Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Language

New Short Story Collections: Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 17, 2014 03:08 pm


I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.

Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.

I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.

Flings by Justin Taylor

I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.

Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.

I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.

I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:

"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'

To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.

Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.

Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.






Sam Harris Almost Understands The Self

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 25, 2014 06:57 pm


It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).

I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.

Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.

However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.






Philosophy Weekend: Because War is a Form of Language

by Levi Asher on Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm


It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.






Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon and The Touch

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm


Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.






Philosophy Weekend: Thinking Like Wittgenstein

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 31, 2014 08:42 am


I recently listed Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of three essential philosophers who can add surprising clarity and vital new perspective to frustrating debates about ethics, political ideology and the practical problems of our planet. What’s most essential about Wittgenstein is not the conclusions he has drawn about ethics and politics. It's the dynamic and truthful way of thinking that his method represents.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is unique among the great Western philosophers. He is the only major thinker to have become famous as a philosopher twice: first for laying out a belief system and then for returning to destroy his earlier work. Indeed, the remarkable fact that he spent the second (and greater) half of his career refuting everything he achieved in the first half is itself an example of the sublime conductivity of his thought process. It takes a hell of an open mind to do that. And a whole lot of courage.






Philosophy Weekend: The Cure For Our Condition

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 24, 2014 09:13 am


"The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Last weekend I proposed that three well-known modern philosophers hold a key to great discoveries that can help cure a horrific disease that currently plagues our planet. The three philosophers are Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung, and the illness they can help address is the one whimsically illustrated in the image above: our deeply ingrained militarism.

Of course I know this illustration is kitschy and ridiculous, which is exactly why I’m using it. I'm hoping it will bring a smile, because arguments about militarism and pacifism tend to be dreadfully serious and often angry, which then discourages and dissuades us from discussing the problem at all. This blocks us from directly addressing a surreal malady, a curable condition that rages freely around us, spreading misery, destroying lives and resources, stoking the fires of racism and ethnic hatred, empowering genocidal maniacs, preventing friendly open commerce and discourse around the world.

If we intend to fight the plague of militarism, we must do it with a loving smile, and without hatred or judgement. World peace is both possible and probable, but we’ll never achieve it by treating deeply committed militarists and guerrophiles as our enemy. Instead, we must cure militarism and guerrophilia as if it were a disease. Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung are the three doctors (mad scientists, perhaps, but it's a madness we need to embrace) whose fresh and wonderful philosophical writings can guide us towards this goal.






Colson Whitehead's Gloomy Game

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm


I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.

Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).






Philosophy Weekend: A Bedrock Philosophy for Pacifists

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 07:21 am


I sometimes wonder if pacifism needs the kind of bedrock philosophy that more popular ideologies like conservativism and communism have.

A firm rooting in philosophy helps an ideology stand its ground firmly. I've noticed that American conservatives are very quick to cite John Locke or David Hume, along with (variously) Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick. I disagree with most conservative positions, but I have to admit that conservatives do a good job of constructing a consistent metaphysical, epistemological and ethical framework to support their beliefs.

Communists, likewise, are quick to cite Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Voltaire or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel along with (variously) Plato, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek. The original Communist Karl Marx talked a good metaphysical game, and the tendency to wax philosophical has continued to inform Marxist culture.

Who are the go-to philosophers for pacifists? We don't seem to have any.






Updike on 43rd Street

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 08:24 pm


A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.

John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.






The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 02:52 pm


I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:






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