January 26, 2005

Kathryn: The Poisonwood Bible

I'm currently reading a manuscript for a friend of mine who wrote a nonfiction account of her experiences doing sociological field work in Africa in the 80s and again in the 00s (the oughts? what did everyone decide to call this decade anyhow?). I asked her opinion of  The Poisonwood Bible. She had many of the same objections I did in terms of the unevenness of narrative voice and added that she found Kingsolver's account of many of the creatures, landscapes, and phenomena of Africa unconvincing. My friend did, though, say that Kingsolver's account of the history of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo seemed pretty square on.

So, I guess my final take, after a few weeks to mull the question, is that if you have time for a long, engaging work of historical fiction that is unlikely to take a place among the immortal lights of great prose but from which you might learn some history you didn't know before, go for it. Read this instead of watching The Apprentice, by all means.

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January 19, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Well said, my boy,” cried I, “and what subject did you treat upon? I hope you did not pass over the importance of Hierarchical monogamy. But I interrupt, go on; you published your paradoxes; well, and what did the learned world say to your paradoxes?
“Sir,” replied my son, “the learned world said nothing to my paradoxes; nothing at all, Sir. Every man of them was employed in praising his friends and himself, or condemning his enemies; and unfortunately, as I had neither, I suffered the cruellest mortification, neglect.”
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Master and the Difference Between an Inductive and Deductive Writer
Putting on my snug W. H. Auden hat, let me expound upon my own binary category: deductive and inductive writers.  What I mean by this distinction is that certain—indeed most—writers may be described as inductive, meaning, using Flaubert as the great exemplar, they show you what’s going on instead of tell you about it.  Tom Wolfe discusses an example of Flaubert’s in I Am Charlotte Simmons where Madame Bovary begins from the second person in a schoolroom so that the reader is put into the seats with the other students when they see for the first time one of the protagonists of the book.  Flaubert doesn’t tell you what this protagonist is like.  Rather, he lets the students show you through their observations.  That’s an inductive writer—he sees a particular object and describes it in all of its glorious, quirky eccentricity.  Of course, the apotheosis of this style is Charles Dickens and his rumble-tumble of odd-ball characters which spill out willy-nilly at the reader’s feet: Mrs. Sarah Gamp, Wilkins Micawber, Seth Pecksniff, Abel Magwitch, ‘Fascination’ Fledgeby, Tim Cratchit, Josiah Bounderby, Bradley Headstone, etc.

Like most inductive writers, again, with the possible exception of Flaubert, Dickens will from time to time preach through his characters and tell the reader what they are meant to represent.  A good example is Mrs. Jellyby from Bleak House who is concerned with African philanthropy but could care less about the degradation of her own household.  Dickens is explicit in condemning this “telescopic” attitude that is concerned with objects from afar but cannot be bothered about problems at home—a recent example may include a person who participates in the outpouring of charity for the victims of the Indonesian Tsunami but turns away the beggar at his own doorstep.  The secret to the inductive style is that its primary concern is to show the world in its infinite variety and to keep its exposition to a minimum.

The deductive style’s secret, on the other hand, is to generalize from the particular and to draw lessons from it, but in a way that is both lively and not sententious.  In my view, although the inductive method is very difficult and requires great imagination, verve, and observation, the deductive method is even harder in that the intellectual capacity demanded seems almost superhuman. Think about it:  The author sets as his goal no less than the explanation of human nature from a few paltry ciphers moved about a chessboard at the author’s direction.  Very few can pull this off.  In modern times, one might include Muriel Spark and, of course, Aldous Huxley (he has a character in Point-Counterpoint, based on himself, who can’t help but draw general inferences from any phenomena he happens to observe).  Earlier examples, I would argue, include Edith Wharton and her friend and apotheosis of this style, Henry James.

The material Henry James works with, at first glance, seems most unpromising for a dramatic novel—which might explain his lack of popularity.  He does not describe the world in its infinite variety and creativity like a Dickens.  Instead, like a careful chemist slowly measuring out each ingredient for his mixture, James brings together a few unstable elemental characters, places them in a controlled environment, and then demonstrates how they will react based on the general laws of human nature.  This exactitude and control is incredibly difficult.  And, like any scientific experiment, can easily bore the observer.  Here is an example from early on in Washington Square:

“Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child?” he said.
You would have surprised him if you had told him so; but it is a literal fact that he almost never addressed his daughter save in the ironical form. Whenever he addressed her he gave her pleasure; but she had to cut her pleasure out of the piece as it were. There were portions left over, light remnants and snippets of irony, which she never knew what to do with, which seemed too delicate for her own use; and yet Catherine, lamenting the limitations of her understanding, felt that they were too valuable to waste, and had a belief that if they passed over her head they yet contributed to the general sum of human wisdom.

Note here how from one sentence of dialogue, James draws out several lessons he will further expound upon throughout the book—the father’s unknowing irony and denigration of his daughter; the daughter’s extreme sensitivity and desire to please her father, and the difference in intelligence between the two. These “elements” as it were, when combined, will lead to an adverse chemical reaction that will destroy the happiness of both.  From this, further lessons may be deduced.  Note also, the artistry “clothing” these observations in a pleasing simile that adds force to the deductions and lessons the pain of sententious banality.

That’s the giant reef that a deductive imitator must steer clear from:  the almost endless shoals of sententious banality.  To copy James is to run the grave risk of grounding one’s skiff on such coral, never again to sail into open waters but to constantly bump up into their knobby embrace.  This is one of Colm Toibin’s defects in The Master.  He thought it clever to write his novel about the late Henry James in the style of the late Henry James.  A clever conceit, yes, but James and his style is much more than merely clever.  So, instead of a pleasing snippet as we saw with Washington Square we instead get this from early on in Toibin’s book:

He had never loved the intrigue. Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss almost everything. He himself learned never to disclose anything, and never even to acknowledge the moment when some new information was imparted, to act as though a mere pleasantry had been exchanged. The men and women in the salons of literary Paris moved like players in a game of knowing and not knowing, pretense and disguise. He had learned everything from them.

This, too, is an important passage for Toibin in that it describes, for him, a fundamental characteristic of James’s personality which also causes much grief for James and those around him.  But note how flat it lies upon the page!  There is no artistry, no clever simile, to liven up the didacticism—just one bland declamation moving in lockstep after another.  And this is a short passage. Imagine a whole book of such grim-faced sententious sentences, always staring at the neck of the one in front, never looking down, as they trample upon the world’s variety and richness.  That’s The Master for you.  Enjoy.

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January 18, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Finding that there was no great degree of gentility affixed to the character of an usher, I resolved to accept his proposal; and having the highest respect for literature, I hailed the antiqua mater of Grubstreet with reverence.  I thought it my glory to pursue a track which Dryden and Otway trod before me. In fact, I considered the goddess of this religion as the parent of excellence; and however an intercourse with the world might give us good sense, the poverty she granted was the nurse of genius! Big with these reflections I sate down, and finding that the best things remained to be said on the wrong side, I resolved to write a book that should be wholly new. I therefore drest up three paradoxes with some ingenuity. They were false, indeed, but they were new. The jewels of truth have been so often imported by others that nothing was left for me to import but some splendid things that at a distance looked every bit as well.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

January 17, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Guilt and shame, says the allegory, were at first companions, and in the beginning of their journey inseparably kept together. But their union was soon found to be disagreeable and inconvenient to both; guilt gave shame frequent uneasiness, and shame often betrayed the secret conspiracies of guilt. After long disagreement, therefore, they at length consented to part for ever. Guilt boldly walked forward alone to overtake fate, that went before in the shape of an executioner; but shame being naturally timorous, returned back to keep company with virtue, which, in the beginning of the journey, they had left behind. Thus, my children, after men have travelled through a few stages in vice, they no longer continue to have shame at doing evil, and shame attends only upon their virtues.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

