Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mary Hickman, _This Is the Homeland_

I HAVE ALREADY submitted a review of this to a (much) more distinguished website and have high hopes that the review will appear this summer, so rather than pre-empt myself, let me simply say here that the good folks at Ahsahta have done it again, and that Mary Hickman's first volume is one any reader with an interest in contemporary poetry should investigate. I fell hard for the first poem--a distillation of Ulysses--and the subsequent ones only confirmed my belief that the teens of the 21st century are a grand time to be a reader of poetry.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rachel Kushner, _The Flamethrowers_

NOT SURE WHAT we have here, exactly. A hybrid of Judith Krantz and Kathy Acker, perhaps? As in the work of the great eighties schlock-mistress, an attractively plucky young heroine finds herself circulating in realms of colossal wealth and power…at the same time, as in Acker, trailer park grit meets high art knowingness.

Unstable as the compound sounds, it's a darned good trick, if one can pull it off, and probably accounts for the novel being both critically honored and book-clubbable (the May selection for ours). We get not only some fairly sophisticated depiction of Italian futurism and radical politics of the 1960s, but also the aforesaid plucky, motorcycle-racing heroine and her affair with the scion of a fabulously wealthy Italian  family, who also happens to be an important avant-garde artist and pretty damned good-looking into the bargain.

This all made for an engrossing read, even as my assessment wavered--but by the end I was impressed, really.  For one thing, the novel works as a dramatization of Peter Bürger's theory that the avant-garde sought to bridge the gap that had opened between life and art; Reno (plucky heroine) seeks to turn her (very real) motorcycle crashes into art, the Motherfuckers (Diggers-like radicals sowing anarchy in mid-60s NYC) seek to put imagination in power, etc. This all felt like a convincing portrait of the era.

(Didn't credit the anecdote that the Motherfuckers beat up the Stooges, though. Maybe Iggy could be taken, but Scott and Ron would not have been so easy.)

Clincher, though, was that Reno did not ultimately prevail, as she would have in Krantz-land, but by the end felt like the true heir of Lucien de Rubempré, Julien Sorel, Fréderic Moreau, and all the other bright sparks from the provinces who got their foot in the door in the capital only to get amputated at the ankle.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rudy Wiebe, _Peace Shall Destroy Many_

PROBABLY NORTH AMERICA'S leading Mennonite novelist--not a category that many of us think about, I suppose, any more than we wonder who the leading Presbyterian or Southern Baptist novelist is (Mormons: got to be Evenson, no? He gets my vote, anyway).

Peace Shall Destroy Many is Wiebe's first novel, published in 1962 and set in a small Mennonite settlement in Saskatchewan.  The year is 1944, and the Mennonites, especially their young men, are caught in a conflict between the resist-not-evil teachings of their church and a society that is urging them as sternly as possible to participate in what seems a just and necessary war. Having achieved a measure of prosperity and stability in Canada, is it permissible for the Mennonites to let other Canadians die to preserve their security?

Village patriarch Peter Block, as inflexible as his surname and bearing dark secrets from the old country (the village was founded by Germans-from-Russia, an ethnicity with its own distinct history and identity here in the Great Plains), fiercely maintains that the Mennonites have to maintain their separateness as a community.  Thom Wiens, just now coming of age, has to decide whether to serve his country or abide in his church.

We do not find out explicitly which way he goes--our book club (this was our April selection) was split on the question, actually. I was inclined to think he wound up accepting conscription, but others thought he decided to stay with the Mennonite community, but work to move it out from under Block's thumb and into a stronger relationship with the surrounding society.

This wobble in the denouement may be one of those first-novel kind of issues: descriptions a little too ornate, characters who come onstage with a flourish and then evaporate, Block's becoming much more interesting than Thom ever manages to be. But Peace Shall Destroy Many also has first-novel kinds of virtues: the excitement you sense in the writer in working his experience in the refining fires of his imagination, the revelations of getting inside a community unknown to outsiders, the sense of lives at stake. Weibe's subsequent novels are probably better than this in several ways, but there's a headiness in this one (cf. Look Homeward, Angel) that was probably hard to re-capture later.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Donald Antrim, _Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World_

THERE IS A kind of fictional voice that I identify with George Saunders (in "Pastoralia" and "The Semplica Girls Diaries," say), with Ben Marcus (Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet in particular), and especially with David Foster Wallace (from Infinite Jest on, particularly The Pale King).

Typically in the first person, the voice is a bricolage of phrases and constructions that have been re-circulated through an infinity of management seminars, motivational speeches, therapy sessions, contemporary sermons. Graceless, blinkered, unmusical, seemingly designed to avoid identifying anything too plainly, the voice's language dramatizes how far we typically are from even being able to name the actual sources of our alienation and pain. The language our culture has generated to speak of what is most important to us is clumsy, padded, nearly useless, but it is all we have. Its one virtue, perhaps, is that it shields up from the sharper edges of the reality we have no choice but to handle.

