Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paul Muldoon, _Maggot_

FOR YEARS I have been ready, should anyone ask me which Muldoon volume to try -- no one ever has -- to recommend Quoof. "The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants" seems, if not the best, perhaps the quintessential Muldoon long poem, and the rest of the book has all the perversely ingenious rhyming, the yoking of unlikely concepts, and the deadpan, too-cool humor that make Muldoon unmistakeable.

Now, I think I would recommend Maggot. It has all of the above, but Muldoon sets himself even more daunting formal challenges, keeps even more plates spinning... all without seeming to make any visible effort, nattering away as if free-associating while the plates spin in perfect equilibrium without his seeming even to approach them. There's no single poem here that, for me, dislodges "7 Middagh Street" or "Incantata" from the top of the pile, but it's a really strong volume.

Muldoon is too much a trickster to be a confessional poet, but there is pain here, too, and a wisdom about it that Muldoon has not reached before. He has written about pain and loss before -- but a problem master formalists share (Alexander Pope, James Merrill, say) is that we automatically assume surfaces so perfect must conceal shallows. The young Muldoon was one of those poets about whom people (not me) would say, "Undeniably clever, but...." Maggot is always clever, but there's a bruised remorsefulness, an agenbite of inwit, even when Muldoon is rhyming "bento box" with "hollyhocks" and writing a poem about his testicles.

In his NYRB review of the book, Nick Laird suggests Maggot reflects the emotional strain of an episode (or more than one) of marital infidelity, with the betrayed dolphin of "A Christmas in the Fifties" and a few other poems figuring the betrayed wife, perhaps. Could be, for all I know. But the serial infidelities described in the poem "Maggot" seem more the fulfilment of a formal scheme than an autobiographical confession. Still, would Laird make the suggestion if he didn't know something? In the NYRB, no less. Oy.

The blurbs on the book emphasize Muldoon as influence: "the poet's poet of his generation," "Muldoon has enfranchised a whole generation," "one of the five or so best poets alive; to most of Britain and Ireland, he seems the single most influential" (that last by the rarely-off-the-mark Stephen Burt). High though his standing is, he doesn't seem nearly the influence on American poetry that Ashbery is, or Frank O'Hara, or even Jack Spicer. Who knows, though, I may be missing something. I would sure like to think Muldoon is a major influence on contemporary poetry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chris Hedges, _Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle_

THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD is alive and well, if this book is any indication. It covers a wide spectrum of topics -- television, the pornography industry, academia, and the "positive psychology" movement all get sustained attention -- with the overarching thesis that as the real circumstances and prospects of we the citizenry have deteriorated, the tools and resources of those who would bamboozle us have become more powerful and more sophisticated, and our ability to pierce the illusion weaker.

The main culprit: corporations, with their insatiable appetite for profit and greater profit and their inability to take into account any future prospect save the next quarterly statement. Keep the marks bedazzled, the government regulators impotent or bribed, the media watchdogs drugged or muzzled.

Geez, what a downer! Hard to disagree with, though.

Hedges sounds some inspiring notes in the last few pages, but he keeps comparing the contemporary U.S. to Weimar Germany, and seems to think we would be a pushover if the right flag-waving, Bible-toting charismatic maniac came along. Sarah Palin's name comes up....

Not even a single reference, though, to Guy DeBord, an obligatory touchstone for the topic, or so I would think. Hedges takes a few smacks at "arcane academic jargon" and ivory tower-ism, but there is some critical theory out there that he could read with profit.

Edmund White, _My Lives: An Autobiography_

THIS MAY SERVE as counter-evidence to David Shields's thesis in Reality Hunger (see LLL, December 2010). White drew on many of the same experiences and encounters he writes of here in his trilogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, and as far as I'm concerned, the fictional version takes the prize, hands down. (Any list of the 50 greatest post-WW II American novels that does not include White is not to be trusted.) Nor is it merely a case of déjà lu; the presentation here just seems more diffuse, more loosely associative, generally of a lower wattage.

I started reading this book two years ago, got about 70 pages in, and paused; picked it up a year ago, read another 70 pages, paused again; picked it up again this summer, and pushed on through. I've never before been so slow to finish a book by White (and this is the tenth I've read). Whatever it is I find irresistible about White's writing, this book does not have in abundance.

It has some amazing chapters, to be sure. It's arranged by topics (e.g., "My Shrinks," "My Women," "My Blonds") rather than by chronology, and the chapters devoted to topics that White has not so thoroughly mined in his fiction -- "My Master," "My Europe," "My Genet" -- are echt White. Even so, I found myself wishing he had used some of this material for fiction -- his astonishing portrait of Foucault, for instance.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sam Lipsyte, _The Ask_

IN BROADEST OUTLINE, The Ask resembles (I would say) Lipsyte's previous novel, Home Land: witty, linguistically inventive no-longer-young man with foibles a-plenty, whose life has jumped the rails, struggles from disaster to disaster to apparent turnaround that nonetheless implodes into disaster, ending the novel no better off save for some hard-won nugget that may turn out to be wisdom, but probably not.

Milo Burke is the kind of main character that almost no reader likes; I can almost hear everyone in my book club and most of my students declaring, "I couldn't stand him." He is poignantly aware of this himself:

"No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?
"I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it."

Besides reminding me of Lipsyte, Lipsyte reminds me of the early (pre-Brideshead, let's say) Evelyn Waugh. Yes, they are easy to tell apart; on the basis of the two novels I know, Lipsyte likes first-person narration, which Waugh rarely used, and Waugh's style is spare and tight-lipped, while Lipsyte's is an exploding jukebox. But both Waugh and Lipsyte walk a nice line between realism and satire; all the implausible exaggerations seem within whispering distance of the plausible (e.g., ideological schism among the teachers at an experimental pre-school). Both zero in on the softest, rottenest underparts of charlatanry of the moment and whatever special patois it speaks (e.g., "a balm that not only heals but promotes understanding, especially in a world, a globe, as global as ours, where isolation is no option, where the only choices are globality or chaos"). Both are utterly disabused of any idea that the wealthy and powerful are at all like you or me.

Different as their styles are, they are both novelists one would read for the joy of the style alone. Both may come up a little short in the Arnoldian High Seriousness category, which I think is the main reason Waugh is often overlooked as a great 20th century British novelist -- it's hard to seem important when you're funny. But if Vile Bodies or Decline and Fall deserve a place on the list of great novels, there may turn out to to be room for The Ask.

Loved the Cooper Black on the dust jacket. Hurrah for Charlotte Strick and whoever did the design for the Black Keys' Brothers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Francine Prose, _Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife_

AN EXCELLENT BOOK. Informed and judicious on the history of the text of the diary and on the debates surrounding its theater and film adaptations, its authenticity, its use in the schools, its value as a document of the Holocaust (and the limits of that value), but also does justice to Anne Frank's real literary skill and accomplishment. That Anne Frank was truly a writer as well as a victim of the Nazis has been pointed out before, by Philip Roth, John Berryman, Cynthia Ozick, and others, but I rejoice in seeing the case made once again so thoroughly and authoritatively.