I Am Charlotte Simmons: Tom Wolfe’s Tips on Manliness
Howdy folks, step on up here—hay-er—and let me tell you ‘bout this wonderful—wunnerfal—new elixer, my handy dandy mascoolinity fixer upper, the most rooten-tootenest best darn juicer for that flabby manby.  Let me show you good folks how this little manual will put hair on your chests.  First off, it’s 676 pages, so just lifting it up and down will work out your triceps, biceps, delts, smelts, abs, crabs and otorhinolaryngological caverns.  And inside this portable free weight you’ll find all the tips you need to go from goat to gorilla—gore-iller—from a lamb to a lion—line.  Hey, boy, move back from the stage there, you’re bothering me.  Okay, folks, let me just titillate and tantalize you with a few bon mots—bon mots—that will literally transform you into a heaving, hollering go-go jo-jo, an authentic, beer bellied, scritchy bearded mountain man:

--Daddy was a product of Carolina mountain country, with the strengths and shortcomings of his forebears.  He had been raised never to show emotion and, as a result, was far less likely than ordinary men to give way to emotion in a crisis.  But also, as a result, he was instinctively reluctant to put a feeling into words, and the stronger the feeling, the more he fought spelling it out.  When Charlotte was a little girl, he was able to express his lover for her by holding her in his arms and being tender and cooing to her with baby talk.  But by now he couldn’t bring himself to utter the words necessary to tell a big girl that he loved her.  The long stares he sometimes gave her—she couldn’t tell whether it was lover or wonder at what an inexplicable prodigy his daughter had become.

--Daddy’s expression was almost blank, utterly cold, unblinking, no longer attached to the variables of reason.  His eyes were locked on Channing’s.  It was the face of someone out on an edge where there could be only one answer to any argument: physical assault.

--“There’s gon’ be folks here wanting you do thangs you don’t hold with,” said Momma.  “So you jues’ remember you come from mountain folks on your daddy’s side and my side, the Simmons and the Pettigrews, and mountain folks got their faults, but letting theirselves git pushed into doing thangs iddn’ one uv’m.  We know how to be real stubborn. Can’t nobody make us do a thang once we git hard set against it.  And if anybody don’t like that, you don’t have to explain a thang to’m.

--He was the same as he had been all day, lying on his side in bed, eyes wide open, staring fixedly at the wall opposite like a crazy person, seemingly out of touch with reality—but if she so much as moved a muscle, he came to life with fearful, anxious questions, beseechings, and guilt triggers, which he pulled expertly.  She had to go through a negotiation, make a hundred promises, and provide an itinerary just to go out the door and to the bathroom in the hall. When he himself went, he shuffled out into the hall with that filthy, insane, flesh-crawling green blanket around him, head bent over like an old man’s—and insisted she stand in the hall until he was through.

Ooops, how did that last one get in there?  Well, you get the gist and there’s plenty more grist for the he-mill where that come from.  I said, boy, you quit crowdin’ me and stop fingering the white suit, it smudges easily.  Now shoo, you’ pest—will I have to cane you?  Don’t make me take off my fedora and spats. It won’t be pretty—praittie.

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January 16, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Well, my girls, how have you sped? Tell me, Livy, has the fortune-teller given thee a pennyworth?”—“I protest, pappa,” says the girl, with a serious face, “I believe she deals with some body that’s not right; for she positively declared that I am to be married to a great ‘Squire in less than a twelvemonth!”—“Well, now, Sophy, my child,” said I, “and what sort of a husband are you to have?” “Sir,” replied she, “I am to have a Lord soon after my sister has been married to the ‘Squire.”—“How,” cried I, “is that all you are to have for your two shillings! Only a Lord and a ‘Squire for two shillings! You fools, I could have promised you a Prince and a Nabob for half the money.”
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

NYTBR:  Under the Influence (Literary Influences on Writers Under 40)

The NYTBR has an article today updating a piece it did 20 years ago where it asked a group of writers 40-years old or under to describe their literary influences.  Curiously, the piece does not describe who comprised the original group--probably because they have fallen off the map.  The group interviewed today includes the following titans:  Susan Choi, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, Jhumpa Lahiri, JT Leroy, Maile Meloy, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith, and Colson Whitebread.  With the exception of Zadie Smith--and possibly Susan Choi--the only things these writers appear to have in common besides their rapidly fading youth is some kind of obscure connection to the NYTBR.  Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, is the only true heavy weight that pops up here; and, not surprisingly, her squib is the most impressive (although, probably, to the eye of a jaded creative-writing-school drudge, the most banal).  Smith, apologizing, owns up to a traditional grounding in the British classic writers, starting with C. S. Lewis, of all people, but then encompassing the Brontes, Hardy, Thackeray, Trollope and Dickens--not a bad lineup for a fledgling writer.  Her latest faves are David Foster Wallace, Greene and James.  Given that these are among my favorite authors, I think Smith is the most enlightened of the bunch.

The remainder of the mild bunch, though, do name a few interesting influences.  Nell Freudenberger loves Peter Carey.  I do, too, as one can see from my picks, so I obviously consider Nell a promising writer to keep an eye on.  Jhumpa Lahiri is in awe of William Trevor.  So am I--so she clearly has great things in store for her readers.  Most of the rest, however, name either creative-writing school darlings--Susan Choi's pick is Donald Barthelme (a crank-writer, in the DFW vernacular, if ever there was one whose reputation is going from dim to dimmer) and Maile Meloy picks Geoffrey Wolfe because, surprise, he's her creative-writing instructor (Oh, the humanity!) or obscure cult objects--JT Leroy names fellow West Virginian, Breece D'J Pancake and Colson Whitehead goes with Jean Toomer.  These sorts of choices are illuminating in one respect; they point out why there are not very many well-known under-40 writers:  such budding novelists are spending way too much time trapped in creative-writing school chasing down the latest avant-garde trolley as its pulling out of the station.  Thank goodness Evelyn Waugh, a famed novelists in his mid-twenties, never bothered with such guff.  Take note young writers--you have nothing to lose but your T.A. classes and student loans!

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January 15, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Right, Frank,” cried the ‘Squire; “for may this glass suffocate me but a fine girl is worth all the priestcraft in the nation. For what are tythes and tricks but an imposition, all a confounded imposture, and I can prove it.”—“I wish you would,” cried my son Moses, “and I think,” continued he, “that I should be able to combat in the opposition.”—“Very well, Sir,” cried the ‘Squire, who immediately smoaked [N.B.: slang—“to make fun of”] him, and winking on the rest of the company to prepare us for the sport, “if you are for a cool argument upon that subject, I am ready to accept the challenge. And first, whether are you for managing it analogically or dialogically?” “I am for managing it rationally,” cried Moses, quite happy at being permitted to dispute. “Good again,” cried the ‘Squire; “and firstly, of the first. I hope you’ll not deny that whatever is, is. If you don’t grant me that, I can go no further.”—“Why,” returned Moses, “I think I may grant that, and make the best of it.”—“I hope too,” returned the other, “you’ll grant that a part is less than the whole.”—“I grant that too,” cried Moses, “it is but just and reasonable.”—“I hope,” cried the ‘Squire, “you will not deny that the two angles of a triangle are equal to two right ones.”—“Nothing can be plainer,” returned t’other, and looked round with his usual importance. –“Very well,” cried the ‘Squire, speaking very quick, “the premises being thus settled, I proceed to observe, that the concatenation of self existences, proceeding in a reciprocal duplicate ratio, naturally produce a problematical dialogism, which in some measure proves that the essence of spirituality may be referred to the second predicable.”—“Hold, hold,” cried the other, “I deny that. do you think I can thus tamely submit to such heterodox doctrines?”—“What!” replied the ‘Squire, as if in a passion, “not submit! Answer me one plain question: Do you think Aristotle right when he says that relatives are related?” “Undoubtedly,” replied the other. –“If so then,” cried the ‘Squire, “answer me directly to what I propose: Whether do you judge the analytical investigation of the first part of my enthymem deficient secundum quoad, or quoad minus, and give me your reasons too, give me your reasons, I say, directly.”—“I protest,” cried Moses, “I don’t rightly comprehend the force of your reasoning; but if it be reduced to one simple proposition, I fancy it may then have an answer.”—“O, Sir,” cried the ‘Squire, “I am your most humble servant, I find you want me to furnish you with argument and intellects both. No, Sir, there I protest you are too hard for me.”
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.: just substitute “criticism” for “theology” above and see how little has changed.  Also, I like this idiosyncratic way of annotating dialogue.  Note that by compressing it all into one paragraph, instead of having a new paragraph for each time a different person is speaking, the reader is pulled along with the story very quickly in an uninterrupted rhythm, just like poor Moses.  Also, it makes effective use of the long dash as a partial substitute for the paragraph break—as opposed to its use in Port Mungo as I discussed a couple of weeks ago.]

