Fourteen days into the new decade, tastemakers and hipsters are already buzzing about two groundbreaking artistic sensations that may define the current generation: MTV's "Jersey Shore" and Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed. What I'm really concerned about is that I've sampled both and I like "Jersey Shore" a whole lot better.
(Daniel Barth has written for LitKicks on writers like Richard Brautigan and Jack Kerouac. Here he introduces another underground favorite. -- Levi)
If Tom Robbins writes the way Dolly Parton looks, as one reviewer has suggested, then Ed McClanahan’s prose resembles Dolly’s more voluptuous sister. McClanahan is the anti-Hemingway, a man who never met an adjective—or digression, aside, simile, extended metaphor, or play on words—he didn’t like. Here’s a representative passage from his latest book, O the Clear Moment:
Here's Alice Ziplinsky, troubled hero and narrator of Katharine Weber's wild new novel True Confections, telling us about the job search that ultimately led her to a leadership position at a family-owned candy factory in Connecticut:
My next interview was for a receptionist position at a big law firm on Church Street, but when I met with the human resources lady, before I could say a word about which job I was applying for, she took one look at me and shook her head, and then she quickly told me the job had been filled and then she started typing really fast and didn't look at me again. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the building in my dowdy interview outfit feeling waves of shame as office workers on their lunch hour brushed by me. I had just been intercepted attempting to pass myself off as a regular person.
There's a short story by Max Beerbohm, published in 1919, that sometimes comes up in philosophy classes. "Enoch Soames, a Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties" tells the story of Max Beerbohm, the author-as-character-within-the-novel, and his encounter with Enoch Soames, an unsuccessful writer and hanger-on in the London cafe scene in the 1890s. Enoch is frustrated that no one recognizes his genius, so he makes a deal with the devil to go forward in time and read about himself in the future where, he is sure, history will vindicate him.
In due course he and Max meet the devil himself in one of the cafes, and Enoch disappears, to pop up in 1997, where he searches the British Library to find out what we've thought of him. Some time later, he reappears back in the cafe, despondent. Before the devil spirits him away he explains to Max that he found only one reference to himself, in a work of fiction -- a short story by Max Beerbohm! And then he and the devil disappear. Max-the-character explains that he feels compelled to write this story about Enoch, as it will be the only way his friend will be known at all, despite the fact that it will be classified as fiction. He begs us to take it as biography.
The philosophical problem is, who and what is Enoch Soames? Within the framework of the story, are we to take him as fictional (as we do, and as the author-as-author does), or as "real," as both Enoch and the author-as-character insist that we should? The logical knots in this seemingly simple puzzle have yet to be fully untangled.
"... it always pops up, the same question, cleverly calculated from my date of birth, about Communism, whether I remember the food lines, the vinegar on store shelves, the fall of the Wall and all the other bloodcurdling stuff they didn’t have over on its other side. Of course I do, I say with a mix of triumph and pain, as if I were just then supposed to pull up my sleeve to reveal something like scars from the kiddie internment camp or the marks from when the police beat me during an interrogation and wave them before the eyes of my interlocutor like a wad of photos from some exotic trip. Yes, my dears, I was there, back when you had no idea about anything: while you were scarfing down those dainties in little tissue-paper cups, I was fighting on the front lines of childhood! Here are my scars from drinking vinegar straight from the shelf! Say what you want, you may have every other kind of scar there is, but you don’t have these."
So says Dorota Maslowska in Faraway, So Ugly, a piece included in the new Words Without Borders anthology The Wall In My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall famously fell twenty years ago, but this is really too simple a symbol to stand for the vast adjustments that took place all over Eastern Europe as the great dream/nightmare of Soviet Communism disappeared. For greater understanding -- what did these critical days feel like? and what did the Plastic People of the Universe really have to do with it? -- we need the power of fiction and poetry and art. I haven't seen the final version of this book yet (full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Words Without Borders team) but I know I won't be disappointed.
I recently glanced at a new translation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, a classic novel I'd never read, with little intention to put my other reading aside and dive in. The opening scene of a peasant hiding a fugitive under her skirts in a potato field near Danzig drew me in, and then her grandson got a tin drum on his third birthday and before I knew it I'd blasted through the whole amazing novel. I now have a new favorite writer on my long list. What a talent! Grass's taste for sensitive and affectionate perversion amidst the trappings of human frailty reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving, and I now realize the extent to which both of these writers must have been inspired by this book. The new edition also contains some extra material about how Breon Mitchell's new translation expands upon the classic Ralph Manheim version. I can't speak to the differences, but the new translation sure does deliver the goods.
