Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Reviewing the Review: January 15 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 15, 2006 08:33 pm

The New York Times Book Review needs to publish a good slash-up job at least once every few weeks -- if nothing else, just to satisfy us bloodthirsty readers and keep us from subscribing to Vanity Fair. This week delivers a good mugging, although you're likely to miss it if you habitually skip over reviews of Anita Brookner books. Brookner is pounded and left for dead by Times critic Caryn James, who goes so far that she seems to feel sorry for her and tosses in a compliment halfway through ("Brookner can still do what she has always done best: write beautiful, piercingly elegant observations.") Yeah, okay, let's get back to kicking the old lady ...

I'm sure I enjoyed James's review more than I would have enjoyed Brookner's book. Similarly, I enjoyed Terrence Rafferty's informative and praiseful review of Julian Barnes's new Arthur and George, a dry postmodern collage regarding an episode in the later life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is a favorite writer of mine, and I'd normally be excited about this book. However, I've already read a couple of Barnes' books (a dry postmodern collage regarding the history of the world, and a dry postmodern collage regarding the writing habits of a french novelist), and despite Rafferty's compliments this book seems destined to be boring and lead nowhere. I always *want* to read a new Barnes book for its subject matter (and it's strange that Rafferty says Barnes lacks a signature trait as a writer -- surely his signature trait is that he writes about historical events and literary lives), but I am always disappointed to find myself at the end of each book holding a postmodern handful of nothing. So I'll enjoy the review and skip the book. That way I come out ahead and nobody needs to get hurt.

Elsewhere in today's issue, we get a good variety of national backgrounds and literary settings. Lorraine Adams praises Palestinian novelist Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, and Bella Bathurst makes Belinda Rathbone's Scottich oddysey The Guynd sound fascinating. Playwright Athol Fugard's daughter Lisa Fugard has written a novel, Skinner's Drift that apparently carries on her father's mission of capturing South Africa in literary form. We also get Andrew McGahan in Australia and Richard Lyman Bushman on Mormon writer Joseph Smith.

The Book Review's satirical endpaper seems to have missed its intended venue, which is McSweeney's. Henry Alford collects and pastes together individual sentences from the acknowledgements sections of numerous books, forming one strange and intentionally meaningless mega-acknowledgement, footnoted with the sources. Okay, clever stuff ... but Sam Tanenhaus blows it with an editor's note at the beginning of the publication that actually explains the endpaper in advance. Not necessary, and this pretty much shows why it is that the Book Review is the Book Review and McSweeney's is McSweeney's. I'm really not sure which is worse.

Close To Home: Finding Art Spiegelman's Maus House

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 9, 2006 10:45 pm

I have a lot of respect for Art Spiegelman, a manic-depressive comic strip artist and writer who holds nothing back from his craft. In the great self-effacing tradition of Robert Crumb, a Spiegelman comic is always "too much information", splattering personal urges and anxieties and weird notions around like a loose garden hose. But the best confessional comix artists have the artistry and wit to make the splatter beautiful. Spiegelman's graphical autobiography promises to be a deeply personal document, and it's off to a great start with the first two sections.

One reason I relate to Art Spiegelman is that he grew up about three and a half blocks from where I live now, in sunny Rego Park, Queens. I know this because Spiegelman drew a map of his street as part of the back cover of his signature work, Maus. Maus is the terribly sad and odd true story of Spiegelman's parents (who could have been role models for George Costanza's parents in Seinfeld, except reality beats fiction). Both were holocaust survivors, but Spiegelman's father adopted an infuriatingly contrary, almost cheerful tone about the experience, which apparently taught him important survival skills (but also made him cruel to women, emotionally dense with his son and generally crazy). Spiegelman's mother, on the other hand, never recovered from the shock of the camps. She committed suicide when Spiegelman was a young man. He had been recently released from a mental hospital when he walked home one day to find police cars outside his house. This was how he found out about his mother's suicide.