Elegy for the Cultured Proletariat
An interesting article in the City Journal talks about the history of the cultured proletariat in the late Nineteenth through Mid-Twentieth Centuries and mourns its decline.  Although not discussed, what great invention came along around 1950 or so?  Was it the washing machine, the hair dryer, the vacuum cleaner? Hmmm, let me puzzle on that a bit.  Prior to the advent of this great invention, even a laborer who might work a 75-hour week, would still have time to read Pope, Goldsmith (as regular readers know, a current interest of mine), Homer and the perennial favorite, Shakespeare.  The article ends on a hopeful note that perhaps some variation of the “Great Books” courses from decades back might serve to revive inner-city high schools.  Again, the mid-century invention casts its baleful shadow over this optimist conclusion.

The article also discusses a perennial stumbling block to such endeavors: the condescension of the educated classes that pre-supposes the need to give the workers watered-down intellectual entertainment.  The article has a scathing critique of the snobbish presumptions of these classes, E. M. Forster comes in for some withering criticism here, in supposing that your average skivvy or collier could not be bothered to pick up the classics.  An amusing anecdote is retailed about a near riot occurring in one collier town when a troupe of strolling players attempted to substitute Othello with a modern comedy.  The same condescension occurs today with teachers believing that works served up to “at risk” students need to be “relevant” and relate immediately to their own situations by describing characters who are similarly situated—in other words, the works need to be mediocre slice-of-life books dealing with contemporary problems and settings.  Yawn.  And that’s the response of the students, too.

Students do not want familiarity.  They want strangeness.  Weirdness.  And there’s no more uncanny author than Shakespeare.  As I discussed with my posts on Twelfth Night, even his frothiest comedies have a an under-layer of darkness that makes for a satisfying reading experience.  Also, as pointed out in the article, having “at risk” students read Shakespeare is a compliment to their intellectual abilities—and they know it.  What would you think shows more respect—assigning Macbeth (a good bloody tale, if ever there was one) or The Da Vinci Code?

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January 13, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

But a cool biographer, unbiased by resentment or regard, will probably find nothing in the man either truly great or strongly vicious. His virtues were all amiable, and more adapted to procure friends than admirers; they were more capable of raising love than esteem. He was naturally endued with good sense; but by having been long accustomed to pursue trifles, his mind shrunk to the size of the little objects on which it was employed. His generosity was boundless, because his tenderness and his vanity were in equal proportion, the one impelling him to relieve misery, and the other to make his benefactions known. In all his actions, however virtuous, he was guided by sensation and not by reason, so that the uppermost passion was ever sure to prevail. His being constantly in company had made him an easy tho’ not a polite companion.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Elegy for the Book-of-the-Month Club
Here’s a fascinating story from yesterday’s NYT about the demise of the mai- order book club following the wide-spread use of the internet and the dominance of such sites as Amazon.com. The historical background discussion of the book-club marketing device I found particularly interesting. For decades it served as a lowly cultural ambassador to the small rural villages when book stores in such areas were practically nonexistent (certainly, no longer the case, as any visitor to Larry McMurtry’s wonderland in Archer, Texas can attest). Now, of course, every one, no matter how cut off from “civilization” they might be, can reach out via the internet and take virtual tours of all of the world’s great art museums or read the classics for free from such sites as bartleby.com (indeed, this site includes many unjustly forgotten Victorian-era works; as you might guess, it only includes works that have fallen outside the copyright laws, which roughly speaking, is the period prior to the 1920s and Disney’s Steamboat Willy, the first appearance of Mickey Mouse (to have our cultural heritage held hostage by a mangy rat, how embarrassing—luckily, in Europe, copyright lasts for only 50 years of so, which means all those great jazz records are falling out of copyright over there)).  The mail-order book clubs are trying to halt their slide into irrelevancy by mimicking the web sites. This seems to me a short-cut to their inevitable exit. Although they might be marginal now, such book clubs served an important cultural role in the Twentieth Century. Indeed, many would argue that Victor Gollancz  and his Left Book Club played an important role in shaping British intellectual life in the mid-Twentieth Century (notoriously, it was Gollancz who censored several of George Orwell’s books such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Animal Farm—over his objections—prior to their publication). 

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January 12, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

[I]t seldom happens that old men allure, at least by novelty; age that shrivels the body contracts the understanding; instead of exploring new regions, they rest satisfied in the old and walk round the circle of their former discoveries. His manner of telling a story, however, was not displeasing, but few of those he told are worth transcribing. Indeed it is the manner which places the whole difference between the wit of the vulgar and of those who assume the name of the polite; one has in general as much good sense as the other; a story transcribed from the one will be as entertaining as that copied from the other, but in conversation the manner will give charms even to stupidity.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Tom Wolfe: Liberal Apostate
Okay, this one is a lot easier to write up than yesterday’s on Wolfe's conservative apostacy.  There, he was attacking—or, as I argued, just assuming away—one of the central tenets held by American conservatives (as opposed to European traditionalists or libertarians, which I suspect, Wolfe actually is). Wolfe, though, is also a liberal apostate in that he attacks, with a ball-peen hammer, certain positions held by establishment liberals.  This, I believe, accounts for the uniformly negative reviews he has received.  Although the reviewers won’t fault him for these views per se, instead they assaulted him for delivering yesterday’s news:  Well, of course, frat boys drink lots of beer and play quarters; college athletes are given preferential treatment; and women are treated like disposable tissues.  What’s new here?

What’s new is that Wolfe is actually indignant over this state of affairs and, like some kind of weird Old Testament prophet, or perhaps, better stated, some kind of weird old Zeus-fearin’ stoic, he has come down from the mountain to righteously smote him some sinners . . . errr . . . Isis-cultists.  His main attack is upon the belief that men and women are fundamentally the same.  He instead argues that their differences in biology make them different in every other kind of way, too.  That’s pretty much liberal heresy there.  He then has the gall to set up one scene after another where he shows the baleful consequences of having women act like men: Charlotte’s roommate, Beverly, is forced to take the “walk of shame” across campus the morning after hooking up; one of the fratboys’ girlfriends, Nicole, has to sleep in another hotel room while her supposed boyfriend has hooked up with a better offer, Gloria; Charlotte herself is “sexiled” from her dormroom for one of Beverly’s hook-ups; and, most notoriously, Charlotte decides to drink like one of the guys and she suffers the dire results, including grade-gutting depression.  Well, that will pretty much get you kicked off the liberal happy hunting grounds.

