Archive | May, 2014

National Book Award winners, number 27: 1973’s split award, Chimera and Augustus.

31 May


In 1973, John Barth won the national Book Award for his fascinating, scintillating rubix cube of a novel, Chimera. In an unprecedented move, John Williams won, too, for his fantastic novel of imperial rule, Augustus.

Barth belongs with the major, heavy duty post-modernists; he’s playful, obsessed with language and its shortcomings, challenging, at once high and low brow in his technique and interests.

For a time, Barth was a major American author, influential, ballyhooed, widely read and copied. But that time has passed. There’s something old-fashioned about his inter-textual games, his solipsism, his self-abnegation. There’s also something cruel, vicious, sardonic and self-destructive about his work. He juxtaposes silliness with violence, low culture with academic jargon. He’s one of the major figures of postmodernism, and embodies all of their sins and virtues.

Chimera follows three updated and modernized characters from antiquity. The first section follows Scheherazade on the eve of her first night with the lusty caliphate. John Barth, the author, appears and gives her a solution to her impending demise: tell him stories that never end. She does, and the rest becomes history. The other two sections follow Perseus, growing pudgy at middle age and yearning for immortality, and Bellerophon, obsessed with his reputation for posterity. Each is subverted through a fractured narrative lens. Each is witty (if a touch corny), bawdy, lusty.

Barth’s novel is about the impossibility of knowing, well, anything. Chimera details the constant reinvention of everyone, the mercurial demands of memory, the cascade of lies that constitute a human life and voice. Barth’s novel is also, despite the playful and ironic tone, full of self-loathing exhaustion with the form of the novel.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

The major virtue of Chimera—it’s playful cancellation of everything occurring inside of it—is also its major problem. It’s about the writing of itself. Art for art’s sake is fine, but fake art for fake art’s sake seems a bitter pill to swallow. Reading fiction must be more than feints and gimmicks and nihilism and trickery.

Still, Barth is a fine, if occasionally clunky, writer. Here’s a taste, of Dunyazade, telling a third character, about Scheherazade:


“ ‘Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships—but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.’”

That ironic interjection of the contemporary into the timeless is supposed to be funny.

There was a time when I loved John Barth. That time has passed.


Augustus is John Williams’s grandest artistic achievement[1], an evocation of Octavian’s evolution as a thinker, humanist, and ruler, as well as an astonishing piece of writing. The novel takes the form of letters between various dignitaries, thinkers, artists and politicians, including Virgil, Horace, Julius Caesar and the like. The result is a mosaic of Octavian—cerebral, forward-thinking, and humane, but also draconian, puritanical, and humorless—who sacrifices most of his life and the lives of his friends and family to his devotion to the state. Octavian is stern, diabolical even, self-flagellating.

But Augustus is not some stale or staid accounting of Octavian’s rule. It unfolds in a thrilling fashion, with conspiracies, intrigues, double-crossings, and the almost-familiar weirdness of ancient Rome. In a word, it’s fantastic. He digs into the skein of Roman personalities and mores, as well as detangling the complex civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s death.

Williams sees inherent to the human condition moral choices and their consequences. He sees great drama in the real stuff of everyday lives. He also sees immense problems in the administration of governance, the gray areas between duty, honor, country, morality. Williams recognizes Octavian as real and complicated, as a man, a ruler, and a symbol. He isn’t a few throwaway lines in a textbook. He breathes.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Augustus belongs to a tiny sub-genre, fictionalized biographies of Roman Emperors. Others are Robert Graves’s I, Claudius; Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; Gore Vidal’s Julian II; and to a lesser extent (and the one on this list I haven’t yet read) Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Of these, Augustus is the best.

The writing is sterling, lucid, never boring. Williams inhabits manifold voices of various learned peoples and professions. He includes lists, fragments of memoirs, letters, prayers, minutes of official meetings.

Here’s a sample, with Maecenas writing to Titus Livius:


“You ask me about the early days of my association with our Emperor. You ought to know that only three days ago he was good enough to visit my house, inquiring after my illnesses, and I felt it politic to inform him of your request. He smiled and asked me whether or not I felt it proper to aid such an unregenerate Republican as yourself; and then we fell to talking about the old days, as men who feel the encroachment of age will do. He remembers things—little things—even more vividly than I, whose profession it has been to forget nothing.”

And there’s that sliver of menace tucked into the jocular tone, a feeling of unease and lurking violence that simmers inside the novel’s twists and turns, the dagger always (just barely) concealed in the interactions of the Roman elite.


It’s a tale of two Johns, and emblematic of a major schism in the reading habits of American letters.

Williams is serious, serene, elegant, controlled and precise. He was a professor, a scholar, a teacher. He has his own theories of fiction: regardless of the subject matter, a novel must unfold in a pleasing way for the reader.

