I'll never forget where I was and how I felt when I read the closing pages of Paul Auster's City of Glass, the first and most crucial part of his New York Trilogy, and a formative book for me as a reader and writer.
City of Glass was a mock mystery novel. It opened with a noir-ish phone call that led a vulnerable narrator into a drama involving cruel language experiments that had been performed on a newborn child by a diffident and crazed professor. The child was now an emotionally disabled adult, permanently traumatized into an infantile state, and the professor was threatening to terrorize his victim again.
As the novel proceeded, the boundaries between the key characters began to bend and morph. Words were the mechanism of torture; the professor was trying to discern what natural or spiritually pure language an infant deprived of human contact would eventually speak. Words were also the breaking point of the novel's thrilling facade, as the disconnected mind of the professor's victim began to reveal itself in the narrator's own increasingly disconnected tale. The moment that most knocked me out in this book, I remember, was at the very end. The narrator has lost track of the desperate man-child he is trying to protect. He sits alone in an empty room, now lost beyond logic and sanity himself, and discovers without surprise that some mysterious person is laying out food for him to eat. This impossible but perfectly placed shift in the story completes the narrator's trajectory towards his own state of infantile helplessness -- a plot twist so unexpected but yet so perfect that I as a reader felt the room spin around me as I read it. I must have muttered incomprehensibly as I burned through these final paragraphs; I may have fallen off the couch where I was splayed out, gripping the book like a bungee cord over the chasm of existence. The infantilization described in the novel's final pages felt so powerful to me that I felt I had become infantalized myself for an infinitesimal blip of time.
By the time I crawled through the final pages of this poundingly satisfying first novel in a trilogy, I was a Paul Auster fan for life, even though I would discover that the remaining two novels in the New York Trilogy felt like a coda to the first. Ghosts and The Locked Room nicely complemented and completed City of Glass, but they didn't punch nearly as hard. I continued to eagerly read new Paul Auster novels as he published them -- Moon Palace, Leviathan, The Music of Chance -- and I liked them all, but gradually began to feel that all the novels after City of Glass were explorations into the beauty of random pointlessness, demonstrations of literary serendipity, easy and pleasant enough to read but lacking in definite reward.
(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I'm trying real hard to find a way to love Traveling Sprinkler, the new Paul Chowder novel by Nicholson Baker, who is just about my favorite writer in the world, but whose books I increasingly can't stand.
I say "the new Paul Chowder novel" the way one might say "the new Hannibal Lecter novel" or "the new Rabbit Angstrom novel", but the sad truth is that few Nicholson Baker readers were clamoring for a sequel to the first Paul Chowder novel, The Anthologist (which I reviewed and played a song from in 2010). Both Anthologist and the new Sprinkler are narrated in an arch voice by Crowder, a middle-aged literary oddball with a wayward attention span, a childish sense of humor and a wistful yearning for a woman named Roz.
The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.
But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.
Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this:
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is the first novel I've ever read that harmed itself with an epigraph. Yes, I considered the little italicized quotation that adorns the page before the first page of this novel so poorly chosen that it immediately depressed the excitement with which I had opened the book, and ended up presaging my overall dislike.
First, about that excitement: I had two good reasons to believe I would love this novel. First, Choire Sicha is one of the editorial voices identified with the golden age of Gawker, one of the most sarcastic and cuttingly relevant websites around. I would be happy to read an entire novel written in the Gawker voice (many of my friends hate Gawker, but I don't, as is evident in the number of times I've linked to the site here on Litkicks). I also respect The Awl, a lit/culture magazine that Sicha founded after leaving Gawker.
Second, I was hopeful because Very Recent History is about young urban professionals in New York City in 2009. They go to parties, check each other out on Facebook, work banal day jobs at venal corporations (which happen to be convulsing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Wall Street crash). This is a world I know well, and lived through myself in 2009.
So I opened this novel expecting a treat, and really all Choire Sicha had to do was mail in a good story with some believable characters and smarmy roman a clef moments, and I would be giving the book a thumbs-up on Litkicks right now.
Poet Robert Pinsky has written a book about the plight of modern poets, Singing School, which must be pretty good, because it inspired a brilliant piece -- a manifesto, even -- by Daniel Bosch in the Daily Beast.
Time was, a poem stood the test of time because one person after another stood up and spoke that poem aloud, and their speaking gave him or her pleasure, or terror, or grief, or wonder. Nowadays people stand for timed tests on a poem and are compelled to establish that they have “understood” it, but they are rarely asked to account for what and how that poem made them feel physically, while and just after it was coordinating their breath and the movements of their lips and tongues. Nowadays almost any talk about a poem begins naming its topic: people love to tell you what a poem is “about.” Many readers today evaluate a poet according to whether or not his or her body of work can or cannot be said to be “about” an idea which is of interest aside from the quality of their experience of saying it aloud. Perhaps these relatively new ways of regarding poetry have not cost it too dearly. But if its relationship with the academy has come with perks—nice real estate, the chance of employment, a (contested) degree of respectability—it can seem, taking a long view, that the public life of poetry today is “about” the needs of the academy, and not the experience of poetry.