Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, March 13, 2017

Richard Kreitner & Joshua Cohen

HERE'S AN INTERESTING coincidence. On the same day I read the March 13 issue of The Nation, which contains Richard Kreitner's excellent essay on Paterson, New Jersey--a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment--I also finally get around to the Winter 2017 issue of n+1, which contains Joshua Cohen's excellent essay on Atlantic City, New Jersey--likewise a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment. If I had been at home (and not an airplane) I probably would have pulled Roth's American Pastoral off the shelf, or put The  River on the turntable, because it was obviously the right day for me to consider  the Garden State.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cate Dicharry, _The Fine Art of Fucking Up_

CAMPUS NOVELS ARE actually getting better, I think. Consider Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, May Sarton's Small Room--all worthy efforts, but they were by tourists, basically.

Modern novelists, for better or worse, often spend a serious chunk of their careers on campuses, and thus bring to the genre an intimacy,  a grasp of nuance, a breaking with cliché that one misses in their predecessors. I am thinking of Jane Smiley's Moo, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys--the satire remains, as do the Feydeau-like crank-it-up-til-it-explodes plots, but the characters feel more realistic, less caricatured. More of the resources of the novel as a form come into play.

As its title suggests, Dicharry's campus novel features one of those plots (cf. Russo, Schumacher, Chabon, and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim) in which all the wheels seem to come off at once. Our narrator, Nina Lanning, has become the key staff person at the art school where she earned her MFA. Her boss, the school's director, has suddenly become obsessed with a male model who poses for the covers of romance novels. One of the faculty members, whom a court order has banned from entering the building save when his classes are held, keeps sneaking in and cooking bacon all over the place as a kind off transgressive, performance-art sort of gesture. A 500-year flood threatens to swamp the modernist architectural masterpiece that houses the school and all its contents, including an extremely valuable Pollock. On the home front, her husband wants kids, now, and to prove the point that they would make good parents has asked a Chinese graduate student to move in with them.

There's more, but you get the idea.

Does Nina handle all of this with the cool aplomb and quiet adeptness of the ideal university staff assistant? Well...no. Which makes for great comedy--I laughed out loud quite a few times.

But funny as  the novel is--spoiler coming--it becomes moving as well. Dicharry seems to be setting up a comedy-of-remarriage story. The maelstrom through which Nina is passing ("This could the crucial juncture of your psychoemotional journey," one of her faculty friends helpfully points out as several species of shit approach a variety of fans), we begin to assume, will be the crucible through which she rediscovers her creativity, reaffirms her marriage, reclaims her selfhood. But this turns out to be one of those very unusual (in my experience) comedies in which the happy ending involves the couple deciding that no, they should not try to save  their marriage, but let it go. It's surprises like these that make me think Dicharry is someone to watch.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mary Szybist, _Incarnadine_

I DID NOT know a thing about Mary Szybist when I picked this off the shelf at the Tattered Cover in Denver last Labor Day weekend. Nice cover (Botticelli). National Book Award, hmm. Intriguing title. Graywolf Press. Okay, what the heck.

It turned out to be excellent. The annunciation to Mary is the book's main motif, handled in a cerebral-mandarin-feminist vein reminiscent (for me) of Lucie Brock-Broido, but a little warmer, more accessible, more poignant than that sounds (see "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary" or "Entrances and Exits" or "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle").

It's a complicated moment, and Szybist sees it from a number of angles--the power of being acknowledged, singled out, chosen for a world-historical role, but also the sense that one is being commandeered, turned into a means rather than an end, not given a choice--think of "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" seen through the iconography of Mary and Gabriel.

Remarkable formal ingenuity and variety--an erasure poem, a sonnet, a concrete poem, a poem that is a diagrammed sentence--and hardly any move happens twice.

What really hooked me, though--"On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers." I would not have thought, going in, that a poem looking at a teacher's sexual misconduct through the lens of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" could possibly work, but this one was subtly devastating...if that even makes sense. Can devastation be subtle? Having read this poem, I would say yes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Amor Towles, _A Gentleman in Moscow_

OUR BOOK CLUB read Towles's Rules of Civility last year; I did not like it, but the rest of the club did, so his Gentleman in Moscow wound up on our list for this year, and I did  not like this one, either, but the rest of the club did, so I am probably on a collision course with whatever his next novel turns out to be. Same thing happened to me with John Irving a few years ago.

What exactly did I not like about A Gentleman in Moscow? The premise is not all that plausible--a Russian aristocrat at the time of the Revolution gets a sentence of house arrest in a luxury hotel (rather than the gulag) because he wrote a protest poem at the time of the 1905 uprising. But the plot of Calvino's historical novel The Baron in the Trees is even more implausible--the son of a noble Italian family climbs a tree to escape parental punishment and spends the  rest of his life up there--and I absolutely loved The Baron in the Trees.

Calvino's novel, however, bizarre as its premise is, is startlingly insightful about the era in which it is set, the late 18th century, the era of the French Revolution, Lyrical Ballads, Goethe, Beethoven. Towles's novel...not so much. Russian noblemen, apparently, were gentle souls with refined tastes and exquisite senses of honor, the Bolsheviks puritanical, philistine, and brutal...as far as insight into the time and place where it is set, A Gentleman in Moscow is right in there with The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Klansman.

The Walter Scottiness of Pimpernel or Klansman persists as well in the unrelievedly arch tone of the narrative. Chosen at random: "When we first encountered Miss Urbanova in the Metropol's lobby in 1923, the haughtiness the Count noted in her bearing was not without foundation, for it was a by-product of her unambiguous celebrity." It's like that from beginning to end.

Then there's some cloak-and-dagger stuff in the last hundred pages or so as our hero sets up an opportunity for his adopted daughter, a world-class pianist, to defect while in Paris for a concert, while he himself...oh, never mind.