Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Indie Reviews: April 2006

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 11:50 am

Slushpile recently presented a sporting rant that mocks annoying people who self-publish and then get way too excited about themselves. It's a good article, though it leads to the depressing conclusion that the future of literature remains in the hands of the large robotic corporations that occasionally bestow the magic word "published" upon a tiny selection of writers. Here at LitKicks, we've always supported the little guys in publishing, and we're happy to profile worthwhile new small press books, self-published books and poetry chapbooks. If you've got an independently published book you'd like us to review, we'll take a look. Here are a few we checked out last month:

The Garbageman and the Prostitute by Zack Wentz is a thrill ride down transgression alley, and if you go for this kind of thing (fragmented violent narratives with creepy psychological undertones) this book will probably please you. Wentz gets high marks for energy and consistency, because every sentence seems constructed for mind-numbing impact, and the excellent artwork (here's a sample, an animated version of the cover) neatly captures the mood. I did have trouble finding a clear plot in this book, though. I'm not sure if the plot is there or not, but I never found it. The Garbageman and the Prostitute is published by Chiasmus Press, and boasts a surprising array of endorsements from the likes of William Vollmann, Steve Aylett and Michael Hemmingson. The promo materials compare Zack Wentz to Richard Brautigan, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski, P. K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. I see Acker and Pynchon here, but I don't see the simple, clear communication of Brautigan or Bukowski.

J Milligan's Jackfish has a great setup. A humanoid creature of some kind emerges from the ocean near Coney Island in Brooklyn, and gasps painfully to accustom himself to breathing air. Apparently this guy -- the Jackfish of the title -- is more comfortable extracting oxygen with his gills, which is mainly because he lives in the mystical underwater land of Atlantis. He's on some kind of noirish secret mission, and the whole thing reads kind of like City of Glass meets Aquaman, which is not a bad thing at all. In the end, it's not the suspense but rather the well-placed details (like the deep, jarring pain the fish-guy feels when forced to breathe air) that put this story over. Jackfish is published by Soho Press, a fairly large New York-based independent publisher that hasn't been swallowed up by a corporation yet, at least not as far as I know.

Not Having an Idea is a slim and expressive book of poems by Californian poet Donna Kuhn. Her work has a visual and visceral sense, marrying the random psychological splices of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to a distinctly feminine aesthetic:

particles of goat head fencing
cardinal of slouched fencing eyehole
smear a plot of murder i don't understand

fencing a platinum blong 4-plex
petty venders smoke up
i bend for your sandpapers
antlered sadness

Kuhn's book is a Lulu production, and so is Dutch-booked by Warren Weappa, a longtime friend of LitKicks. This is an ambitious and openly disorganized novel about a hapless sad-sack stuck in the ambiguities of his own mind, The best example I can give of this book's sensibility is Weappa's comically self-defeating comments to me as he sent it: "I don't want a review. I just want somebody in the world to read it." Well, Weappa is getting a review whether he wants it or not, because as I explained to him in my reply, I can't stand the responsibility of being the only person in the world to read anybody's book. The author's apparent agony about his book is very fitting, because the main character -- like the author, an expatriate in Asia -- suffers from the same endearing inability to seize the day. In the first two pages alone, he is referred to as "your antihero", "your valueless villian", "your working-class protaganist", "your serial loser" and "your clueless correspondent". John Kennedy Toole created a good book out of this type of self-deprecation (although, appropriately, he died before it was discovered). Reading Dutch-booked, I'm not sure whether to sympathize, laugh or yell at the author to shake it off.

Taking the Rest of the Week Off by Erik Linzbach is a humble, attractive chapbook that speaks clearly and simply, and I like it:

How you've changed
gone from the stereotype
divorce raged child
to the calm, secure
judgemental hawk,
flying high above all these
others, the rats from high school,
whom you'll eat one by one
by one, and you'll hate yourself
when they're all gone,
and no one can see your
new limitless brilliance,
no one can read your
gut check, relentless prose,
and you're once again found all alone.

Finally, it's not a book at all, but I've been meaning to point you all to Bear Parade, an online poetry exhibit designed by Gene Morgan and featuring enigmatic poet Tao Lin, the self-proclaimed Reader of Depressing Books who writes behind a mask of playful innocence and never breaks character. I like the clean presentation of this poetry exhibit, and I am looking forward to Lin's upcoming first hard copy publication, which he has promised to send me for future review.

