Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ben Fountain, _Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk_

WE ARE AGREED, I am going to assume, that Bret Easton Ellis is not a major American writer. This guy might be, however. Not prolific--one novel and one book of short stories, even though he is actually a few years older than Ellis--but he has nonetheless written one more masterpiece than Ellis has, that being Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Fountain manages a cartful of ambitious moves here.  Billy Lynn basically occurs on a single day, รก la Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, which calls for some skill in novelistic thick description of ordinary moment-to-moment existence; Fountain convincingly does this from page one.

The novel adheres to Billy Lynn's point of view throughout, yet Fountain is able to blend hi-fi Free Indirect Style ("A couple of medias see him and here they come. Well fuck. What the hell. Billy sucks it up") and Fountain's own carbonated writerliness ("faces rim the bubble of media lights with a fish-eye arcuation and ovoid bulge"). This does not even seem possible, but Fountain makes it look easy.

The satirical strokes are sometimes broad, but always deft, as in the portrait of Norm Oglesby, a version of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that manages to surpass the original in sheer awfulness.

Finally, and crucially, Fountain speaks to his historical moment in a manner several orders of magnitude more profound than Ellis's litanies of brand names. Billy Lynn is a member of Bravo Company, a video of whose firefight in Iraq has been on a loop on Fox News and gone viral onYouTube. To shore up crumbling public support of the war, the Bush administration has sent them on a "Victory Tour" that culminates, on the day the novel is set, in an onstage appearance with Destiny's Child at halftime in a Dallas Cowboys home game. The following day, they ship back to Iraq.

Can you come up with a better scenario to convey the grimmest ironies of our society of  spectacle and consumption, and the ultimate cost of that society, and who is being ask to pay that cost? I can't. Destined to become a classic.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bret Easton Ellis?

FOR YEARS NOW, I have taken seriously fiction recommendations from The Believer, and I'm glad I have. I picked up Remainder because it was their book of the year, for instance. Donald Harington, Victor LaValle, Julia Holmes, David Ohle, Sarah Schulman... all of these fine fiction writers swam into my ken thanks to The Believer. The current issue (March/April) has the short lists for the fiction and poetry prizes, and, as usual, all of them sound worth a look.

And yet.

The current issue also has an article, "Post-Empire Strikes Back," about a film (The Canyons) with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, and the article takes Ellis seriously as a novelist.  Very, very seriously, I'd have to say. We get this: "His novels, whatever you think of them, couldn't be accused of a lack of boldness or energy or pulse. Or guts." Ellis's novels are "frequently misunderstood" because they are "different." Ellis is "a major American writer who's never won a big time literary prize."

Major American writer?


I am sure Ellis will get his big time literary prize sooner or later; mediocrity can count on that, at least. But the idea that Ellis has been overlooked because he is "different"... oh, dear. Granted, I have not read any Ellis novel all the way through. I read most of Less than Zero back in the day, and as chapters from his subsequent novels appeared in periodicals (Granta, et al.), coincident with the arrival of the books ion the bookstores, I dutifully read those. They seemed nearly perfectly lacking in psychological insight, cognitive power, persuasively imagined events, original observation, memorable prose, or anything else that might make picking up a novel worth your while.

Ellis does have a knack for describing the habits and conversation of the very rich and for imagining horrible things that people can do to other people; he combines, that is to say, the gifts of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Matthew "Monk" Lewis. That will give him a slender but real claim on the attention of posterity--graduate students, at least, still quasi-voluntarily read Bulwer-Lytton and Lewis--but why anyone who actually cares about the possibilities of fiction would give Ellis five minutes of his or her time utterly eludes me.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Kent Haruf, _Benediction_

KENT HARUF'S HOLT, Colorado will never be mistaken for Yoknapatawpha or Macondo, not having the gothic cobwebbed corners of the one nor the colorful magical surprises of the other, but over the course of five novels it has become a recognizable literary terrain. The people of Holt are taciturn, hard-working, hard to impress, reluctant to voice their own complaints and not particularly patient in listening to yours. They keep expectations low.  No one gets something for nothing--that notion may fly in Denver, but not out here, thanks very much.

