Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Gary Shteyngart, _Little Failure_

GIVEN THAT MEMOIRS by Russian-born novelists who emigrated to the United States and write in English are not that frequently encountered, it's hard to read this and not think of Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Once we do think of Nabokov, though, we are mainly struck by contrasts.

On the one hand, a butterfly-collecting princeling, his parents' pride and joy, grows up in the twilight of the Romanovs; forced into exile, he attends Oxford, becomes the shining star of the émigré literary scene, endures the assassination of his beloved father, and (after a series of romances) marries a devoted wife. On the other hand, a sci-fi devouring child of the Brezhnev years, whose parents call him "snotnose" and "little failure," ends up in Queens, majors in marijuana at Oberlin, suffers writer's block, and can never keep a girlfriend for long.

I wondered if Shteyngart was deliberately playing up the contrast, actually. He mentions Speak, Memory in passing (p. 261), and the almost absurd abyss between his circumstances and Nabokov's is the kind of sly joke that his novels often make.

Just as the memoir's comedy is a lot like that of the novels, the persona of the memoir often reminds one of the schlimazels whose beleaguered adventures feature in the novels. And just as one discerns behind the hapless narrators of Shteyngart's novels a novelist who is intelligent, perceptive, and resourceful, Shteyngart the memoirist is as skillful and deliberate as Garry the subject is naive and deluded.

The latter chapters of the book steer close to the edge of the topoi of celebrity memoir--drug and alcohol excesses, ethical lapses, recovered memories of rough treatment in childhood, therapy--but even while sustaining the tone of class-clown self-disparagement that runs throughout the book, Shteyngart handles this material with tact and even--not at all what one has come to expect from him--dignity. So in some subtle way the book may have a lot in common with Nabokov after all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Lucy Ives, _The Hermit_

GIVEN THE NEWS that Lucy Ives has a novel forthcoming in 2017, and given that her work tends to be aware of its own processes, and even aware of its own awareness of its own processes, one wonders whether The Hermit somehow reflects on the composition of the novel that Ives was (I suppose) writing at about the same time that she was writing The Hermit.

Truth to tell, this is not even my idea. It occurs in section 9 of The Hermit: "Rebecca says, "This is a poem about trying to write a novel.'"

Rebecca is on to something, I think. The Hermit has quite a few reflections own novels and novel-writing, e.g., "Thus the novel could be the elaboration of nearly real situations as an aid, a kind of paradoxical recovery from the actual," and "When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist."

Is that first one true, do you think? While it's a bit reductive to think of novel-writing as a large-scale game of fort-da, but I would say it does account for a lot of novels, including some great ones, such as Herzog or nearly every Roth novel.

Not that The Hermit is that much like Woolf's A Writer's Diary. It's quite a bit more mercurial, more glancing, more what-just-happened than that. But I do plan to read it again after I read the novel.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Colson Whitehead, _The Underground Railroad_

I HAD NOT noticed this before, but novels about slavery tend to traffic a bit in fabulism and fantasy. The ghost in Morrison's Beloved, for instance. The time traveling and chronological slippages in Butler's Kindred and Reed's Flight to Canada. Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage  do not deal in the supernatural, but they do draw on the kind of wild invention and gleeful disregard of plausibility that one finds in an older kind of pre-Flaubert novel, like Smollett or the picaresque. About the only example I can call to mind of genuine straight-up-and-down realism is Edward Jones's The Known World.

Jones can't be the only example, but still I wonder, why so frequent a resort to the imaginary? Tentative answer: a fiction writer immersing her- or himself in a reality so grim, dehumanizing, and hopeless as racialized, commodified slavery would naturally want to conjure up some magical escape.  Something like this may happen in the death camp chapters of David Grossman's See Under: Love as well. Is Beloved about Sethe's wanting a magical escape from the reality of her past so badly that she actually conjures it up, then lets it almost swallow her?

Whitehead's Underground Railroad is a bit of a return to the fictional vein of The Intuitionist, but by so returning it also participates in the lineage outlined in the first paragraph. For the first several dozen pages, we seem to be in a normally realistic novel about slavery, but when Cora and Caesar escape and find their way to a station of the underground railroad, it's in a tunnel, and has tracks, and a steam locomotive...in other words, Whitehead has with no forewarning at all whisked us into an alternative-history historical novel (à la Roth's Plot Against America) by the simple device of making literal the metaphor of the "underground railroad"--the network of people who assisted escaping slaves. (In historical fact, apparently, hardly regular or reliable enough to deserve the metaphor.)

The rest of the novel tracks Cora's progress along the railroad through various states, which turn out to have a variety of institutions and attitudes around slavery, slaves, emancipated slaves, and African-Americans generally.  None of the institutions or attitudes correspond precisely to anything in actual historical existence in the Carolinas or Tennessee circa 1850, but they do seem emblematic of post-emancipation history in the alteration of hope and dread, in the many shades of white obtuseness, in the ever-renewed striving after liberation and the ever-returning unkillable slavecatcher. The novel thus cunningly telescopes a lot of African-American history into a story lasting (maybe) a year or two in (maybe) the 1850s.

Thinking about The Plot Against America in our President-elect Trump moment makes me wish a certain someone had not retired. Roth, thou should'st be writing at this hour.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sherman Alexie with David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2015_

AS OFTEN HAPPENS, the poetry in the 2015 volume reminded me of the work of its editor--in this case, a mild but not obsessive fascination with closed forms, an occasionally surreal humor, a recurring interest in matters of identity. As with the editor's poetry, I found myself appreciating it and respecting it without being particularly excited by it.

About the usual proportion of familiar to unfamiliar names. No great new discoveries, though. I am often motivated to pick up a book or three because of what I read in BAP, but not this year.

To tell the truth, I had stopped about halfway through, and only picked it up when I saw the new one was out.

Bit of an off-year for BAP, it seemed to me. New one looks promising at first glance, though.