That's it from the indie side of the street. I also have a few titles from more established publishers to review, and this will be up soon.

Voices, World and Otherwise

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 03:51 pm

1. The PEN World Voices Festival begins a week from today, and I'll be covering the various events with a gang of bloggers including Bud Parr of Chekhov's Mistress, James Marcus of House of Mirth, Michelle Lin of NY Brain Terrain, and Michael Orthofer of the Literary Saloon. I couldn't approve more of the basic concept behind this international-minded festival. Whether or not I will approve of any of the actual events that I attend remains to be seen, but I feel optimistic.

2. Bud Parr (who runs Metaxu Cafe along with Chekhov's Mistress) is the mastermind behind the PEN World Voices blogging posse mentioned above. He also wrote a great piece about the new Bukowski movie, Born Into This.

3. I was sorry to read (via Bookslut) that novelist Charles Webb has fallen on hard times. Webb hit it big in the 1960's as the author of The Graduate, and even though the novel is eclipsed by the nearly perfect movie with its nearly perfect Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, the book offers its own rewards. The stubborn and inarticulate lead character provides the template for Dustin Hoffman's entire persona as an actor, for one thing (The Graduate was Hoffman's first major movie, and as far as I can tell he's been playing Webb's Benjamin Braddock ever since).

Charles Webb once had a thriving career in literary fiction, and when I was a kid my local library stocked all his books. I especially remember two of them: Love, Roger, a sweet fable about a shy guy who can't come to terms with his own sexuality, and Orphans and Other Children, a book of short stories that includes a memorably ambivalent tableau set in a nudist colony. Another Webb novel, Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, was made into an unremarkable movie starring Richard Benjamin. All of these books are now out of print. Charles Webb was more than a one-hit wonder, and I hope his fortunes improve.

4. There's a nice interview with Anne Tyler in the latest Fail Better.

5. Nasdijj isn't going to go down quietly like Charles Webb. He hasn't put up a new website since his ordeal earlier this year, but I'm still on his email list, and I'm glad to see he's doing the only thing you really can do after Time Magazine calls you a liar --come clean and move on. Here's the latest missive from the writer currently sometimes known as Tim Barrus, who still writes with the humor valve shut off but the intensity turned up to twelve (because eleven's not enough):

Being Nasdijj was like being alone and shining in an empty room where some animal is killing itself slowly in a screaming struggle of dark set against the darkness of a hatred made visible as it crushed upon itself.

As for Tim, he returns to the world of sex work where his writing came from anyway. A landscape where the romance of bondage is not confined to the political correctness or mythologized literary persona of the reservation.

The lights came on and I walked out onto the stage. I plunged a knife into his chest again and again. Nasdijj gasped and died. But Tim is left to be guillotined like Charlotte Corday who once demanded with her note to Jean-Paul Marat that her protest be acknowledged in her objection to the blood that ran like a river through her dreams.

The Jeeves Codex

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 5, 2006 08:08 pm

There's a new name on my writers-I-like-a-lot list, though this name took a circular route to get here. I was introduced to the novelist Jonathan Ames a few years ago by my friend Christian Crumlish who'd apparently been his college buddy at Princeton. We'd dropped by a Jonathan Ames reading at a small Greenwich Village theater, but you couldn't call the performance a reading so much as, well, an astonishing spontaneous thirty-minute filibuster of disgusting personal facts and scatological observations regarding Ames's body and his highly varied sexual desires. It was all quite humorous, and the crowd seemed to like him a lot. But scatology is not my bag and I honestly didn't know what to think about my friend's friend.

But something compelled me to pick up his latest novel, Wake Up, Sir! and I am now a believer in the worthiness of Jonathan Ames. In fact I'm still glowing from this artful book, which radiates a complex warmth beneath its comic surface.

The book is an explicit homage to a favorite writer of mine, P. G. Wodehouse, in that it features a hedonistic narrator with a calm valet named Jeeves. Ames's hero Alan Blair is a modern slacker with a manic personality and a slippery grip on reality, and he speaks in the same bemused cadences as Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster.