I've also been reading Ralph Manheim's translation of Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete, though Lind's shrill dark comedy and heavy Kafkaesque attitude make this a tougher read than Grass's graceful Tin Drum. Joshua Cohen's introduction explains the surprising life story of this Jewish/Austrian writer who assumed an Aryan identity and hid inside Nazi Germany through the course of World War II working for another "Nazi" who, in a twist that reminds me of Ian McEwan's The Innocent, turned out to be a different kind of double agent. Despite the author's beguiling back story, I had trouble digging into this novel (politically-tinged surrealism is often a painful grind, which may be one reason Kafka's best pieces are so short). Still, this novel stands as another piece in Central Europe's historic puzzle.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future is a tougher call for me. Liesl Schillinger invokes Gogol and Kafka (three separate times) in her account of this long-dead early Soviet-era modernist's career collection, but I find myself reading between the lines to detect a strong note of weariness in this putatively positive review. Krzizhanovsky clearly likes to explore the fictional boundaries between surreal dreaminess and reality, and personally I know I can live without a lot of fiction that covers this territory. I always like Liesl Schillinger's sympathetic reviewing style, but at times I wonder: is she capable of actually panning a book she doesn't like? That's not to say that she doesn't like this one as much as she claims to, but after finishing her review I know that I never ever want to read this book.
It's more fun when a critic just goes apeshit on a respectable book he doesn't like, as Tom Shone does with Jan Kjaerstad's The Discoverer:
Reviewing books doesn't often feel like real work -- not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from the New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the nmovel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme -- yeesss -- then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.
This is only one of several funny sequences in which Shone demolishes this book. I know little about Kjaerstad and have no idea whether this assault is deserved or not. But I did have fun reading it.
Further brainy material in this Book Review includes Josh Emmons on The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which apparently is constructed mainly from questions, David Hajdu on Robert Crumb's illustrated Genesis and Gaiutra Bahadur on Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals, which seems to have something to do with the Bengali raga scene. Less brainy material includes Mary Duenwald on Juliet, Naked, the latest Nick Hornsby book I won't be reading.
Speaking of books I won't be reading, Gregory Cowles is very kind to Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City in a lush cover piece. I've expressed my lack of affection for Lethem's fiction enough elsewhere, so I'll just keep quiet about this one. Whatever you like, Book Review.
I respect book reviewer and Internet-culture critic John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email -- in fact, I've exchanged emails with Mr. Freeman (true to his dislike of the form, his email style is very brief). I would be excited to read nearly any book by John Freeman, so I'm disappointed to find he's got nothing better to do than join Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen on the bash-the-Internet bandwagon. These kinds of books feel simplistic and obvious to me, and future generations are sure to laugh at them all. At least Ben Yagoda seems to get it, and takes Freeman's book convincingly to task for assuming that technological innovation can only have a destructive, never a constructive, effect on human creativity.
Somewhere in anonymous middle America, in the bygone era of Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon, an idealistic and hardworking writer and editor strains to put out another issue of his groundbreaking literary journal, Soap. He supports himself as a landlord, but his impoverished tenants are often unable to pay him. His marriage has recently fallen apart, and his financial situation is quickly getting worse. The Cry of the Sloth, a bitter, hilarious and joyously sad novel by Sam Savage, consists of the letters this editor writes during the worst season of his life.
The epistolary form is as old as the novel itself, but the clever satirist Sam Savage makes it fresh by adding a spooky layer of unreality to this desperate letters this besieged editor writes. He contradicts himself, flatters himself, blatantly lies, invents identities, attempts (without much success) to manipulate anyone who falls into his orbit, and pleads nakedly for love. It's not clear which of these letters actually get sent, but it is clear that this poor narrator is losing his mind.
Savage sets up a great metaphor by alternating his hero's sarcastic pleas to tenants for rent payments with his similarly sarcastic rejection letters to poets and authors who submit their work to Soap. In his landlord letters, he is asking others for something, but they have nothing to give. In his editorial correspondence, others are asking him for something -- publication, literary fame -- and he cannot give this either. He clearly finds these needy writers pathetic, even as he is needy and pathetic himself. He has a hard time seeing them as individuals instead of a grasping mass, as he inadvertently reveals with responses like this:
Dear Mr. Poltavski,
In response to your request for submission guidelines, I enclose our standard statement. I wish more people would ask for guidelines before submitting inappropriate material that wastes my time as well as theirs. And thank you for including a stamped return envelope, which not enough of you do either.
Andrew Whitaker, Editor
As the rent situation worsens, he begins to lose his cool completely:
Dear Mrs. Lessep,
Thanks for letting us read, once again, "The Mistletoe's Little Shoes." After careful consideration, we have concluded that this work still does not meet our needs. I am sorry you were misled by the phrase "does not meet our needs at this time" into thinking that you should submit it again. In the publishing world, "at this time" really means "forever".
