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.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I've been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.
Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.
Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series of biographies. The large question these books -- and the ten books cited at the link above -- raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?
In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.
The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.
Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.
E. L. Konigsburg, author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has died at the age of 83. This book had the best concept of pretty much any children's novel I remember ever reading: two spirited tweens (12-year-old Claudia and 9-year-old Jamie) decide to run away from their boring posh suburban home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The fascination for readers was to plot with Claudia and Jamie how to pull it off -- hiding in restroom stalls, bathing in the fountain in the middle of the night, having snappy answers ready for inquisitive security guards. Eventually they uncover a secret about a statue that may or may not be a Michelangelo, and meet the elderly art patron of the title.
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.
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for a variety of interesting explanations for this name.) But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
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:
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.
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.