But Wolfe poaches still more game—he bags himself a bunch of radical professors who continue to live in the Sixties in the form of Professor Quat (who sacrifices his supposedly sacrosanct views regarding academic integrity on the altar of political expediency) and also wings a bevy of radical students who try to taunt the jocks into racial taunts that can be used as grounds for expulsion in the form of the foul-mouthed lesbian, Camille Deng (this old turn is right out of the The Pickwick Papers where the lawyer, Serjeant Buzfuz, tries to taunt Pickwick into libeling him). That’s not all the game either, by a long shot.  Wolfe makes fun of gay pride day with the frat boys disrupting the proceeding by walking through in khaki shorts (shades of P. G. Wodehouse’s Spode’s black-shorts) and chanting: “God’s Yuccas.”  He has a French class—“Jacques for Jocks”—taught with French literary classics in English translation.  Even Charlotte’s country-bumpkin buddy from State U., Laurie, gets into the act.  Having also been newly deflowered, she expounds upon how “diversity” is really “dispersity” in college with the different racial groups having their own dorms, dining halls, classes, majors, etc.  And the list goes on, and on, and on. There’s no rhyme or reason to these attacks; Wolfe just lashes out willy-nilly as he speaks through these various cardboard mouthpieces: Laurie, Camille, Beverly, Gloria—Why bother naming them?  The spotlight is always on our white-clad prophet.  He’s Jeremiah.  He’s Amos.  And we all know what happens to fire-breathing prophets: Yep, they get burned at the stake.

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January 11, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

To add to his honours, the corporation of Bath placed a full length statue of him in Wiltshire’s Ball-room, between the busts of Newton and Pope. It was upon this occasion that the Earl of Chesterfield wrote that severe but witty epigram, the last lines of which were so deservedly admired, and ran thus:
The statue placed the busts between,
     Adds to the satire strength:
Wisdom and Wit are little seen,
     But Folly at full length.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Tom Wolfe: Conservative Apostate
Tom Wolfe has no problem with God.  And that’s his problem.  Tom Wolfe knows—knows in his bones—that God does not exist.  Further, given that he is an intelligent fellow, he knows that other intelligent folks like him have naturally arrived at this same conclusion.  In other words, Tom Wolfe is the classic village atheist.  Now Wolfe has a nodding acquaintance with Nietzsche and realizes that this is not the end of the story.  If God does not exist, then mankind is nothing more than a bunch of beasts in a pit—or, in Wolfe’s colorful view from IACS, a nest of spiders—constantly warring and fighting with one another; and, if one beast tries to lift himself out of the pit, the rest will pull him back down into the pullulating mass.  So, how do you get out of the pit?

Someone like Charlotte’s mother, a God-fearing Christian and member of the local Church of Christ, would probably ask, “What would Jesus do?”  Well, that obviously won’t do for Wolfe. So, he substitutes “WWJD” with “IACS.” Yep, whenever our poor Charlotte is confronted with a moral dilemma she, more often than not (her fall from grace in the bed of Hoyt Thorpe constituting a big NOT), overcomes it by murmuring some variation of “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”  And, presto bango, she picks herself up, dusts herself off (except when Hoyt, “knocks the dust off of her”) and starts all over again.  Folks, we just need to remember who we are and where we came from, even if we sloughed off all that silly God stuff, and we can overcome just about any modern problem.  A bit facile, no?  Sounds like we have some unpacking to do.

The first concept to unpack is this idea that we can piggy-back on the moral principles we grew up with even though we have long since discarded them as a distasteful husk.  Wolfe takes this proposition for granted and does not bother to describe how Charlotte has come to reject God and her mother’s religion—although not her mother, Charlotte is still very much in fear and awe of her (just not God).  We know Charlotte has gone through this process because she never thinks of God.  As proof of this, we find that even deep in the depths of depression she never reverts to her childhood religion or reaches out for it as a ratty, comforting blankie.  But she has absorbed the underlying morality from it, and that’s a good thing—“to have it stitched into her own clothes.”

That metaphor—“stitched into her own clothes”—Wolfe first used in an essay in Hooking Up describing the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, who came from Grinnell, Iowa, founded by the congregationalist minister, Josiah Grinnell. Noyce, like everyone else in the small Midwestern town, grew up in the congregationalist faith—his father was a minister.  But as he grew older (and, although unspoken, inferred: wiser) he shed his congregationalist faith but not the morals and habits associated with it which were still stitched into his own clothes: hard work, self-sufficiency, wariness of authority, etc.  In other words, Wolfe’s story is a cornpone version of Max Weber’s exposition on the Protestant Work Ethic.  IACS continues this theme.

Certainly, Wolfe is correct that many smart kids shed their faith but not the underlying moral framework.  Although this does create the Nietzsche problem that the next generation or so will shed the underlying moral framework, too.  But many smart kids do not shed their faith.  These folks simply do not exist to Wolfe.  He has a blind spot here that leads him to making certain wrong headed assumptions about structuring IACS.  The big one, in my view, is that he can simply assume that a bright girl like Charlotte would reject religion out of hand so there’s no reason Wolfe needs to bother to describe the process for her doing so.  But here’s the paradox:  If religion was part of Charlotte Simmons, then discarding it means she is no longer “IACS.” And that’s the next concept to unpack.

“IACS” is not much of a substitute for “WWJD” because “IACS” presumes that the human personality is unchanging over time (just like the unchanging, everlasting nature of God).  This is a concept that was exposed and rejected at least as far back as the Eighteenth Century with Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where Diderot has the nephew depicted as existing in two, contradictory voices—I believe it was Barthes that expanded on this concept of the contingent, fluid nature of personality which, at any one time, is beset by conflicting impulses, emotions, and whatnot.  Further, just as we can not step into the same river twice, this means that we are not the same person that we were ten years ago or ten years hence—that’s a theme underlying many of Joyce Carol Oate’s short stories in her collection, Marriages and Infidelities. Indeed, this theme covers modern literature like a bad rash.  But we still have the village atheist trumpeting the salvation of “IACS.”

Of course, “IACS” is a better banner to fight under than the moth-eaten one of the stoics unfurled in Wolfe’s last book, A Man in Full.  This exercise in Back to Paganism, has the protagonist, Charlie Croker, suffer from classical hubris in his overreaching ambition to build a gigantic skyscraper on the outskirts of Atlanta, which, when completed, proves to be his nemesis and downfall as it drains him of his financial resources.  Croker, broken, is born again through the texts of the stoic, Epictetus, into a new-age stoic who goes forth to preach the Good News of Zeus—Zeus News, I guess.  Okaaay, Wolfe sit down here and have a nice warm cup of chamomile tea, it will be alright soon.  After a few sips, maybe Wolfe saw that Zeus isn’t quite the answer so he set to noodling and came up with “IACS.”

“IACS” represents strike two for Wolfe on the religion front, as discussed above.  He needs to sit down and grapple with religion itself.  He can’t just act like it no longer exists.  I think, though, that this attitude is so ingrained into him, that it might not be possible for him to work through this puzzle. In IACS, he has one of the minor characters, Professor Quat, a radical jewish history professor, use “Jesus Christ,” as an expletive.  Wolfe sardonically notes that it seems that only middle-aged jewish intellectuals use such expletives nowadays as a way to denigrate Christianity, but students never use it in their more colorful discourse. Why is that?  The premise is left unspoken, but we are meant to infer that Jesus Christ is simply irrelevant to today’s bright young things whose pretty heads can’t be bothered by such metaphysical nonsense.  orry, Wolfe, that’s too facile a short cut.

The great novelists realize that there are no short cuts.  Dostoevsky squared his shoulders and jumped right into the muddy mess of Christian metaphysics. Wolfe could learn from him.  He has two paths before him, neither one of which is easy:  He can follow Dostoevsky into the wilds of Christianity which I believe Wolfe physically can’t do—just like he can’t take cyanide. Or, he can follow the path laid out by Nietzsche.  I can’t think of a great novelist who has fully explored the ramifications of this philosopher, certainly not at a level of a Dostoevsky.  Nietzsche predicted that, following the death of God, the Twentieth Century would be rent by the wars of bloody, primeval brotherhoods as men sought some spiritual replacement for God.  But, in the next century, mankind would come to realize that even such brotherhoods have no moral or spiritual grounding, so that mankind will instead individually war against one another--like a bunch of spiders--as each seeks to maximize his own power.  That strikes me as a theme Wolfe might be able to play.

