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.
A couple of really great finds for you today ...
My temperature was no better than lukewarm as I pondered the cover of a book called The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground, a Library of America anthology edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America isn't known for edginess, and books with the word "hip" in their subtitles don't have the greatest track record with me.
Then I looked at the table of contents and immediately realized I had misjudged this book. Wow! We kick off with an excerpt from Mezz Mezzrow's classic jazz memoir Really The Blues, a hell of a good place to start, and instant evidence of an anthologist who knows his stuff. Then we blast away to Henry Miller, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon, a sweet rumination on Shakespeare's Hamlet by Delmore Schwartz, followed by "You're Too Hip, Baby" by Terry Southern ... and then just as I start to wonder where the cool women are, a real surprise: the lyrics to the 1952 song "Twisted" by Annie Ross of the now too-little-remembered folk/hipster trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a comic tune later resurrected by Joni Mitchell that begins with this line:
Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:
I would have never known about Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books if my younger daughter hadn't been just the right age to catch on and bring the books home. I enjoyed reading them with her very much, and immediately recognized the character as a delightful 1990s version of Ramona G. Quimby, the inquisitive kindergarten scamp of my own generation.
What made Junie B. Jones different was the first-person voice created for her by Barbara Park -- a voice that dared to capture the real word patterns and thought processes of a little kid. Junie's sentences are blunt, stubby and hilariously self-centered.
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.
(This remarkable article by Lance Loud was originally published as 'The Velvet Underground: A Skin-Deep View' in Hit Parader magazine, June 1975, five years after the Velvets broke up. See below for the story of the article's publication on Litkicks today.)
Right from the start, Lou's first band was labeled a "non-stop horror show", a "three ring psychosis" and a "sadomasochistic frenzy". They were rebels, their cause was the musical documentation of the 60s American Pop era. Their style and method of getting this message across knocked the wind out of a lot of people. "Not singe the Titanic ran into that iceberg", quivered a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "has there been such a collision". All of this was an attempt to describe the three men and a girl that Lou had formed to play his songs. They were named after a tawdry porno book. The Velvet Underground.
Most people believe that the Velvet Underground was some creation of Andy Warhol. It is true that the Velvets DID become famous during their stint, in the mid sixties, with Andy's traveling disco/happening/pop art circus: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the music that the Velvets played, like 'Heroin' (the smackers national anthem) 'Venus in Furs' (fetishistic S&M sex) or 'I'm Waiting For My Man' (pusher oh pusher, wherefore art thou?) was all a creation of Lou Reed and his Velvet band long before Andy caught up with them. They were the natural house band for the American Amphetamine A Go Go scene. Lou liked to say that both he and Andy were very much alike in purpose but Andy dealt with Art while Lou made his statements with music.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation on October 10, 1973. Strangely, I just checked Twitter and #agnew is not trending.
The morality tale of Spiro Agnew is an incredible story that deserves more attention than it currently gets. I'm honoring the anniversary here by reviewing the three major books that lay out all the facts in fascinating detail, even though all three books are currently out of print. The world may have forgotten Spiro Agnew, though the messy milieu of federal politics that enabled the Agnew affair is still very much with us today.
Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.
Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.
I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.
But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.
Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.
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.