Editor at Soap
Things get steadily worse, and our hero's sanity begins to unwind. He attempts a half-hearted flirtation with a teenage poet who writes about horses. He fantasizes about putting on a glorious literary festival in his small city, and battles with the local arts council representatives who obstruct his plans. He writes lonely letters to his ex-wife and attempts to befriend Norman Mailer. It's all very funny, as his egotistical self-deceptions thicken into a fatal mess. We hear one side of the story, and can only imagine the reactions these letters get: it's like a Bob Newhart comedy routine as told by Dostoevsky.
Cry of the Sloth is Sam Savage's second novel, and it's similar to his first, Firmin, which was a Litblog Coop selection as well as a surprising sensation in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Firmin was not a breakthrough hit in the USA, though it should have been, and this may be because it was about a rodent. Mark Sarvas passed over the book during the Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books, and cited this as one major reason: "Savage gives it his best shot, and at times Firmin is an affecting presence. But in the final analysis, he’s a rat and his plight never feels real because rats don’t think, talk, or write books!"
This is a valid point, and the good news is that The Cry of the Sloth offers the same sensibility and tragic trajectory as Firmin but is about a human being (the animal named in the book's title is purely metaphorical). I was thrilled by Firmin but I think the new novel is even better. It also reminds me a bit of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, another comic novel about a desperate middle-aged literateur, and I think it's better than The Anthologist too. I love this book, I recommend it highly, and I hope it is eventually recognized as a classic satire of the literary life.
(Meg Wise-Lawrence has previously written about the Pre-Raphaelite and British Romantic literary scenes on LitKicks, and currently teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
Nick Cave's career as a novelist began in 1989 with the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel. Cave is mostly known as a goth punk rocker who's done murderous duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue, yet he's become a neo-Leonard Cohen -- born to the literary canon, but lured by the rock world. While his second novel probably won't establish him with the likes of Nabokov (who Cave steals so nicely from in "The Loom of the Land"), his newest novel The Death of Bunny Munro is a far cry from his first, a Southern Gothic as imagined by an Aussie musician living in Berlin. The characters in And the Ass Saw the Angel were not of our time/space continuum, while The Death of Bunny Munro is very much grounded in our current reality.
The anti-hero of Cave's second novel is Bunny Munro, a sex-obsessed "cocksman" who doesn't fantasize about the lovely faces or minds of women. He doesn't even fantasize about their tits; all he can think about are their vaginas. Like a primordial Freudian beast, the only thing he wants to do is dive back in. Bunny's imagination is as limited as his client list (he's a door-to-door cosmetics salesman); the author's imagination is, on the other hand, as fecund as ever. Bunny is a "monster," admits Nick Cave, but Bunny's also Everyman.
The novel begins:
"I am damned," thinks Bunny Munro.
But you'll be disappointed if you're expecting the sort of gothic hyperbole that made Cave's music from the 1990's so seminal (for the uninitiated, think the Decemberists meets Flannery O'Connor). This is 21st century Nick Cave: postmodern, married, trying to live a clean(ish) life. The novel is dedicated to his wife and could be seen as an apology for philandering husbands everywhere.
Yes, there's a serial killer who resembles Satan on the loose, along with an array of sleazy, memorable supporting characters, like the "murderous grandmother." But what really keeps the pages turning in this story is the reader's driving curiosity about the death in the title, and the fact that Bunny Munro also has a son. When his wife's suicide puts him in charge of Bunny Junior, who is 9, Bunny Senior is forced to look beneath the surface of his solipsistic life and see that his actions have consequences. He tries to numb himself with booze, coke and women, but emotions still needle him. When he does feel rage, it's epic. He's pissed at his wife who, "even beyond the grave hunts him down in order to wag a defamatory finger." He resents "his spaced-out kid waiting in the car," his dying father, and even "the fucking bees and starlings." Poor Bunny Junior has an eye condition desperately requiring eye drops. Throughout the father and son's journey, Bunny Junior never quite manages to ask his father for the drops -- or at least not assertively enough to get them. The son adores his father and we wonder if maybe in a son's love a father can find redemption.
Nick Cave's musical career began with the post-punk band the Birthday Party, which evolved into the Bad Seeds, when the anarchy became more controlled. 1990's The Good Son is about rehab (long before Amy Winehouse), marking a shift in both Cave’s private and professional life, and the releases after that secured his position as a goth icon. After the brilliant literary vignettes of 1995's Murder Ballads, Cave took another turn in his maturation as an artist. Strange occurrences and biblical overtones remained, but his flawed heroes became real, modern men with normal domestic concerns (albeit with the occasional phantom seen from the corner of the eye). Bunny Munro is one of those modern heroes, admittedly more a Bukowski rat than an Updike Rabbit. Bunny is a timeless bloke lost in the modern world, trying to do the right thing and to find some kind of contentment.