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January 10, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

His way was, when any person was proposed to him as an object of charity, to go round with his hat, first among the nobility, according to their rank, and so on, till he left scarce a single person unsolicited. They who go thus about to beg for others, generally find a pleasure in the task. They consider, in some measure, every benefaction they procure as given by themselves, and have at once the pleasure of being liberal without the self reproach of being profuse.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

I Am Charlotte Simmons: The Male Beast Taxonomy
Well, I finished off Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (“IACS”) and, as one might surmise from my prior posts on this book, was duly impressed by it. Impressed, but not flabbergasted, enraptured, intoxicated or transfigured.  Wolfe has crafted a well wrought novel concerning the ins and outs of a modern university and its inhabitants which I believe is well worth reading if one is interested in the American tradition of using the novel to exemplify and explain American culture and mores as practiced by writers such as John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos and John O’Hara (these writers constitute what I would call the back half of the first tier).  Wolfe’s title character, Charlotte Simmons, serves, in large part as a “peri” in the Nabokovian sense—that is, she is a walking periscope that observes the goings on at Dupont University, a fictional creation meant to embody one of the top Universities in America, to be mentioned in the same breath as Harvard or Yale [N.B.: Nabokov, in discussing Dickens, noted that certain of his characters went from place to place and did this or that in order to illuminate aspects of the world that Dickens had created and wished us to observe—much like a periscope].  In this post, I’ll sketch out the major theme of the book and then spend subsequent posts discussing other bits and pieces I found interesting.

The book begins in the small town (1400 pop.) of Sparta, North Carolina with Charlotte giving her high-school valedictorian address, followed by a franks ‘n’ burgers get together at her parents’ house.  This vignette is meant to differentiate the manners and mores of the “mountain man” culture of this tiny town with the others forms of masculinity prevalent at Dupont University.  The ultimate “mountain man” is Charlotte’s father who confronts some high-school hooligans intent on crashing Charlotte’s party and forces them to scamper off with their tails between their legs (almost literally—Wolf is obsessed with viewing mankind as simply another form of animal; in my opinion, the great flaw in this work).

With the local grungy mutts vanquished, Charlotte then heads off to Pennsylvania where she meets three very different types of masculine animals.
The three types she meets serve as the motive force, in large part, for unfolding the plot of the novel: Each type seeks to conquer Charlotte in its own way—which typically means taking from Charlotte her virginity.  Charlotte, in turn, seeks to conquer these beasts through her femininity; and, although, she does lose her virginity, her femininity is so strong that it is able, in the last few pages of the book, to conquer the strongest beast of them all.  So, what are these three beasts, the contenders for Charlotte in the Darwinian battle of the sexes?

The first, Hoyt Thorpe, is a good looking senior frat boy (described as a cross between Hugh Grant and Cary Grant) who uses all of his wiles to take Charlotte’s virginity from her—okay, maybe he’s not so wily, he gets her drunk at a Washington, D. C. frat party held at the Grand Hyatt and has his way with her.  Still, Wolfe wants you to appreciate his predatory instincts—indeed, Wolfe has a rueful, wiser Charlotte characterize him as a “cougar” which does what it does (preys on hapless women) because that’s the way it is made—sort of like Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the turtle.  As his emphasized over and over again, Thorpe uses his good looks and charming manner to convince his prey that he is in love with her and that he is interested only in her, no one else—at least for the next seven minutes.  Then he pounces, which resulted in Wolfe being awarded the bad sex award.  Again, as I argued earlier this is unfair because the sex is meant to be very bad sex indeed.  It’s sort of like giving the bad sex award to Michel Houellebecq.  Wolfe actually refers to Houellebecq in IACS—talk about critics having no clue.  Further, the one book of Zola’s which Wolfe mentions in IACS is The Human Beast, another book that argues man is just a grunting beast, particularly when he is having sex [N.B.: by the bye, The Human Beast is a great read—although I am not sure there’s been a modern translation].  Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!  Can Wolfe be any more blunt about where he is going?  Does he need to hit you over the head with a ball-peen hammer?  Apparently, yes, because none of the critical reviews picked up on these, in my view, awfully heavy-handed clues.

Enough of the Cougar, let’s go to the jackal: Adam Gellin.  He’s a poor, nerdy intellectual who writes for the school newspaper while holding down two jobs. His great stigma: he’s a senior and still a virgin—but not by choice.  He recognizes that he is a lower order of man from the dominants.  Wolfe, indeed, divides men up into two categories: those who won’t take guff from anyone and will fight to maintain that reputation and those who know they’ll take guff and so will avoid any situation where they are forced to take it.  Adam, of course, falls in the second category.  Late in the book it appears that he will be suspended from campus and all of his aspirations crushed.  How does he respond?  By breaking down into a near-catatonic state and having to be ministered by Charlotte as if he’s a shell-shock victim in a mental ward.  Clearly, Wolfe has little but contempt for this character.  Thorpe might be a predator, but he is also given the grace and beauty of a carnivore, too.   There’s no grace for Adam.

Grace abides, however, for our last male, our lion: Jojo.  Go! Go! Jojo Johannsen—is a six-foot, ten-inch monster power forward who plays basketball for the NCAA championship Dupont basketball team.  He is literally the BMOC, the only white starter on the team who has women come up and throw themselves at him so that they can brag that they were with a “star.”  Of course, what does one expect if the gazelle lay themselves down at the feet of the lion? So Jojo has a lot of red-meat feasting in this book.  But, when he is confronted by Charlotte, who not only does not lie down at his feet but cuffs his jaws, the lion pulls back in bewilderment, falls under her feminine spell and learns to enjoy being the thrall of the lamb.  Indeed, such thralldom as Charlotte’s chaste boyfriend leads to Jojo’s rejuvenation as he becomes the best player on the basketball team.  Wolfe can’t hit you over the head too hard for this moral. And, of course, Charlotte lives happily ever after—at least until the end of basketball season.  You go, Charlotte!

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January 9, 2005

Kathryn: The Poisonwood Bible: Narrative Voice

(For a quick summary of The Poisonwood Bible, see my Jan. 3 entry.) Barbara Kingsolver uses five narrators in The Poisonwood Bible: Orleanna, wife of the hardheaded Baptist missionary; Rachel, eldest teenage daughter; Adah and Leah, twin sisters of prodigious intellect; and (briefly) Ruth May, the couple's youngest child.

Some of the voices are more successful than others. We don't hear much from Ruth May, but she's a compelling character. Orleanna seems real enough, human enough. Adah and Leah are interesting to read but each somewhat contrived. Adah is a silent prodigy, a wry girl who makes endless palindromes and uses backward writing in her journals and who has an only vaguely explained condition that keeps her from full use of her arms and legs. Her twin sister Leah feels like the author's stand-in. She's bright and brave and emotionally engaged in Africa's postcolonial disruptions. Rachel is perhaps the novel's real weak point. She is greedy, vain, opportunistic, and shallow: Leah's foil. We know Rachel is bad news because she also mangles the English language, at least one egregious malapropism per page, I'd guess. On the bright side, Rachel does provide much of the novel's humor. Some of the malapropisms are quite funny.

Next entry: More on the narrative voices in TPB.

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January 7, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

In general, the benefactions of a generous man are but ill bestowed. His heart seldom gives him leave to examine the real distress of the object which sues for pity; his good-nature takes the alarm too soon, and he bestows his fortune on only apparent wretchedness. The man naturally frugal, on the other hand, seldom relieves, but when he does, his reason and not his sensations generally find out the object. Every instance of his bounty is therefore permanent, and bears witness to his benevolence.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith


The Life of Richard Nash: The Eccentric Eighteenth-Century Biography
The Lagniappe for the last few days has consisted of excerpts from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Life of Richard Nash, a biography of sorts concerning the “Late Master of the Ceremonies at Bath.”  What makes this biography unusual is its curiously gentle “warts and all” approach (indeed, on the title page appears the opening words of a sentence from Horace’s Art of Poetry which might be translated as: “I will not take offence at a few blemishes against which human nature has failed to be on its guard”) to a fairly seedy provincial gambler and figure of amusement who lived in Bath during its early days of evolving from a sleepy Thomas Hardy farm town into a pleasure dome for Britain’s leisured classes.  An analogue, I guess, would be the biography of the recreation director out on Miami Beach in the ‘50s just as that area started to take off as written by David Foster Wallace.  This idea strikes me as being decent material for a light-hearted comic novel—and so it struck Goldsmith.

Goldsmith wrote only one biography—actually, that “only one” can be said about a number of Goldsmith’s endeavors, given his early death: He wrote one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield and one play, She Stoops to Conquer.  The biography starts with the conceit that “[h]istory owes its excellence more to the writer’s manner than the materials of which it is composed.”  Goldsmith then sets out as a proof of his axiom, his life of this obscure personage, Richard Nash, who would have long ago disappeared beneath Lethe’s murmuring waters.  It is full of amusing incident and colorful characterization, but it also makes clear just how mundane and inconsequential a manikin was Mr. Nash.

I will concede there’s some truth to Goldsmith’s axiom.  The great biographies owe as much to the prose of the biographer as to the life of the subject. I am thinking here of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria. Strachey is the Twentieth Century analogue to Goldsmith here—although Strachey’s dry witticism often slides into the muddy ditch of sarcasm and cynicism, while Goldsmith is always able to stay on the firm, dry irony road (I would add that Strachey avoids this temptation with his wonderful Queen Victoria which is, in my decidedly minority opinion, his true masterstroke).

As a more general consideration, setting the considerations of wit and irony aside, I can think of numerous examples where the biographer has created a fine work of art separate from the life itself: Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd; Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee; Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford (her Frederick the Great and King Louis XIV are entertaining, too); Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson; and Dickens: Private Life and Public Passions by Peter Ackroyd.  Some might argue for the inclusion of any odd number of semi-biographical works by Julian Barnes such as Flaubert’s Parrot. This is a bit of a bog topic, so I think I’ll stop here before sinking further.

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January 6, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

After the family is thus welcomed to Bath, it is the custom for the master of it to go to the public places and subscribe two guineas at the assembly-houses towards the balls and music in the pump-house, for which he is entitled to three tickets every ball night. His next subscription is a crown, half a guinea, or a guinea, according to his rank and quality, for the liberty of walking in the private walks belonging to Simpson’s assembly-house; a crown or half a guinea is also given to the booksellers, for which the gentleman is to have what books he pleases to read at his lodgings. And at the coffee-house another subscription is taken for pen, ink and paper, for such letters as the subscriber shall write at it during his stay. The ladies too may subscribe to the booksellers, and to an house by the pump-room, for the advantage of reading the news, and for enjoying each other’s conversation.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.:  Now this is my idea of the perfect spa vacation.  Why can't they have bibliophile spas?  They seem to have one for everything else, as the NYT reported in its vacation section this past Sunday titled, "The Spa-ification of America."  Won't somebody please start one up?  I'll be happy to get pampered and papered.]

Wolfe Pack Watch Part . . . I Dunno
Let’s see, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Well, the last of the big reviews has come in from the London Review of Books; and I am happy to report that Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, has achieved a perfect score—of zero. This one is almost beside itself in gob-lobbing outrage. The best tag line: “Charlotte Simmons resembles a very bad Oliver Stone film.” Oh, and here’s the first paragraph, which, in terms of a nasty introduction to a review has to rank up there with the all time greats in terms of sheer bile production:

Tom Wolfe, is, in many ways, an outrageous figure—with his white suit and cane, his glib social analyses, and his delusions of grandeur. For three decades he has been saying that his minutely researched books herald ‘a revolution’ in literature, which is bound to ‘sweep the arts in America, making many prestigious artists . . . appear effete and irrelevant’. Over the years, a lot of these effete and irrelevant artists—John Updike, Norman Mailer, Jonathan Franzen—have launched tirades against him. the most concise comes from John Irving, commenting red-faced and furious on live TV: ‘Wolfe’s problem is, he can’t bleeping write! He’s not a writer! Just crack one of his bleeping books! Try reading one bleeping sentence! You’ll gag before you can finish it! He doesn’t even write literature—he writes . . . yak! He doesn’t write novels—he writes journalistic hyperbole!’ These comments, graciously reported by Wolfe himself, don’t seem entirely fair to me. They do, however, perfectly describe his bloody awful new novel I am Charlotte Simmons.

And there you have it.  Do you think a more negative introductory paragraph could be written?  Actually, it makes for an interesting parlor game.  Here’s my shot:

Tom Wolfe, is, in many ways, a sad, sad, little man—with his white straitjacket and jar of fleas, his rantings that he is Napoleon, and his delusions of grandeur. For three decades he has been minutely researching books of heraldry and the French Revolution proving that, as Napoleon, he is bound to sweep over America and banish the irrelevant artists. Over the years, these effete and irrelevant artists have been driven to distraction and crazily exclaim: “You are not a novelist! You are illiterate! You can’t write! You are not Napoleon!” These comments, graciously reported by Wolfe himself, don’t seem entirely fair to me. For instance, Wolfe is not illiterate, he can interpret street signs and recognizes the signature of Napoleon. They, do, however, perfectly describe his bloody awful, puke inducing bucket of spittle, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Query:  Why does Tom Wolfe cause critics to lose it?  Well, I am almost finished with I Am Charlotte Simmons and it's probably his best book yet.  And his most courageous.  It is that aspect which drives critics to distraction as I'll discuss later.

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January 5, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Let the morose and grave censure an attention to forms and ceremonies, and rail at those whose only business it is to regulate them; but tho’ ceremony is very different from politeness, no country was ever yet polite, that was not first ceremonious. The natural gradation of breeding begins in savage disgust, proceeds to indifference, improves into attention, by degrees refines into ceremonious observance, and the trouble of being ceremonious at length produces politeness, elegance and ease. There is therefore some merit in mending society, even in one of the inferior steps of this gradation; and no man was more happy in this respect than Mr. Nash.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

A Dialogue of Mungo Jungo
A week or so ago I was singing the praises of John O’Hara—at least with respect to his keen ear for dialogue and the way he put it down on the page. Since O’Hara’s time, numerous authors have felt that the old conventions for recording dialogue appeared stilted and tended to break up the flow and rhythm of their prose.  I would argue that if one studied carefully a master like O’Hara, this sort of concern should not come up.  But come up it has, and different authors try different ways to clean up the printed page—other than the obvious one of becoming better craftsman and spending more time on their dialogue than other parts of their prose (as I mentioned earlier, some authors view dialogue as a throwaway with the “heavy lifting” coming in with respect to their delicate descriptions of this, that and the other; unfortunately for them, the exact opposite is true-just look at any of the work of Norman Mailer for what happens when an author neglects dialogue).

The British authors, as in much else, have been the most creative here in the search for the holy grail of a “clean” presentation of dialogue.  Some have simply eliminated any and all punctuation such as quotation marks and even signifiers such as “he said” and “she said.”  The result certainly is clean—and also frequently unintelligible for the reader (sometimes this is done on purpose to great effect such as Ronald Firbank's use of a babble of unidentified voices to create the effect of being in a crowded room or a cocktail party).  It would seem obvious that if there are multiple parties speaking and no indication exists for who is saying what to whom, than confusion for the reader will result.  Such confusion means that a terminal breakdown in the “rhythm” of the prose has occurred—maybe not for the author who knows who is saying what to whom, but for everyone else.  I submit that such a consequence bodes ill for the longevity of the author.

Others have chosen a middle ground as represented by Charles McGrath in Port Mungo.  Here’s an example where the narrator, Gin, starts by speaking ex cathedra and summarizing her brother Jack’s conversation :

There were times the three of them coexisted more or less amicably, but at other times the atmosphere was poisoned by Jack’s rage at Vera’s relentless betrayal. It all depended.
--On what?
--My mood, said Jack. And what, Gin, he said—genuinely amused now—did my mood depend on?
--The work?
--The work. Simple as that.
--And what happened, I said, after the physical thing stopped?