LitKicks Reviews

by Levi Asher on Friday, December 16, 2005 04:26 pm

Here are a few new indie publications you might enjoy:

A Voice Above the Din by Steven Holbrook Hill

Steven Holbrook Hill's first novel A Voice Above the Din kicks off like a buddies-travelling-together story, a sort of male Thelma-and-Louise. As in many roadgoing tales, the two main characters have complementary rather than similar personalities. John is the crazed, fast-moving one, and narrator Spencer supplies the caution and introspection John lacks. Anybody who knows On The Road will recognize the setup, but Hill's book is heavier on plot and lighter on tone than Kerouac's. One of the characters is dealing with a serious disease, along with legal problems and attitude problems, and the story takes twists you won't see coming. Hill has created a blog to promote this book ... he also contributes occasional excellent articles to LitKicks as Stevadore. Check his stuff out.

Stakes is High

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 13, 2005 10:57 pm

A courtroom trial is, in semiotic terms, the creation of a literary text. And a text of great import: a human being stands before his or her peers and faces up to society's moral judgement. The entire procedure is carried out as an exchange of words, which are recorded for posterity. It's a fascinating process, and some notable texts are being written right now.

Let's start with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, pounding his fist and complaining that the whole trial process is a theatrical fraud. Well, he's probably right, but then Saddam has his own penchant for theatricality. With Saddam in the hot seat and the cameras rolling, there's more bad acting flying around the Baghdad courtroom than in a Tom Hanks/Robin Williams buddy film directed by Oliver Stone. We yearn for the days of the Nuremberg trials.

Best American Short Stories of 2005

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 30, 2005 06:37 pm

Yeah. I'll admit it. I read Houghton-Mifflin's Best American Short Stories every year.

This series began in 1915. I've been reading it faithfully since, I think, 1984. I still remember the total shock I felt when I first wandered into, and got ambushed by, a Raymond Carver story. That was in one of these books. Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, T. C. Boyle -- I met them all here. I love it that the book's appearance has never changed -- it's still charmingly under-designed, feeling more like a galley than like a finished book, which is perfectly okay with me and probably helps maintain the unusually reasonable price of 14 bucks.

John Fowles: Death of a Magus

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 07:30 am

British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.

The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.

Motherless Yaddo

by Levi Asher on Sunday, October 23, 2005 10:24 pm

Jonathan Lethem is lashing out at pro-realist critics like James Wood in a fascinating Morning News interview, and I've got to jump into the middle of this fray.

The fashionable postmodernist speaks strong words, according to the account by Morning News writer Robert Birnbaum. Lethem answers recent criticism of his writing style by positing himself as a target of oppressive, wealthy literary purists:

"Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations -- which we'll call 'realism,' for want of a handier term, though I'll insist on the scare quotes -- represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it's a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it's not a literary-critical operation. It's a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When 'realism' is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you're no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you've entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Things are not that simple, and I can't believe anybody's letting him get away with this. I don't think Lethem's words are brutal, but they are unfair and probably slanderous, since there's no evidence Lethem's critics are any more Brahmin than he is. Lethem is waxing like Robespierre all of a sudden, but the pose doesn't work, and the logical conclusion of Lethem's theory is that we must each like magical realism or else we are corrupt.

I don't know if Lethem means us to take his charge of cultural oppression seriously or not. Maybe critic James Wood is a fascist snob, but I really doubt it. Lethem talks in this interview about his affection for the New York Mets, and in fact the tactic he's using against Woods and the Woods ilk is the same tactic Mets fans use against Yankees fans -- they're elitist uptown snobs, and we're the salt of the earth. Yeah, sure. If Lethem's just speaking trash talk at Wood here (and that's what I think is going on), he should be more careful not to be misunderstood.

Now, on to the meat of the matter. Okay, so Lethem takes a lot of flack from pro-realists who despise his playful use of genre conventions, and these pro-realists must all be colonialist racist hypocrites. Well, Jonathan, what about me? I love it when postmodernists subvert genre conventions, and in fact this describes one of my favorite novels in the world, Paul Auster's City of Glass, which you obviously read before creating Motherless Brooklyn. City of Glass is a dizzying, gloriously impossible metaphysical pseudo-mystery that leaves a reader emotionally spent and intellectually exhilirated.

Motherless Brooklyn, on the other hand, is a pleasant, cute crime drama that feels phony and leaves a reader pondering what to eat for dinner.

Lethem speaks of his own work in grandiose terms:

"When you look at Motherless Brooklyn, the language, the Tourette's, is the fantastic element. In that book the linguistic distortion, the metaphor, runs amok as if a dream of language has broken out in a typical hardboiled detective novel."