But there are also echoes of Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the utter self-deprecation that permeates this narrator's every thought. Ames writes by letting his character spill out everything about himself, whether he wants us to know it or not. It's a cathartic, ecstatic kind of self-revelation, and in this context I have a better understanding of the performance I saw in Greenwich Village a few years ago. This book is tamer and has a surprisingly polite tone, but the veneer breaks often, as in the ridiculously detailed long scene in which the narrator discovers he has an STD and goes into a frenzy of suicidal yearnings and obsessive self-shaving and cleansing that lasts 14 pages. Somehow, believe it or not, the 14 pages are fun to read. It's all so remarkably childish as to be endearing; reading this book is like watching a child throw a hilarious fit.

Some reviewers of the book have hinted that Jeeves is imaginary, while other reviewers treat the character as fully real. I take a strong stand on this matter, because I believe the proper way to interpret this book is as a series of strong hints and clues -- a Dan-Brown-like codex, even -- which proves that, beyond any doubt, Jeeves is not real, and is in fact the central psychological metaphor of the book. Here's why I'm sure.

First, nobody but the narrator ever interacts with Jeeves. When they go to a writing colony, we are told that Jeeves will dine with the kitchen staff, but no further mention is made of this and there is a chilling sense that Jeeves will not be dining anywhere. Likewise, when they are driving, Jeeves does not appear to ever take the wheel.

The second clue is the more subtle one, and is designed to be noticed only by hard-core Wodehouse fans like myself. There is a curious subplot involving some stolen slippers which the hero is accused of having absconded with, and when he then finds himself in a very uncomfortable situation at the end of the book, the stolen slippers return in such a way as to miraculously save the situation. This is a classic Wodehouse ending, and the hero even thinks to himself that Jeeves must have devised the solution. But that's the twist -- it turns out somebody else did it. This blunt reversal is the clearest signal that Jeeves can only reach the edge of reality in this novel, and is in fact, like Harvey the rabbit, like Donnie Darko, like the creepy twin kid in Thomas Tryon's The Other, like Leland Palmer's Bob, like Tony Soprano's Kevin Finnerty, like Hamlet's Ghost, an utter figment.

Despite this Matrix-like undercurrent of meta-meaning, the book's plot generally glides sweetly upon the author's felicitous prose. Two highlight scenes: the surreal moment when the narrator resumes his psychotic alcohol abuse at a party with several equally unbalanced writers, and the hilarious scene when he first arrives at a rural writer's colony (based on the real Yaddo) and becomes convinced that he has been deceived into staying at a mental hospital, based on the grotesque facial appearance of several nearby poets.

Ames hints on his own website that Wake Up, Sir! may be made into a movie. If this happens, I hope Ames will play himself and Stephen Fry will play Jeeves (he got it right in a recent television production, although co-star Hugh Laurie was absolutely absymal -- I'm talking Tom Hanks bad -- as Bertie Wooster, and made the series unwatchable). Perhaps this film will be the great Wodehouse movie that has never been made (in fact, Arthur starring Dudley Moore and John Gielgud was not too completely far from this mark; Wodehouse seems to inspire great homages).

I hope the Ames film happens. I think I'm going to pick up his new book of essays next. I'm not sure what to expect.

Jay McInerney's Good Life: The Odeon In Dust

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 10:35 pm

I'm not sure why I like reading Jay McInerney. He's a moderately popular novelist with a shallow intellectual range and a level-headed narrative tone, and yet I felt inexplicably excited to read his new The Good Life, which is about two married Manhattan couples before and after September 11, 2001. As I waded through the first chapters I wasn't sure why I was reading it at all.

Most novels are about people with big problems, but a typical Jay McInerney character has far less problems than, say, me. The Good Life is about four New Yorkers with fabulous careers, trendy hobbies and great real estate. One couple has a treasured Tribeca loft and expects Salman Rushdie for dinner (he's a no-show), and that's the less wealthy pair. The display of vapid values, famous names and expensive logos in the first few chapters is almost over the top, and I nearly tossed the book aside in a pique of Marxist disgust at that point. But I decided to stick around, to see where Jay was going with all this.

In fact, McInerney knows how to engineer a story, and it was clear that these early displays of jaded prosperity were a setup for the obvious pivot. It's September 10 2001, and a character steps out of a cab:

"... pausing to look up at the huge monoliths looming above her ..."

Tribeca is only blocks away from the World Trade Center, and this neighborhood has been McInerney's literary backyard since the young magazine yuppies of Bright Lights Big City snorted coke in the bathroom at Odeon. Now his characters are older and attending more sophisticated parties, and we leave one of them off at the dregs of an awful society ball on the evening of September 10. Then it's September 12, and the same man wakes up outside, injured and caked in dust, desperately trying to dig a dead friend out of a mountain of burning rubble.

