I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.
I don't always love Moby Dick tie-ins, and it was only with some amount of weary skepticism that I opened Dive Deeper, a book of essays about Herman Melville's great novel, composed by a history professor from California named George Cotkin. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Cotkin has a big taste for fresh angles, and his freewheeling book delivers one suprising connection after another. After all that has been said about Melville's novel, it's amazing how much in this book has not been said before. One of Moby Dick's early land-bound scenes takes Ishmael wandering into an African-American church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he spies a hell-breathing preacher holding an entire parish spellbound. Is it possible, George Cotkin wonders, that this preacher would have been Frederick Douglass, who had in fact had orated to enthusiastic crowds in New Bedford during the years that Herman Melville had passed through this town on his own whaling journey?
This is a story about blogger's block, and about two novels I tried to review and couldn't.
I liked one of the two novels a lot, and didn't like the other one at all. One had been sent to me by the author, the other by a friendly publicist, and I intended to blog about both of them. But when it came time to write, I found myself strangely stunted. I'm not often at a loss for words, but a weariness with contemporary fiction seemed to have stormed me like a derecho. The ensuing struggle helped lead me to a decision (Rilke: "you must change your life") that it was time for me to do something new and different with Literary Kicks.
Here's what happened: first, I read The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, a smooth professional novelist who runs the MFA program at Brooklyn College in New York City. He's a master talent who takes his craft very seriously, and he's got a lot of heart. The World Without You is a family story -- love, divorce, conflict, misunderstanding -- in the great tradition of Laurie Colwin or John Updike or Anne Tyler or Katharine Weber or Jonathan Franzen or Roxana Robinson. The novel satisfies in the same sublime way that most novels about families satisfy: it wrenches at you, surprises you, aggravates you, and totally makes you relate.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. But I found myself lacking a desire to write about it. Should I describe the characters, the taciturn Dad, the fiery Mom, the brother who died, the angry sisters who remain, the outrageous (and hilarious) former slacker turned Orthodox Jew who marries into the family? I could describe them, but Joshua Henkin already did. Should I explore the meaning of the novel? I couldn't think of a meaning, except "this is a family". (Which means plenty, if you say it right.)
Next, I read Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life, a very trendy and Zeitgeist-y metafictional thing about a self-conscious writer (named, coincidentally enough, Sheila) and her artsy/literary friends. I thought I might like this book because it's structured as an inquiry into ethical philosophy. As the title suggests, it's a novel about a writer trying to figure out the best way to live.
Paul Nelson was the most important rock critic you’ve probably never heard of. As a writer, he -- along with Paul “Crawdaddy” Williams and Greg “Who Put The Bomp” Shaw and a few other trailblazers -- helped turn rock ‘n’ roll fan-chatter into modern rock criticism by combining a deep intelligence and historic knowledge with a passion for the music itself. Nelson’s name had an added aura to it, though, because he came out of the pure, undiluted folk tradition and saw rock ‘n’ roll as a logical step in musical evolution. His name is attached to seminal folk publications like Big Sandy Review (which he co-founded) and Sing Out! (the venerable magazine that lured Nelson to New York from Minnesota), as well as the Village Voice, Circus and Rolling Stone.
Coming of age with fellow Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, Nelson was an early supporter and friend of the man who would become Bob Dylan. Nelson did not flinch at all when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, to the chagrin of the folk purists. Nelson was, in fact, at the Newport festival cheering Dylan on. Nelson’s perspective was wider than most. Indeed, from his earliest folkie days to the end of his life, he devoted his energies to one simple idea that may or may not be true: pop culture -- music, books, print culture, film -- can change the world.
It might, however, be as a human being where Nelson made his biggest mark, at least from the evidence presented with sensitivity and intelligence by Kevin Avery in his new book, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. In a different time, Avery’s book would be considered “essential reading” for anyone hip. But that time is long gone and Nelson himself disappeared before his reputation could accrue the venerable status accorded Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson and Greil Marcus.