Sure, that's exactly how I felt when I read City of Glass. Just for the record, I do like Jonathan Lethem's work. I even got all the way through Motherless Brooklyn, which is more than I do with 9 out of 10 books I pick up. But I always found him derivative (cf. The Invention of Solitude, 1988, Paul Auster; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003, Jonathan Lethem) and lacking in power -- a mannerist, a Yaddo familiar -- Kafka without the harrow, DeLillo without the noise.

Maybe his future books will prove Jonathan Lethem to be a groundbreaking literary figure, but I don't see him anywhere near that pantheon yet. I also wish he'd stop name-checking Brooklyn and the New York Mets. I know the territory between the Gowanus Canal and Flushing Creek as well as Lethem does, and like 50 Cent says about Ja Rule, I never heard anybody say they liked him in the hood.

Finally, as the photo accompanying this interview proves, the guy needs to stop going to Donald Trump's barber.

The Birthday Party: Harold Pinter’s Bed and Breakfast

by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 13, 2005 10:22 pm

Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.

It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

by Jamelah Earle on Monday, October 3, 2005 07:00 am

Let me begin this review by saying that if there were awards for being an ADD poster child, then I'm sure I'd have a shelf covered with trophies. Concentrating on a single task for longer than two minutes is something I just don't do, so reading an entire novel in a single day in (mostly) one sitting isn't something that happens very often in the life of Jamelah. Yet that's exactly what I did yesterday with Neil Gaiman's latest, Anansi Boys, and here's why.

Anansi Boys is a follow-up to the incredibly popular American Gods, which I have never read, although it gets recommended to me at least once every six months. It tells the story of Charles Nancy, a.k.a. Fat Charlie, whose incredibly embarrassing father dies one night while singing karaoke. Fat Charlie's life goes into a tailspin, much of which is brought on by the discovery of his long-lost brother, Spider. Along the way, there are all sorts of hijinks -- with love, with work, with the law -- four endearingly perfect little old ladies and healthy doses of magic, folklore, mystery and humor. And a lime. Can't forget the lime.

50 Better

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 28, 2005 11:10 pm

Okay, I just can't shake this off. It's really bothering me.

Here are 50 writers who I think deserve the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant more than Jonathan Lethem:

1. Nicholson Baker
2. Rick Moody
3. Paul Auster
4. Ann Beattie
5. John Irving
6. Lorrie Moore
7. Don DeLillo
8. Kurt Vonnegut
9. Joyce Carol Oates
10. Dennis Cooper
11. Miguel Algarin
12. William Vollman
13. Lynne Sharon Schwartz
14. Chuck Pahlaniuk
15. Herschel Silverman
16. Edward Albee
17. Mary Gaitskill
18. Stephen Millhauser
19. Augusten Burroughs
20. Bob Holman
21. Gary Snyder
22. Caleb Carr
23. Vikram Seth
24. Jane Smiley
25. Tom Robbins
26. Louise Erdrich
27. Douglas Coupland
28. Alice Hoffman
29. Alice McDermott
30., 31., 32. three more damn writers named Alice
33. Jonathan Franzen
34. Robert Pirsig
35. Art Spiegelman
36. Cynthia Ozick
37. William Kotzwinkle
38. Alice Walker
39. Robert Bly
40. William Gibson
41. Andre Dubus
42. William Kennedy
43. Li Young-Lee
44. Richard P. Brickner
45. Jim Harrison
46. Joan Didion
47. E. L. Doctorow
48. Tom Wolfe
49. Denis Johnson
50. Robert Coover

I could go on and on. Stephen King. Jadakiss. Lemony Snicket. Maud Newton. Bret Easton Ellis.

Look, I don't want to begrudge Jonathan Lethem his moment in the sun. But I find his stuff oblique and obvious. A narrator with Tourette's Syndrome? Gimme a break. Mark Haddon pulled something like this off in a better postmodern mystery, but Motherless Brooklyn didn't deliver the strong vision or conviction that would put the act over. I say there's just a little bit of Forrest Gump in Lionel Essrog.

I also don't get Lethem's website. "The Ego is happy in the glove compartment." Thanks, Jonathan. Did I dial by accident? What does it all mean? Can I buy a hot dog here?

I guess I'll have to pick up another Lethem book or two before I make a final call on this guy. But first impressions mean a lot, and so far I'm not seeing a genius.

Let me know if you think I missed any major names on the list.


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