This is Luke, once an investment banker. He begins volunteering at a ground zero food relief station, along with Corinne, a modern downtown mother living inside a poundingly dull marital tableau. Luke and Corinne need each other, they fall together, and in the last few pages they blast back apart.

The ending is powerful, and justifies many flaws in the lazier pages that precede it. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, but I am far from sure if it has what a book needs to be read by future generations or not. The writing is sometimes witty but never brilliant, and as always Jay McInerney's literary influences seem to range all the way from Hemingway to Fitzgerald. A Good Life feels much of the time like a good article in a toney magazine. That's what I didn't like.

What I did like is the quiet conviction and honesty of the story, and the humanity McInerney invests in his characters. It's hard to believe McInerney every wrote a book about yuppie coke fiends, because these characters are all paragons of responsibility and maturity (or three of the four main characters are, anyway, and the fourth, Luke's rich bimbo wife, shows up mostly as a comic foil for the other three).

I also liked the truths revealed at the sad but uncertain ending. I was expecting a happier resolution, but I'd forgotten that McInerney's favorite book is The Great Gatsby. Two boats against the current; two buildings down. A Good Life doesn't fully justify itself until the ending of the love affair, which reveals itself as both surprising and inevitable.

Some other opinions on this book can be found here, here and here.

Two-Tier Book Pricing Has Got To Go

by Levi Asher on Thursday, March 23, 2006 09:16 pm

Some recent news about a move towards affordable first editions hit a nerve with me. This is a positive development, but it's at least twenty years too late, and it doesn't go far enough.

The publishing industry's basic hardcover/paperback pricing structure is a dinosaur, and it's time for this dinosaur to die. Here are a few reasons why two-tier book pricing has got to go:

It's exclusionary. It's amazing that book publishers consider themselves socially enlightened, because their basic pricing structure forces non-wealthy readers to wait a year to read new books. Is somebody going to explain to me why this doesn't amount to a gated community for literature?

Take me, for example. I'm a middle-class guy working to support myself and my kids, and because of this I'm not going to be able to read Rick Moody's Diviners for another six months. I cribbed an article about Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace while getting tripped over in a Barnes and Noble's fiction aisle. On Beauty by Zadie Smith is supposed to be a good book. I'll let you know in 2007.

I don't ever like to throw around cliched words like "elitist". But two-tier book pricing is a seven letter word that starts with 'e'.

It's aesthetically wrong. Sure, I'd be interested in reading Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta. But why the hell do I want a premium edition of a first novel that I know very little about? I'm certainly not going to buy this book in hardcover, and by the time it comes out in paperback I'll have probably forgotten about it.

There are a few books I like enough that I've chosen to buy them in hardcover, like the Complete Works of Plato, The Riverside Shakespeare, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and a facsimile edition of On The Road. But for God's sake, a book's got to earn that kind of status. What the hell am I going to do with a premium edition of Intuition by Allegra Goodman or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safrar Foer or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld? Are you even kidding me? These books may or may not turn out to be worth their weight, let alone the space they take up and the money they cost. I'd like to be able to experiment with new authors, but I'm not going to experiment at $25 a try.

It's economically questionable. The New York Times article quoted in the links above states that two-tier book pricing is here to stay because it makes business sense. I'm not buying that, any more than I'm buying a $40 book of poetry by W. S. Merwin. Every industry re-invents its pricing structure periodically. If the book industry can't find a way to better serve its customers while building profits, they may not be trying very hard. Here are two ideas: publish premium and affordable editions at the same time, or publish premium editions a year after the affordable editions. This is a question of packaging, and I think our brilliant publishing executives and author representatives can rise to the challenge.

It's inconvenient. Goddammit, I don't have time to go to libraries and fight with blue-haired little old ladies over the latest Kurt Vonnegut. I am very interested in current writing, and if there's a new book out I want to be able to buy it. I'm not looking for a keepsake or a family heirloom. Let me buy the book. Put the book in the stores and let me buy it. I don't want to wait a year, because in a year I might not care about that book anymore. Let me buy the book. Now. Because I'm getting more and more pissed off the more I think about this.

I applaud editor Morgan Entrekin, the subject of the articles linked above, and many others in the publishing industry who are championing the cause of paperback originals and affordable first editions. I'm pretty sure two-tier pricing has no future, but then I was saying that twenty years ago, and Morgan Entrekin was too.

Rites of Spring

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 20, 2006 06:52 pm

1. To be a good litblogger, you can't just sit back and think up good jokes about whatever is happening around you. You have to get out and make stuff happen, and that's one reason why Ed Champion is probably the best litblogger on the planet right now. I'm inspired to declare this after reading his two (yes, two) recent mash-ups with the esteemed and intellectually intimidating William T. Vollman, who many avid readers wouldn't even approach once. I especially like this part in the afterstory: "I said, 'Gentlemen, that was a classic ditch technique'".

2. Then there's Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things, who must be hooked into some secret private Google or something, because he always seems to get the alert before I do. He knew about DeLillo's Game Six a month before anyone else, and he got the scoop on the new Bukowski movie about six months ago before anybody else (actually, where the hell is this movie?). Of interest today: the London house where Symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud gamboled and frolicked happily together when they weren't busy shooting each other is in jeopardy. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith are joining the effort to preserve this landmark, and we are glad to hear this. But somebody should have rung up Richard Hell.

3. The multi-day 2006 People's Poetry Gathering looks like it will be an amazing event. The broad lineup includes Robert Bly (whose poetry comes alive in performance), Miguel Algarin, Kewulay Kamara, Bob Holman, Galway Kinnell, Black 47 and many others.

4. A minor miracle recently occured on cable television. The BookTV network ran a show that featured a literary author whose latest book was not a biography of a dead President and did not involve a dead President in any way. I know what you're thinking: that's crazy -- but it actually happened. Norman Mailer was the author, and he appeared in a videotaped interview with his son, the wonderfully named John Buffalo Mailer, who seems to be stirring to follow in the old man's footsteps.

5. This is the best ode to spring I'm likely to read this year. Reclaim life! Eat jelly beans ...

Coupland, Kool Aid and the Macbeth of New Jersey

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, March 8, 2006 07:05 pm

Coupland's back. His new novel is called JPod, and it'll be published by Bloomsbury in June. The book is being alternatively billed as "Microserfs in the Age of Google" and "a lethal ride into today's breed of technogeeks".

Well, I'm about as technogeek as they come, and I'm also a Microserf who likes flat food, so I guess I should relate to this book. On the other hand, there's something about Coupland's fiction that feels almost as flat as the foods his characters slide under their office doors. Like Jay McInerney and T. C. Boyle, he writes fiction that feels like journalism but often fails to feel like art. He's always running around capturing one zeitgeist after another, but he doesn't quite capture the human soul.

Still, I read him and I like him. What about you -- is anybody out there really excited about a new generational statement from Douglas Coupland Industries, or not?

A quick glance at the JPod teaser up at Coupland's own website indicates that Japanese culture plays a big role in this story, what with all the Nissin soup, the smiling Japanese Lego people, the Asian typography. "JPod" may be short for "Joyful Pod", which calls to mind the amusing packaging on products like Kasugai Gummy Grape ("Enjoy the softness of gentle breeze that sweeps through the vineyard spread vast on the hill in each soft and juicy Kasugai Grape Gummy").

I think it's cool, anyway, that Coupland dabbles in numerous formats other than prose. Here's an attractive but somewhat incomprensible Dogmatika article describing a new art show in which Coupland has created a piece called Fight Club. Chuck Pahlaniuk is also involved with this art show, and a Coupland-Pahlaniuk collabo sounds like a great idea. Chuck can provide the depth, Coupland the clever packaging.

2. The Edwin Blair Collection of Beat and Modern Literature is being auctioned off tomorrow in San Francisco. This is apparently an old-school style real-life auction with velvet chairs and paddles, but even if you can't be there you might enjoy looking at the impressive illustrated catalog of vintage book covers and original manuscripts.

3. It was cool to see novelist Larry McMurtry stammering his Brokedown Mountain acceptance speech at the Oscars. His novels obviously translate very well to the movies (Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment are two of his older works) but aficianados of Ken Kesey or Tom Wolfe also know Larry McMurtry as a character in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He once studied writing at Stanford with Ken Kesey (Robert Stone was there as well), and the two were apparently pals. McMurtry's not a great speaker, but I guess the guy can write. Nobody's sure whether or not he ever drank the Kool-Aid.

4. The new season of the Sopranos starts Sunday night. Literary? I think so, even though I can't exactly explain why. I could come up with some allusions to Macbeth maybe, or I could just skip it. Let's just say that, for this literary-minded viewer, the show rings the same bells a good gritty novel by Conrad or Auster or Pahlaniuk might ring. And you should really check out this Sopranos Google Map, which proves that HBO has some techies on staff who actually know how to do cool stuff with XML-based web services.

Reviewing the Review: February 26 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 26, 2006 10:53 pm

The New York Times Book Review totally calls postmodern whiz-kid William Vollmann on his bluff today, assigning somebody who actually understands science to review his new impressionistic book about Copernicus and heliocentrism, Uncentering The Earth. The critic in the Times corner is Dava Sobel, who wrote a well-recieved book about the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, then followed it up with The Planets, a substantial but popular study of astronomy.

As much as I like Vollmann (which is, precisely, enough to buy his books and not enough to finish them), it is very pleasing to see somebody stand up to this awe-inspiring prodigy of knowledge, this legendarily long-suffering David Blaine of contemporary culture who goes by the name of William T. Vollmann. Because Vollmann's books really are painful to read, and his sentences really could be a hell of a lot clearer, and it's about time somebody with some intellectual heft stood up and got in his face. Sobel describes his new book as "an onslaught of taxing concepts expressed in an often wearying style." Welcome to the world of William Vollmann.

And, for the same goddam bizarre reason that I keep seeing Oliver Stone movies and I keep eating at White Castle, I will probably end up reading this Vollmann book too. Starting it, anyway.

Book Review regular Liesl Schillinger is usually excellent, but her review of Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic, leaves my head spinning. The book delves into the inflamed controversy between two major 17th Century European philosophers, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Liebniz. I'm not sure if it's the book's author or the critic who sees fit to reduce the issues between these two intellectuals to a trite Salieri-vs.-Mozart formulation, but it seems the culprit is Schillinger, who tells us a lot about Spinoza or Leibniz but very little about Stewart's book. These are two heavyweight philosophers, yet Schillinger speaks of them breathlessly as if they were characters in The Da Vinci Code. When she solemnly explains Leibniz's quirks by telling us "he was orphaned while still in his teens" it reads like a bad parody of psycho-biography.

It gets worse. This book's author apparently funded his career as a philosopher and a writer by founding a successful management consulting firm, and Liesl Schillinger lets us know that she's clueless about how the business world works when she equates the author's good fortune with "winning the lottery" and creating "his own good luck". I take it Schillinger has no idea what a management consultant does. But somebody at the Book Review should have an idea, and somebody should have fixed that before it went to print.

It's rare that I criticize the usually excellent Schillinger, and in that same bizarro spirit I have nothing but praise for today's endpaper about Betty Friedan by Rachel Donadio (whose previous pieces I've had nothing good to say about). Donadio makes some important connections, smartly crossing the gender line to compare Friedan's groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique to William Whyte's study of the conformist workplace of 1950's America and it's male archetype, The Organization Man. I also enjoy the way she places Friedan's book in its own context, informing us that it was published "the same month as the paperback edition of The Centaur, John Updike's myth-inflected novel of high-school life, and J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey."

Elsewhere in the Times, there's an informative obituary of the fiction author Frederick Busch in the News section, as well as an essay (of the heartwarming variety) about a mother whose daughter has become a latter-day Beatles freak, written by novelist Ann Hood, author of Three Legged Horse.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, February 21, 2006 02:10 pm

Julian Barnes does a magic trick in his historical novel Arthur & George. He makes the index cards disappear. He scoops up what must have undeniably been copious notes and footnotes, shuffles those note cards, deftly blends them, and fans the deck into a colorful moving picture of the sites, sounds, intrigues, and essentials of a true turn-of-the-century London adventure.

Sometimes one reads a good book and thinks, "I could do that," but Arthur & George leaves one thinking, "How did he do that?" Well, perhaps Barnes employs patience, practice, and hard work; but it still reads like magic.

The book has two historical figures as characters, famous Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and Doyle's friend George Edalji. Both are introduced to us as children. Only gradually do we share George's realization that he is perceived as "different" by his fellow school children. When one bully accosts George on the playground, taunting, "You aren't a right sort!" we think at first maybe it is simply because George is shy and awkward, or maybe even because he is smarter than the other kids. But the reader learns, as George learns, that he is different because of his skin tone and ancestry: One of his parents is from India.