Among the extraordinary things we learn about Nelson in Everything Is An Afterthought is that he was one of the only major rock critics who went on to work for a major record company when he joined Mercury (Bud Scoppa is the only other critic/company man who comes to mind). Nelson worked in Mercury as an A & R (artists & repertoire) man, not as a hack or flack. Inside the record company beast, he operated the way a mole tries to subvert the intelligence operation of a foreign enemy. That is, he nurtured and befriended the artists he admired, like the New York Dolls, Rod Stewart, Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, David Bowie, Mike Seeger and Warren Zevon, and simply ignored those he didn’t.
"Is reading social?" The question has been going around the litsphere, though many who have answered have reached for a middle ground between the disconcerting idea of social (and Internet-connected) literature and the more traditional notion of reading as an intensely private and solitary activity. I don't see much need for middle ground here -- I think the question is an open-and-shut case.
Reading is intensely social, and it's barely anything but social, and it has always been so. I know this because I know what reading feels like: when I read another person's book, I am engaging in a sharing of thoughts with this person. It doesn't make much difference, when I read Moby Dick, that Herman Melville has been dead for a long time. It's not his dead voice I find in the book; to the extent that I am reading him, I am encountering him in full. To read another person's words is to conduct a meeting of the minds. Is reading an intensely private activity? Well, sure, your reading life is private, just like your sex life is private. But it's not the least bit solitary (if it were, it wouldn't be reading, and it wouldn't be sex).
Reading is also social for another reason: almost all books are about people. Specifically, they're about people being social. If you read a chapter or a story that takes place at a dinner party, you are experiencing that dinner party vicariously. You laugh when a character is funny, wince when someone gets hurt, miss them all when they're gone. If the writer you are reading has mediocre talent, you may not experience their dinner party vividly, but if the writer is a master, it may be one of the best parties of your life. It's possible to quibble that this type of imaginary engagement is only social by proxy. But every reader knows it doesn't feel like proxy when we're in the middle of it.
My latest e-book, the third in a series of twelve, is out, and this one means a real lot to me. Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays is my own selection of the best literary essays I've written on this blog since 2004.
I wanted this to be a short book, so I forced myself to choose only ten pieces (and, in a Spinal-Tap-like moment, ended up choosing eleven). You can see the table of contents if you click through to the official book page, where you can also read the blurb I solicited from my good buddy Ed Champion (hey, what are friends for?).
I'm being flippant, but the truth is that the eleven pieces in this book mean more to me than I can say; they are my gems, my blows against the empire, my big fish, my keepers. This book is also arranged to represent a progression of ideas and literary notions -- transgressive visions, comic visions, great writers, overrated writers -- that encapsulates something I believe about the meaning of literature in all our lives. Mostly, this book contains the eleven essays that moved me the most when I wrote them, and I hope you'll give the book a chance and see if they move you too.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
(Please welcome a debut Litkicks piece by Michelle Glauser, who runs her own blog and describes herself as "a Mormon chocolate-lover who studied English at the University of Utah and American Studies at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where I focused on women's autobiographical writing and wrote a master's thesis on mommy blogging". -- Levi)
Have you ever found something in an old book that took you by surprise? It's not unusual to find a name or maybe even a phone number. Sometimes you'll find evidence that the book once belonged to a library. But extensive notes and criticism of an author as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe and his biographer? Maybe in a textbook. I certainly wasn't expecting what I recently found.
1. A Stanford University "Digital Humanities Specialist" named Elijah Meeks has created a series of rich visualizations based on the email archives of poet Robert Creeley. The lines describe connections and context, with frequency mapped to vicinity. We can glean interesting discoveries from the diagrams, such as the fact that the tech-savvy Black Mountain/Beat Generation's poet's BFF was clearly his fellow poet (and one-time Warhol scenester) Gerard Malagna. I wonder what the two poets emailed about so often? Anyway, before Robert Creeley died in 2005, he was kind enough to put in a few appearances on Litkicks, so it's exciting to think that a couple of emails from us must be represented in that pink jellyfish above.
I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I've never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I'd be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.
Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it's the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist's archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it's a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace's work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It's also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.
I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I'm sorry to say there's nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It's thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don't disagree with Columbia University Press's decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don't think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.