The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.
I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.
If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)
But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.
If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.
He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.
Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.
Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.
I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts:
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'
Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:
... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.
How David Shields Wrote A Book That Killed Fiction But Saved A Little Kitten's Life, And Then Blew It At The Endby Levi Asher on Monday, February 18, 2013 06:37 pm
I was so totally, completely in the tank for David Shields. All he had to do was write a book I halfway liked.
David Shields is an author and teacher of creative writing who published in 2010 a collage of thoughts about modern literature called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. He declared that fiction was currently less interesting than non-fiction, openly incorporated unmarked snippets from other writers into his text, and quoted Prodigy of Mobb Deep.
A lot of people loved the book. Stephen Colbert put him on TV. But David Shields's pronouncements about the death of fiction didn't go over well with many bloggers and literary critics, nor with many of my own literary friends. A lot of people really, really hated Reality Hunger.
I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.
Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.
The life of a writer, musician, artist or celebrity who commits suicide at the height of fame will often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then nearly exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. Then, invariably, posthumously released work that might not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working attains a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.
And then there is the case of David Foster Wallace, a genuinely gifted, chronically troubled writer who came off, on the page, as an over-caffeinated brainiac for whom language, pagination, even punctuation seemed an impediment to the nonstop whirl of thought. His work was alternately funny, depressing, perceptive, freakishly clear and yet also maddeningly obtuse—even though he went to absurdly great lengths to clarify and qualify everything in footnotes, sidebars, bullet points, boxes, all but leaving his phone number for you to call, if you had any further questions.
Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?
Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).
Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.
For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.