John Updike at the New York Public Library

I don't usually feel awestruck when I hear a famous writer speak. But I'll make an exception for John Updike, who faced a packed house at the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library on Thursday night, because I have enjoyed so many of his books for so long, and because I've never had the chance to see this author in person before.

He saunters onstage to mild applause, slender and now thoroughly white-haired, but thankfully not wearing the bright white shirt he was recently seen with in San Francisco. He's here to talk about Terrorist, a new novel that examines the inner world of a teenage Islamic terrorist-in-training in a depressed New Jersey city. The evening's moderator is Jeffrey Goldberg, a political correspondent for the New Yorker, who begins by pointing out that Terrorist is one of the most political novels of Updike's career. He asks the author to tell us about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001, which he spent on the roof of his son's Brooklyn Heights apartment watching the twin towers burn and fall.




The Overrated Writers of 2006

Here they are, the Literary Kicks Overrated Writers of 2006: Philip Roth, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem.

What these writers all have in common is that I once cared about each one of them. You don't get on my Worst Five list unless I once had high hopes for you. Each of these five writers seemed to be right up my alley when I first heard of them.

My fateful Cormac McCarthy encounter came on an airplane to California, after I'd excitedly purchased Blood Meridian for a gripping read. I ended up reading the in-flight magazine for six hours, because the writing was better. But I sure thought I'd love that book.

I had very, very high hopes when I first heard of William T. Vollmann, because the subjects he writes about are fascinating to me. I share his interest in the philosophy of history, I like his eclectic craziness, and I bet I'd become a big William Vollmann fan, if the guy would only deign to become readable. I still hope someday he will ... maybe after carpal tunnel syndrome catches up with him.

What I'm trying to say here is -- you can't really hate a writer unless you also love something about them. For example, Joan Didion came up with one of the all-time best book titles ever, the Yeats-inspired Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That's some title. Jonathan Lethem is a Mets fan. Philip Roth is a cranky old weirdo. What's not to like, right?




Overrated Writers, Part Four: Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem

Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are my final two selections for the five most overrated writers of 2006.

Some readers find Cormac McCarthy's stiff, humorless syntax appealing. I guess this is the way people talk out on the wild western frontier, in long flat sentences, with no commas to spare. Here are the first lines from The Crossing, the first volume in Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hidalgo was itself little older than a child. In the country they'd quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence. He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english.

Would you like a Slim Jim or a pack of Marlboro's with that? I'm sorry, Cormac fans out there, but the whole tumbleweed-on-the-prairie routine feels hokey to me.

Not that there isn't a lot of hokey on a typical bestseller list, but what bugs me about Cormac McCarthy is that he so often shows up on lists of serious authors and gets compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. I don't think he has the depth. Granted, I don't always go crazy for Faulkner or Hemingway either, but at least they were blazing their own paths in trying to invent a syntax and a voice that would portray the wide-open American soul. As far as I can see, McCarthy is just following their template.

I can think of some newer books that also rely heavily on a "deep country" narrative voice, but manage to make it feel real, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or Beloved by Toni Morrison. McCarthy's books feel superficial compared to these. They're all mood, all saddle leather and sinew. All drifters on journeys. Rivers that need to be crossed. People talking without quotation marks.

Clint Eastwood already directed the movie of every Cormac McCarthy novel put together, and it's called Unforgiven. I just don't think Cormac McCarthy's body of work rises to the status of great literature. Here's what I'm missing: humor, suspense, ideas, revelation.

I checked out the back cover blurbs of all the McCarthy novels I could find (and there are many, including Suttree, Cities of the Plain, All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men). Almost every book is described as taut. Taut, taut, taut. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels since 1965 -- how long can a guy be taut before he finally snaps?

Or, more to the point, how long can he be taut before I snap? Because McCarthy keeps turning these taut books out, year after year, with characters from Central Casting and props left over from Heaven's Gate, and I'm sick of hearing top critics talk about how great they are.

Jonathan Lethem. Where do I start? I have written about Jonathan Lethem before. That was a year ago, and I still don't like his books today.




Overrated Writers, Part Three: William Vollmann

I have tried hard, so very hard, to appreciate William Vollmann, a wildly original postmodernist obsessed with history and human aggression who is considered a great intellect by several people I respect. I've eagerly bought his thick, intimidating books, and I have put in solid time trying to read them. I will not try anymore.

William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It's all an endurance act. Can a skinny kid with pimples and glasses really write a seven volume chronicle of the settlement of North America, follow it with a 3,300 page history of human violence and then toss out an 800 page rumination on the Eastern Front in World War II? Yes, he can. But if you take the "wow" factor away from William Vollmann, does his work stand up? I'm really not sure.




Overrated Writers, Part Two: Joan Didion

Call it sacrilege ... I just can't get behind this Joan Didion craze. She wins the second position on the Litkicks Overrated Writers List of 2006.

Joan Didion is a skillful and smart writer. But I've always considered her a quintessentially cold author, the epitome of the jaded, detached modernist. I once tried hard to read her most acclaimed novel, Play It As It Lays, because somebody told me it was great. I couldn't get to first base with this book. The sentences were sharp and the transitions were slick, maybe too slick, because my attention kept glancing off the brushed-steel surface of Didion's gleaming prose.

It was all cool anomie, all tone and attitude. Here's a typical passage from Play It As It Lays:

We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody's second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.

That's nicely phrased, and it would work well as the setup for an exciting plot. But as I read on, it began to sink in that paragraphs like this were the plot. The book was an exercise in boredom, an exquisite portrait of nothingness. Here's how the teaser text on the book's jacket describes the main character: "Maria is an emotional drifter who has become almost anesthetized against pain and pleasure".

That's supposed to be a selling point? Not for this reader. I see emotional sterility all around me. I read books to cure this condition, not to reinforce it.




Overrated Writers, Part One: Philip Roth

Philip Roth once wrote a great, great book. It's called Goodbye, Columbus and it's his first book, published in 1959. The title novella is a hilarious, piercing tale of a doomed love affair between a poor bookish urban Jew and a spoiled Jewish-American Princess from the suburbs. The story reaches its sublime peak when the hero visits his girlfriend's palatial home and gapes, astonished, while her college-educated brother sits in his bedroom and listens over and over to his "Columbus record", a souvenir from his beloved Ohio State University. Goodbye, Columbus is one of my favorite books, and, yes, it establishes Philip Roth as a superb writer.

Unfortunately, as I said, this book was written in 1959. The "You can listen to my Columbus record" scene was not only the peak of this novella but also the peak of Roth's entire literary career. Did fame spoil Philip Roth? Maybe, because a paranoid, cranky dislike of humanity began to dominate his writing by the early sixties. I'm not sure what went wrong between his first book of short stories and the later books, though it may have had something to do with the difficult personal struggles he eventually chronicled in an autobiography, The Facts.

Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I must disagree when I hear him described as a great writer of our age.




News Flash: Beloved a Good Book

1. My god, will we ever stop talking about the 25 best books since Sam Tanenhaus lost his virginity? No, apparently we won't. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had never read the top title on the list, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and I pledged to read it and report my findings.



Interview with Steve Aylett



Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."



LitKicks Reviews: May 2006

We usually review a large proportion of indie publications, poetry chapbooks and the like, but today we're looking at three hardcover titles, all from large publishers. Here's a diverse set of new books that might interest you:

Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine