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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 jennyholzer.org 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.
However, I can't approve of a short essay in which he tells us he is tired of rock music. He unwittingly reveals the real problem when he cites Sonic Youth and Nels Cline as the kind of music he approves of. Forget that critically-acclaimed college-radio fancy stuff, which was never very exciting in the first place. I took my son to see System of a Down last month, and based on that evidence alone: yes, there are still excellent new bands doing excellent new things. Rick just has to stop trying to be all cool.