Okay, that’s enough to point out the problems with this method.  First, the quotation marks have been dropped in favor of a streamlining, I suppose, of just using a long dash to indicate dialogue and a new speaker.  The trouble with that is exemplified by the line starting with “My mood . . . .”  There, the author has to insert two rhythm-breaking “he said”s to make it clear who is talking.  Also, using the long dash to start the dialogue nullifies the value of the long dash qua long dash in the sentence itself and actually further breaks down the rhythm.  The reader, of course, is utterly confused and has to keep stopping and starting to determine what is going on.  I submit that any device, such as this, which breaks the reader’s concentration—that is, the spell the author has cast upon him—and forces the reader to pay attention to the actual mechanics of the author’s writing is a failed device.  It fails because it ignores the commandment of Saint George—Orwell, that is—that all prose should be as transparent as the glass in a window pane.  In other words, it should not distract.  As they say around the witches’ cauldron: “The spell must go on!”

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January 3, 2005

Kathryn: The Poisonwood Bible

Some time ago, a reader wrote in to ask if I'd blog on The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. I finished it last week.

So, lessee, it's a novel about the family of a hardheaded Baptist missionary who all go to the Belgian Congo in 1959; it is told from the points of view of the missionary's wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters. The family more or less self-destructs as the country, toward the end of its struggle for independence, elects a leader (Patrice Lumumba) who is soon murdered and replaced in a CIA-backed coup by Mobutu (later known to the world as Mobutu Sese Seko). Here's a link to the official web site of the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, BTW, in case you'd like to read their page on the history of the DRC.

Anyway, I found it a very compelling read. Good momentum, especially for a book so obviously high-minded. The novelist tackles her postcolonial topic without being merely edifying, edifying though she is.

Next time: narrative voice in TPB.

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January 2, 2005

Patrick: NYT Tasty Bits

Perusing this Sunday's NYT, I found myself ruminating on a few odds and ends that I thought I would share with you:

--The Arts Section has a profile on the minimalist artist, Dan Flavin, who constructed his "pieces" from manufactured ready-made fluorescent light bulbs.  Flavin was a founder of minimalism--some would argue the founder of minimalism.  What is it you might ask?  Think of an iceberg, where 90% of its bulk is underwater and only the frosty tip peaks out from the surface.  Well, that's minimalism.  The little tip you can see is the physical artwork--shiny, chrome boxes, shiny fluorescent bulbs, shiny . . . well, you get the idea--the rest is the concept, the theory, supporting the work.  Sure, that might just look like fluorescent tubes you could buy at Wal-Mart.  Indeed, you can buy them at Wal-Mart (well, not exactly, I'll get to that later).  And when you turn them on in a dark room they do cast a purty glow--purty like those '70s glow-in-the-dark posters.  But that's not the bulk of it.  The bulk is that those lights will burn out; the art is merely temporary.  Plus it can be turned off.  Plus it can be created by anyone, not just the artist.  Savor those contradictions.  Those deep thoughts.  Those ad nauseums.  Now you might be saying to yourself, "Interesting, but juvenile."  Yep, but that's the modern art world for you.

What makes this poignant, one might even say, ironic (if I can use a juvenile catch-concept), is that the art world has a very practical problem with Flavins.  If you can buy them at Wal-Mart and make them yourself, one of Flavin's conceits, after all, how do you know that the Flavin being sold at auction is a real Flavin?  Actually, if Flavin was honest and not a charlatan, he who would have said that this point was irrelevant--indeed, give the temporary, effervescent nature of art itself (Flavin:  "One has no choice but to accept the fact of temporary art"), there shouldn't be anything as vulgar as an after-market for Flavins.  But there is.  So what do you think is the most valuable part of that iceberg?  It's a trick question because I didn't describe the entire iceberg.  Well, no point in keeping you in suspense:  It's the certificate!

That's right, each Flavin sold came with a certificate of authenticity.  Flavin himself realized that this kinda gave his scheme . . . errr . . . conceptual framework away, so he remarked, "I used to do my certificates on pulp paper because therefore I knew they would disintegrate."  Oh ho, that's rich.  Where's Sir Toby Belch when you need him.  Well, the collectors have a solution for that little road block (if Flavin was honest, he would not have issued any certificates at all; as the NYT notes, the value of the artwork lies wholly in the certificate; Christie's won't auction a Flavin without one).  The collectors make sure to preserve the certificates.  This is my favorite part of the article:  "Mr. Margulies has framed his two certificates and made them available for visitors in his library.  When asked if he, too, displayed his Flavin certificate, the New York lawyer expressed shock:  'I couldn't do that, I'm too paranoid.  I guard that thing with my life'"  Are you thinking what I'm thinking?  contrary to what I just wrote yesterday, this is the raw material for a great comic novel.  Tom Wolfe, I've found your next project (oops, too late, you've already written The Painted Word).

Okay, so the certificate is the most important part--just as I argued last month that the most important part of any work in a museum is its title card.  But what do you do when one of the dad-burned fluorescent lights burn out?  Well, according to Flavin--what with his mouthings about the inherent temporary nature of art and all--the work should just go dark and die.  Isn't that the bottom part of the iceberg after all?  Nope.  Here's where the farce gets even better.  When a light burned out (the average bulb lasts about 2100 hours), people would take their certificate to Flavin for a replacement bulb.  The article doesn't say whether Flavin charged people for the new bulb, but it would be richly ironic if he did.  Think about it.  Flavin has created the perfect monopoly market that never expires under copyright, patent, or any other type of intellectual property law.  Unlike, say a drug company, which comes up with some new drug, some new male potency pill for example, like Prongium or Stiffex, which it can flog exclusively for a few years, Flavin, and now, his estate, can sell replacement bulbs it bought up at Wal-Mart for some astronomical mark-up; and it can do this for eternity (well, it's not quite that easy, as explained in the article, sometimes a manufacturer like Sylvania will discontinue a particular color like green, and then Flavin's elves must scour the country buying up the remainders).  Wait, doesn't all art die and is merely temporary?  NO!  Flavin's genius was to create the first examples of eternal art.  His art never dies because all of the parts can be replaced ad infinitum.  See the beauty of the scam.  And he does this while claiming this his art is the most fleeting yet.  How rich.  How novel.  How novelistic.

--The NYTBR has a good example this week of how to write a favorable review of a transparently bad book.  The review is of Larry McMurtry's latest flaccid offering, Loop Group which is described on the front page of NYTBR as being about "[m]iddle-aged women who used to be bad girls cruise Hollywood Boulevard."  Oh, and what to the editors of NYTBR constitutes "middle-aged"?  Try over 60, which is the age of all of these gouty gamines out for a bit of tumescent tail.  Let's see, middle-aged 60-year olds, hmmm, that means they'll live to be 120.  Memo to editors of the NYTBR:  I know you think that you baby-boomers are immune from the effects of death and aging just as, seemingly, you have been immune to responsibility and maturity.  But not even stem-cell research will save you from death's randy embrace.  He's the ultimate elderly lothario, death always scores even with baby boomers.  Sorry, I had to get that off my chest--and I take a perverse delight in reminding the Peter Pan generation that the crocodile with the ticking clock is coming up behind them. Rather quickly, too, I might add.

Speaking of aging crocodiles, let's get back to McMurtry who is not a baby-boomer, but even older.   He has probably just entered his middle age at 70 (snicker, giggle).  So, to him, grannies in their sixties are HOT!  Oh, how embarrassing.  He and John Updike should get together and swap swinging sexagenarian stories. 

By the bye, McMurtry is a good example of bad karma coming back to haunt you.  He made his start trashing an icon, a regionalist Texas writer named J. Frank Dobie (what, you never heard of him?  You can thank McMurtry for that) who had a bevvy of fierce admirers that liked him for non-literary qualities, as it turned out.  McMurtry had the bad manners to point this out.  So, guess what McMurtry, you've got the same feet of clay.  Please feel free to JFD Mr. McMurtry.