Low Level Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to give away the outcome, but I am going to reveal an unexpected irony from this story. I believe this gets to the heart of why Julian Barnes said in a Times interview that he doesn't actually care for Doyle's writing. I did get the feeling, however, that Barnes likes Doyle as a person.

George Edalji studied law and became an attorney. He was a published author; his book Railway Law for the Man in the Train was part of the Wilson's Legal Handy Books series. He was a logical man who believed in law as the foundation of civilization. When he was falsely accused, by anonymous letters, of mutilating horses in the middle of the night, he could never have expected the incompetent, wrong-minded police investigation that ensued. He couldn't believe what flimsy evidence they used to convict him. When Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of this travesty of justice, he (in Doyle's own words) "made a lot of noise" until Edalji's name was cleared. What troubled Edalji in spite of his gratitude is that Doyle's case, upon close examination, was no less circumstantial than the one that put George Edalji behind bars in the first place. No one else seemed to notice this problem. It was ultimately Doyle's popularity as a writer, a sportsman, and a grand Englishman that won the day, not his mastery of the law. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes' "science of deduction" is sometimes flawed.

Consider this exchange between Holmes and Watson in The Sign of the Four,

"A savage!" (Watson exclaimed. "Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small."

"Hardly that," said (Holmes). "When first I saw signs of strange weapons I was inclined to think so, but the remarkable character of the footmarks caused me to reconsider my views. Some of the inhabitants of the Indian Peninsula are small men, but none could have left such marks as that. The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet. The sandal-wearing Mohammedan has the great toe well separated from the others because the thong is commonly passed between. These little darts, too, could only be shot in one way. They are from a blow-pipe. Now, then, where are we to find our savage?"

Circumstantial, my dear Watson. As is this passage from A Scandal in Bohemia,

"The man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence--'This account of you we have from all quarters received.' A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs."

In fairness to Doyle, it took some considerable time to glean those two examples of political incorrectness from a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories.

The point is, Arthur believed in George with the same emotional fervor with which he believed in Spiritualism. There is a very humorous passage near the end of Arthur & George in which George Edalji attends a spiritualist gathering of several thousand people at the Royal Albert Hall who are attempting to contact Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after his death. The 'medium' on stage goes into a trance. Presently, she tells the audience she senses many souls present behind her. She raises her arms and straightens her back as though the spiritual forces are pushing her forward. Then, apparently, the departed souls begin speaking through the medium to their still-living relatives in the audience. Barnes writes,

"George listens to the crowd of spirits being given fleeting description. The impression is that they are all clamouring for attention, fighting to convey their messages. A facetious if logical question comes into George's mind ... If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue?"

A Few Things About Peter Benchley

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 13, 2006 05:31 pm

Lacking enough knowledge of Peter Benchley's life for a real tribute to the writer, who died yesterday at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, here are a few random associations:

1) His grandfather was Robert Benchley, a great humor writer from the sophisticated Algonquin circle of the 1920's and 30's. Peter Benchley wasn't funny like his grandfather, even though his book made a lot more money than any of Robert's ever did. The easiest way to get familiar with the distinctive satirical stylings of Robert Benchley is to watch the actor Campbell Scott's superb rendition of Benchley's amazing "Treasurer's Report" stage comedy bit in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

2. I read Jaws as a kid -- one of the first grownup books I ever read, in fact -- and I enjoyed it. One thing that stuck out in my then pre-adolescent mind and still does today: the film left out the book's only steamy sex scene, in which the police chief's wife has a quickie affair with the marine biologist. Yes, that's right, Roy Schieder's wife slept with Richard Dreyfuss -- in the book. Why do you think George Costanza wanted to be a marine biologist? I don't usually second guess Steven Spielberg, but I think this sex scene was part of the subtext behind the police chief's rivalry with the scientist, and I think Spielberg made a mistake in not filming that scene.

3. As a kid in the seventies, I thought it was very cool that Jaws took place on Long Island, where I lived. I was never scared of sharks when we went to Jones Beach -- exciting things like getting bit by a shark never happened to kids like me. Now that I am a father, though, I see it differently. I remember yelling at my 14-year-old son to get closer to shore this summer, and I believe he informed me that there were no sharks on Long Island, to which I loudly responded "Have you ever heard of a freaking film called Jaws?!"

Goodbye to Peter Benchley, author of one really good book.


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