Barth is mimetic, satirical, exuberant, artificial and pungent. He was a professor, a scholar, an essayist. He has his own theories of fiction, too; that the old forms are exhausted, ruined, and boring, and that writers must burrow into the form, shift traditions, blow the fucking thing up from the inside. Barth holds Jorge Luis Borges up as the ultimate modern author; Williams would, no doubt, favor Flaubert, Dostoevksy or Dickens. Barth is at home with self-replication, parody, contradiction. Williams tackles the issues of a life, death, moral choices.

Barth sees fiction as a meta-textual game. Williams sees it as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. To Williams, stories are holy[2].

Barth was born to money in the northeast, educated at top schools. Barth and his ilk are products of 1950s corporate culture and the ghastly Korean War. They saw realism as a terror, a near-unbreakable cage. They saw history as a snake eating its own tail. Unlike the Beats—whose theory of art was trangressive sex plus drug use plus eastern mysticism plus street-level patois, a sort of updated French romanticism—the postmodernists’ major themes were exhaustion with the existing forms and norms, and an abiding lack of belief in absolutes.

Williams was born to working class parents in Texas. He comes from a darker, more harried America. His dad was a janitor. He dropped out of his first college. He served two years in the Army. He belongs to no particular school. He wrote a western, an academic novel, a novel of ancient Rome.

Barth was happy to reuse and repurpose his own work and the work of others. Williams labored in specific genres, a delicate artist with delicate tools. Williams bears more than a passing resemblance to Edward Anderson, another great American author with a tiny output. (Anderson wrote just two novels, Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us.)

Barth was famous, Williams was not. But with the passing years, Barth’s books are declining, while Williams is now regarded as a major American author.

The award had never been split before. This has to do with the panel of judges: William Gass, Jonathan Yardley, Walker Percy, Leslie Fielder and Evan Connell. There’s a clear split between the traditional (Yardley and Connell) and the avant garde (Gass and Fielder), with Walker Percy straddling the two camps. I don’t know the story behind the voting, but I can imagine the growing rancor, the distrust and disgust with the opposing sides. In the end they split the top award. This is as it should be. Better to honor two writers than to ignore them all.


1972 was an intriguing year for American fiction, democratic, unpredictable, just plain weird. Writers veered into odd corners: crime, science fiction, fantasy. The line between literature and pulp was further eroded. The big theme in American fiction seems to be the (attempts at) elevation[3] of the gutter genres.

Richard Adams published his epic tale of questing rabbits[4], Watership Down. Ira Levin released his feminist horror novel, The Stepford Wives. George Higgins published his great crime novel of Boston’s underworld, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Barry Hannah—what a career he had!—released Geronimo Rex. Ishmael Reed published Mumbo Jumbo. Eudora Welty released The Optimist’s Daughter. Paul Theroux, Irving Wallace, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov published novels. Hunter Thompson released his “non-fiction[5]” travel book about bad dealings in Nevada, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

World literature continued its romp. Peter Handke, Robertson Davies, Italo Calvino, Jorge Amado, Martin Amis, Roald Dahl, Gunter Grass, Mary Renault, Graham Greene, and Kenzaburo Oe all published novels.

There is one glaring fact about the impressive array of novelists above: there’s only one woman, Eudora Welty. And only one African American. Ishmael Reed. The boys’ club mentality was still fixed. The white, male viewpoint was dominant. The keys to the kingdom remained in the hands of a select few. A literary power elite.

Still, Augustus and Chimera are superb novels. And Augustus deserved the top award.


[1] Or maybe it’s Butcher’s Crossing. Or maybe Stoner. All three are stupendous.

[2] In Stoner, he has his main character feeling vertigo over his first taste of serious literature. “What’s happening?” he asks one of his teachers. “You’re falling in love,” his teacher says.

[3] Of course, each genre has produced its own artists.

[4] A bit better than it sounds.

[5] He later said he made a lot of it up.

National Book Award winners, number 26: 1974’s Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

20 May


In 1974, Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award for his immense, overpowering linguistic tour de force Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is stranger, more idiosyncratic, more nonsensical, more upsetting than any summary or review can convey.

The novel has no conventional plot. It’s by turns a horrifying exploration of science gone wrong; an erotic picaresque journey through post-war Europe; a series of confounding scenes of madness and paranoia; bizarre sexual encounters, including one of the great orgy scenes in American letters; and a dumbfounded American G.I. who seems to be able to predict where German V-1 rockets will land by his erections. The entire enterprise seems a paean to entropy, decay, destruction, the thanatos syndrome. There’s weird sex galore, including enough coprophilia and sodomy to make the Marquis De Sade blush.

There’s something haunting and desolate amidst the random absurdities, however, something blasted out and nuclear, something impossible and disruptive, like radioactive dust. The book feels devised by a deeply angry man. The rainbow in the title is the new covenant with man; with God out of the picture, we’re left with the arc of man-made missiles operating according to the laws of hard science. Gravity’s rainbow ends with destroyed cities, ash and rubble.