--Note to writers:  The NYTBR likes to tempt writers to scribble a short "autobiographical/whimsical/meandering" piece for big bucks.  Resist the temptation.  Cynthia Ozick gives in and the results are not pretty.  Although she offers a disclaimer, she refers to herself throughout the piece as Author.  Oh dear.  Then she immediately jumps in--as the all-wise Author--and makes catty remarks about other authors.  Her piece is ostensibly about her first book tour which she decides to do because, "[w]hat, after all, have silence and exile ever done for Author but get her scorned as midlist, damned as a writer's writer, omitted between 'Oates' and 'Paley' on Barnes & Nobles shelves?"  This is particularly nasty, grouping a great talent like Oates, with a non-entity like Paley, and denigrating both as neither being a "writer's writer" like Author.  If one needed proof that Author's omission, not just from Barnes & Nobles shelves, but from posterity itself, will be entirely justified, look no farther than this unintentionally hilarious exercise in self-importance, egomania and snobbishness--indeed, what makes this essay so delicious is that the author, err, excuse me, Author, is trying to be self-deprecatingly funny but she can't stop from lapsing into her own muddle puddle of self-esteem (and it's esteemin' hot, too).  Author!  Author!

Okay, here's a few choice bits (Ozick missed her calling, she could have been the next Waugh):

"Metaphysically speaking, tour has begun, though Author, like George Eliot welcoming Henry James to her Sunday afternoon salon, will receive at home."

"Call from fervent young journalist from Texas.  Texas!  Texas has heard of Author's new book!  Author is impressed to feel important."

"Fabled hall, fabled stage.  Here legendary ghosts hover, masters of the age, majesties ho once read before besotted crowds . . . .  Only imagine, tonight Author will stand on hallowed stage in hallowed auditorium!  But wait, not just yet: she will take her turn following celebrated novelist.  Celebrated novelist reads sublimely.  Massive applause!"  [N.B.:  Ahhh, so we have the term "Author" in order to avoid identifying "celebrated novelist," and later, "Internationally Famous Foreign Writer," abbreviated to "I.F.F.W."  I lost at least two ribs on this tickler.  The sublime comic and yet, snobbish--perhaps a new creature:  the snobic.]

"In renowned book store, princely introduction by eloquent writer Howard Norman."  [N.B.:  What, an author's name is mentioned by Author and not in a condescending light?  A relation perhaps?  Or maybe he cooks a mean turbot.]

"Ubiquitous Boston high culture!  Even limo driver is poet, declaims stanzas lamenting societal rot.  Ferrying author to Booksmiths, driver also turns out to be metaphysician, discourses ontologically."  [N.B.:  I think this nauseating interlude might best be described as "High Snobic."]

"Professor of philosophy from leading local university asks Author to recapitulate three-decades-old exchange with Norman Mailer during public feminist fight.  Author obliges, is compelled by exactitude of historical narrative to dwell on male anatomical parts.  Laughter.  More laughter.  Hilarity.  Author is shocked: she is comic success!  Author remembers short story by Somerset Maugham wherein naive dull humorless woman becomes known as salon wit only because she speaks truth.  Author is inspired!  Henceforth, for remainder of tour, Author will stop making things up."

Bingo--nothing like a self-indictment from Author.  Author also manages to describe her place in history:  Not between Oates and Paley, she should be so lucky, but Mailer and Maugham.  She probably today would find that a compliment.  Just wait.   

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January 1, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

History owes its excellence more to the writer’s manner than the materials of which it is composed. The intrigues of courts or the devastation of armies are regarded by the remote spectator with as little attention as the squabbles of a village or the fate of a malefactor that fall under his own observation. The great and the little, as they have the same senses and the same affections, generally present the same picture to the hand of the draughtsman; and whether the heroe or the clown be the subject of the memoir, it is only man that appears with all his native minuteness about him; for nothing very great was ever yet formed from the little materials of humanity.
--The Life of Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

Mungo Jungo and the Death of the Critic

One of the books I received for Christmas [N.B.: I always ask for books for Christmas from a wish list; by the time I get them I am pleasantly surprised because I invariably have forgotten what I asked for], Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath, I requested for a couple of reasons:  (1) McGrath is considered as the foremost practitioner of modern Gothic (unless one wants to count Joyce Carol Oates--which one might); and (2) this book was savaged by the critics for McGrath's mortal sin of using baroque language.  Criticizing McGrath, a Gothic writer, for using baroque language is like criticizing Isaac Bashevis Singer for using ethnic characters.  So, of course, I snatched up and devoured Port Mungo.

And you know what, the critics were right!  Their criticism was misplaced--the language itself struck me as being purposely toned down--but the conclusion was on target.  The book, at a mere 242 pages, was painful to slog through, like the seedy Caribbean city of Port Mongo itself.  But not for the reasons given by the critics.  And this is my complaint for today because it is clear that the critics could not have read the book with the kind of close attention one would expect of someone paid to say stuff about books that they supposedly read.

The problem with this book is the same as the problem with the critics:  sloth.  McGrath's book [N.B.: this is probably the last time I will give a warning that when ever I'm talking about a book, I will likely give away plot points simply because I do not see plot as a magic talisman that apparently others do--so quit reading if for some bizarre reason you are planning on picking up Port Mongo] is a bulked up short story:  Painter seduces elder daughter and then talks her into killing herself, which results, years later, in the younger daughter talking the painter into killing himself ala Rothko.  Yes, that probably sounds interesting, and in 25 pages it probably would be, but not for 242 pages.  Even worse, the narrator is the painter's spinster sister who lives in Manhattan and is supported by a legacy from their father.  In other words, she knows nothing about nothing, so McGrath doesn't have to do any heavy lifting.  He doesn't need to tell you much about Port Mungo, because the spinster does not know much about that.  Heck, he doesn't even have to tell you much about painting because she doesn't know much about that, either.

 Talk about lazy--typically, writing about painters is a near certain sign of authorial laziness (the sure sign is writing about a writer) since art has become so corrupted that there's not much skill or craft one needs to learn to talk about it.  Indeed, Updike's fictional account of Pollock is probably the best recent example of a book about an artist that actually required extensive research--and it still stunk.  So, writers, avoid as subjects writers and artists (don't feel discouraged, though, if you fall into this trap, Henry James wrote about writers--although, admittedly, as protagonists in short stories--and an artist, a sculptor, in his second book, Roderick Hudson; he has the excuse of youth, though).

So what does this have to do with the sloth of critics?  Well, the reasons for why this book is so bad are not detectable if the book is merely skimmed and not read.  A beefed up short story won't be noticeable by skimming.  Indeed, the book probably reads better that way.  Also, all the filler to cover up the fact that the lazy author failed to do any hard work also can be forgiven when the book is merely skimmed.  The critics, though, didn't comment on this but on the nonexistent reason that the language was too Gothicy.  In other words, they skimmed the book because they didn't want to read a Gothic work in the first place and were dead set on condemning it for that reason.  And here's the nub of my problem with modern criticism.

I have said before that the main problem with modern criticism is a sin of omission--one simply ignores good work or condemns it out of hand (I am currently reading Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons and my sweaty labor in defense of that maligned work is coming soon).  But they can't even condemn a bad work properly so I am juked into stepping left and right trying to stay one step ahead of a critic who doesn't even know what he's doing--so I wind up faking out myself.  If the critics had condemned Port Mungo properly, I wouldn't have bothered with it.  At least you have been spared sitting down with it--although I will say in its defense that McGrath is a very good technical writer, and if he just had something worth saying, would be a joy to read.  Better luck next time McGrath, hopefully you'll get off your lazy butt and write something worth reading next time--being a big fan of Gothic, I'll be looking forward to it.  But for the critics, I can't even say, "Fool me once, shame on you . . .," just quit being lazy and at least read the book you are criticizing. 

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