Bunny Munro fantasizes about Avril Lavigne and Kylie Minogue, is creeped out by the Teletubbies, and is dogged by a story of a masked horned serial killer with a trident being played out in the background on the ever-playing news channel. The secondary characters are beautifully written in Cave's preacher-man cadence, but amount to little in the end. There are too many nouns-turned-verbs: he "deranges the room," she is "goblinned" by her eyeliner. Portends abound, Bunny knows somehow that he's going to die, yet otherwise he's not very self-aware.
Something grievous has resided in [Bunny's] face that he is amazed to see adds to his general magnetism. There is an intensity to his eyes that was not there before -- a tragic light -- that he feels has untold potential, and he shoots the mirror a sad, emotive smile and is aghast at his new-found pulling power. He tries to think of a papped celebrity who has been visited by some great tragedy and come out the other side looking better as a result, but can't think of one. This makes him feel mega-potent, ultra-capable and super-human, all at the same time.
Only Bunny doesn't seem to see the similarities between himself and the killer. Both are absurd yet terrifying. There's a schism between how Bunny Munro sees himself and how the world sees him. This becomes increasingly obvious until, in true Nick Cave fashion, everything culminates in a terrible and darkly funny end.
1. Catholic boy to the end ... from Cassie Carter's long-running fan site, here's Jim Carroll's funeral card.
2. Hemingway does Hemingway: actress Mariel Hemingway intends to create a movie based on her grandfather's gossipy classic A Movable Feast (via The Millions).
3. St. Francis College in Brooklyn is hosting a conference on Walt Whitman and the Beats and has issued an open call for papers.
4. I don't know what to expect from the new film version of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I hated John Malkovich's overacting in A Portrait of a Lady, and I'm concerned that he'll turn this book's blank narrator into a volcano of emotion, as is his way. Still, I am looking forward to seeing the film and I hope for the best. Here are some reactions via Literary Saloon.
5. I'm skeptical when everybody gets excited about a newly found lost work by a great author, especially when very few of these people have read any of the already-published works by said great author. Still, Carl Jung's "Red Book" has a hell of a back story. Jung is a LitKicks favorite and I recommend him highly, though I think newcomers are better off jumping in with The Undiscovered Self or Memories, Dreams, Reflections rather than this new apparent beast.
6. Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Eve Ensler and Art Spiegelman will appear at a PEN America event to read from recently released USA government memos about torture.
7, Aquinas (via Books Inq.).
8. If Charles Bukowski were Charles M. Schulz.
9. A new book provides a sideways glance at Moby Dick by including only the parts a different "easy version" of the book left out. Let's just hope nobody gets a brilliant idea for "Moby Dick and Zombies".
10. Maud Newton gathers expressions.
11. Jamelah Earle evaluates words.
12. A new Jason Reitman/George Clooney movie called Up In The Air is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, one of the better regular critics at the New York Times Book Review.
13. Interesting thoughts about how a book's intended level of sophistication may affect its chosen point of view.
14. Like Fire is a new literary blog created by Lisa Peet and other refugees from Readerville.
15. Two months ago I wrote a post titled "Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again". If you didn't catch it the first time, I wrote this because a new court ruling has upset a long-running dispute about the Kerouac archives, and I just knew we'd be getting into it again. Since then, many interested parties have responded to this article's comments thread, including several notable individuals connected to Jack Kerouac in one way or another.
As I've said before, I don't take this battle as seriously as many of the principals do. With Jack Kerouac long safe-in-heaven dead, the battle has narrowed to a catfight over the disposition of his relics, and I've never been particularly interested in any writer's relics. Some observers locate the blame for Jack's daughter Jan Kerouac's troubled life and early death on this mess, but I don't see a clear connection there. Anyway, the conversation in this comments thread are fascinating in their own way, and I wonder if someday somebody will write a book about the Jack Kerouac estate battle. If they do, the discussion in this thread may provide some raw material. It's not a book I'd want to write, though I probably wouldn't be able to resist reading it.
Fifteen or twenty pages into the great Nicholson Baker's quirky new novel The Anthologist, I was sure Maine's boisterous bard had finally lost his mind.
The book contains the fictional desparate scribblings of a nearly famous middle-aged poet named Paul Chowder who struggles to write an introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry despite a ferocious onslaught of writer's block. It's a fine setup, but the terrible and clumsy prose puzzled me.
Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn's arm reaching down from her spot-lit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.