I had lazily assumed Wallace invented this voice, but a very confident and assured version of it occurs here, in a novel published a year before Infinite Jest appeared. Something unspeakable has occurred in Pete Robinson's formerly ordinary suburb, some entropic decline into barbarity is already in progress, but the discourse of normality endures, creating the just-barely-sustainable idea that things are still under something like control:

   I made a total of seven recruitment visits that day and the next, was successful at each, and in danger of dying only once, when Deborah and Carl Harris's automatic garage door/catapult discharged a fusillade of calcified coral fragments, missing my head by inches.

"I told Carl to turn that thing off, " Deborah apologizes. "He must have forgotten."

When done well--and I would say Antrim does it as well as Wallace, Marcus, and Saunders, three of my very favorite writers--the voice carries a powerful paradox: it reveals in language the ways that language can conceal, making us sense the unutterable in the bland surface of the uttered. There is a tragedy here, but at the same time the effect is comical.

Apparently Adolph Eichmann, while being interrogated by Israeli prosecutors, went on at length about how we was thwarted from advancement in the SS, slipping into the familiar Dagwood/Dilbert discourse of complaining-about-work rather than talk about exactly what his work was. Hannah Arendt writes, "What makes these pages of the examination so funny is that all this was told in the tone of someone who was sure of finding 'normal, human' sympathy for a hard-luck story." Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is funny, too--hilarious, in fact--but frightening as well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Teicher on Graham

WHILE I AM on the subject of reviews in the NYTBR this year that made me wonder about the mysteries of literary reputation, what about Craig Morgan Teicher's review of the recent collected poems of Jorie Graham (March 1)?

The most obvious thing for a reviewer to do in such circumstances would have been simply to emphasize how strong a poet Graham is and how noteworthy such a publication therefore is; the second most obvious thing would have been to make the case for the prosecution. Instead, Teicher spent a few column inches on the Graham-haters out there before tacking into his compliments (e.g., "something real glows in each of her poems").

"Why, I keep asking myself, do I, too, feel the need to defend Graham's writing?" Teicher writes. "Why does this so obviously luminous, essential body of poetry still seem to need defending?"

Were I Teicher, I would have asked myself a different question: why do I want to start off my review by mentioning there is a lot of anti-Graham sentiment out there?

A possible answer: well, there is a lot of anti-Graham sentiment out there, so we might as well acknowledge it. True enough. It did seem, in the run from Swarm to Never to Overlord, that one kept bumping into people who didn't like the most recent volume, whatever it happened to be at the moment, and there was all that Foetry business.

So did Teicher just wish not to appear ignorant? Does he want us to know he's been paying attention? Did he need to bring up the case for the prosecution in order to rebut it? "This is why Graham's poems can sometimes be long and exhausting [...] Of course, Graham risks alienating her readers by going above their heads or too far into her own."

Well... I suppose he had his reasons, and in acknowledging Graham's detractors, he is only being truthful, but I didn't like it. The review boils down to "don't believe all those awful things people say about Jorie Graham's poetry." It's a bit like "don't think of an elephant," no? Those detractors Teicher urges us to dismiss as envious end up leaving a deeper trace in the memory than all the nice things he gets around to saying. The review, in its peculiar way, is more damaging than an outright attack would have been.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Lack of Young Bellovians

QUITE CLEAR FROM Sam Tanenhaus's review in the NYTBR that he thinks Zachary Leader's new biography is great big stack of not much; Bellow himself, though, matters: "He was fixed on a cultural course that was also a visionary quest. He wanted to re-invent and also re-Americanize the novel, free it from the European masters he devotedly studied. [...] the social world he described should be captured in motion, not frozen in the stasis of manipulated symbols and pattern, of muted irony and elegantly veiled allusion."

Tanenhaus also notes, though, that "Bellow admirers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly harder to find." Very true, in my experience. Which got me thinking--how did that happen?

Academia is hardly the sole determinant of what novels get read, but Bellow has certainly dropped off the course reading lists.  When I was in college and graduate school, he was likely to show upin contemporary  fiction courses, but as far as I can tell he rarely does now.

One reason he was dropped is easy to guess: his depiction of Africans and African-Americans is benighted to the point of seeming vicious. Then there are his women characters. Most college literature students  are women, and they more or less expect the canonical 20th century male American novelists to be sexist, but Daisy Buchanan, Caddy Compson, and Lady Brett are vivid enough to be interesting and discussable. Bellow's women just are not. Even Updike and Roth do better on this score than Bellow does.

Nor does Bellow seem to enjoy high esteem in the MFA world. James Salter, Raymond Carver, and Paul Bowles do not get assigned in literature courses all that often, but in creative writing programs,  they seem to have been widely offered and followed as examples. Anyone who tried writing like Bellow would probably be told quite quickly and quite plainly to cut it out.

It's hard to imagine this turning around any time soon. Virtually no one in academe would touch  anything from Henderson on with a ten-foot-pole (I remember a fellow graduate student, who had had to teach a discussion section on Mr. Sammler's Planet for a large lecture class, asking his students, "Would you call this a novel or a rant?"). But could, say, The Victim be successfully revived? Maybe.

Bellow has some influential and articulate advocates--not just Tanenhaus but James Wood and Martin Amis. But writers don't get on the syllabus because Wood or Amis gave a thumbs up. Bellow could turn out to be like Thomas Wolfe--an immensely honored writer whose stock falls precipitately 10-20 years after his death and never gets back up.