The Holt mood lightened a bit with Plainsong. (You can tell a hard-core Harufian by his or her relish for the first two novels, the nearly comfortless The Tie that Binds and Where You Once Belonged.) In Plainsong, there was the possibility that things might work out, or kinda sorta work out, at least temporarily, as in this passage of dialogue (Haruf eschews quotation marks) from Benediction:

   All life is moving through some kind of unhappiness, isn't it.
   I don't know. I didn't used to think so.
   But there's some good, too, Willa said.  I insist on that.
   There are brief moments, Alene said.  This is one of them.
   They looked at Lyle sitting quietly, his swollen face shining in the sun coming in the window.

Lyle is the Rev. Rob Lyle, a minister with a shaky family situation who has been exiled to Holt for being too outspoken in the pulpit; he continues to be outspoken in Holt, preaching a sermon against the Iraq war, gets beaten up for it (hence the swollen face), and his family comes altogether unglued. Alene is a teacher who had to retire early because an affair with a married man was discovered; she has moved back home with her long-widowed mother, Willa. Both have taken an interest in eight-year-old Alice, whose mother has recently died of breast cancer and who now lives in Holt with her grandmother, Berta May.

Berta May lives next door to the Lewises, who are also elderly; "Dad" Lewis is dying of cancer, and the arc of his last summer gives the novel, which hardly has a main character as such, its spine. His daughter Lorraine has returned to Holt to help her parents, temporarily leaving a fairly useless and unappealing husband in Denver to fend for his sorry self (their daughter would now be in her early 30s, but she died in a car accident as a high school student). Dad's thoughts revolve more around his son, though--Frank, who is gay, and who left home under a cloud decades ago and has not been heard from in many years.

Even with all this pain--and there is more that I did not get around to--Benediction somehow lives up to the fluffy, sunlit cumulus cloud on its cover. As its liturgical title suggests, there is enough grace circulating to somehow get us by.

Dad Lewis, as he dies, is visited by (or hallucinates) Frank, his parents, the widow of an employee who committed suicide after Dad caught him stealing, and others whom he may have wronged, and seems to be honestly examining his own conscience; he gets to tell his wife and daughter that he loved them, however little he got around to saying so.  Rev. Lyle's son almost commits suicide, but hesitates, and is saved; little Alice is lost, then found.

Most remarkably, in chapter 29 there is a kind of baptism, as Lorraine, Willa, Alene, and Alice take the opportunity one baking hot afternoon to skinny-dip in a cattle pond. You have to take your blessedness where you can find it, in Holt or elsewhere, and the joy of these three women and one girl  as their bodies hit the thrilling cold of the water makes for one of the great scenes in recent American fiction.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Joshua Robbins, _Praise Nothing_

THIS BOOK, JOSHUA Robbins's first, often reminded me of "The Hollow Men" and the first and fifth sections of The Waste Land, conjuring that same bleached, baked-dry world where the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief--except that this desert lies in suburbia's bleaker neighborhoods, with their strip malls, power lines, and chain link fences, and Eliot's stony soil is now a layer of asphalt (and none the more hospitable for that).

The recurring notes in this dryness are anguish, longing, misgiving, but as in Eliot, a lyricism that seems reluctant to trust itself whispers of an unknowable other-where that abundantly provides what this world withholds: Eliot's hyacinth garden and "sunlight on a broken column," Robbins's "last monarchs / fluttering like quarter notes over the driveway," or "light / set off in the pear tree's white bloom."

Fire flickers, sometimes roars throughout the collection too, as in later Eliot ("Little Gidding," in particular), but Robbins is just as interested in the residue the purging, refining fire leaves behind, especially in the book's closing poem, "A Patterning of Fire, a Gathering of Ash."

Praise Nothing's continual orbiting of religious questions may ward off readers indifferent or antipathetic to religious poetry; readers who do like religious poetry are probably looking for something a little more comforting or buttressing than Robbins gives them.  There are readers out there, though, I imagine, that will find its particular astringency bracing. I hope the book finds them.