Gravity’s Rainbow was the first big, sprawling, dense, post-modern novel I ever read. I was enthralled thrilled challenged excited irritated depressed. I read it when I was 19, traveling across the country by car with my cousin. Along with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Rainbow was and is the beginning of literature for me. It exists with a holy fire, a divine glow. I didn’t understand all of it. I absorbed it (or it absorbed me).

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Thomas Pynchon has haunted me ever since. Here’s the first line, one of the most famous in American literature: “A screaming comes across the sky.”


Pynchon is the key writer in the post-modern school. The novels tend to be labyrinthine, linguistically dense, self-aware, ironic, abounding in the absurdities of the human condition, with bouts of psycho-sexual violence. The key texts are John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to a lesser extent Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the story collections of Donald Barthelme and the theoretical writings of Roland Barthes. (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five probably belongs with this group, too.) The movement is a clear byproduct of the late 1960s. There’s a whiff of the ivory tower in a lot of the postmodernist work, as well as a streak of slapstick silliness, a distaste for sentimentalism and a hard-on for vulgarity. The movement stems from the modernism of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, only blended with pop culture and ironic distance; marbled with a disbelief in language, absolutes or the old forms; structured with long, poetic often beautiful sentences; and (often) punctured through with a lack of emotional resonance. As the very fine compendium of oddball writers, Cult Fiction put it, the books are dedicated to (Groucho) Marxism.

The low-brow/high-brow mash-up can’t be overstated. As a group, the postmodernists—none of whom would want to be labeled this way, I’m sure—adore degraded culture. To a writer, they utilize street argot[1], pidgin English and patois. They love comic books, science fiction serials, B-movie plots. Yet many of the post-modern novels exist in a theoretical framework, with pages of jargon and oddball diction, weird forays into the extremes of scientific research. And of course the near-impenetrable prose, the specialized diction, and the at-times stilted dialogue.

Their ranks include the William Gass and William Gaddis, Tom Robbins, Edward Abbey, Joan Didion, and half a dozen more.

As a group they’ve been reviled, revered, dismissed, disregarded, adored, emulated. But over the last fifteen years, excepting Pynchon and DeLillo, they’ve lost steam as a cultural force, and have slowly been passed over and forgotten.

They’re children—including David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem (one of the great colliders of high and low fiction), William T. Vollman—have taken over.


Gravity’s Rainbow is the biggest, the weirdest, the shaggiest, the densest of the post-modern novels. There’s orgies and hellfire and an octopus that records people and a light-bulb that becomes self-aware, burning away his consciousness one volt at a time. Of all the novels I’ve read, it’s an experience more than a novel, and a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Pynchon has legions of fans, and almost as many naysayers. He’s a writer of inexplicable talents, who as often as not squanders them. (His non-fiction is fabulous.)

As I get older, Rainbow’s influence wanes. I think V. is a better novel, stranger, more unsettling, with tighter writing. Ditto for The Crying of Lot 49, one of the most absurdly plotted novels ever written, about an illegal, underground mail system called Trystero, and a heart-breaking ending where nothing is answered or resolved.

Pynchon is a recluse. He’s also driven, dedicated, unwavering, uncompromising and dogmatic in his style. He’s entered some type of hyper late-phase productivity, publishing three novels in a handful of years. His books have a manic energy to them, some propulsive force, and an often exaggerated 1950s comic book dialogue style.

He’s an immense presence in the American literary landscape. There’s something Pynchonian about his influence. He’s often used as a qualifier for other writers’ work, but he stands in a category all his own. Even the comparisons to DeLillo are off the mark; Pynchon is sillier, funnier, cornier, wilder, and less stringent a writer than DeLillo. DeLillo sees life as a trap. Pynchon sees life as a cruel game. The game is hilarious because we can never know the rules.

Great review here.

The prose is heated, jarring, visceral, sometimes silly, always complex. Here’s a taste of his cacophonous summation of the Dodo bird, being massacred by the German colonials, narrated in part by a German named Franz:

“This furious host were losers, impersonating a race chosen by God. The colony, the venture, was dying—like the ebony trees they were stripping from the island, like the poor species they were removing totally from the earth. . . . To some, it made sense. They saw the stumbling birds ill-made to the point of Satanic intervention, so ugly as to embody argument against Godly creation. Was Mauritius some first poison trickle through sheltering dikes of earth? Christians must stem it here, or perish to a second Flood, loosed this time not by God but by the Enemy. The act of ramming home the charges into their musketry became for these men a devotional act, one whose symbolism they understood.”


And, a few paragraphs later, this, as he witnesses the ongoing extinction:

“It is the purest form of European adventuring. What’s it all been for, the mudering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, ourb one pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast, our sweat become ice and our tears pale flakes of snow, if not for such moments as this: the little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting—how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade? Sanctified now they will feed us, sanctified their remains and droppings fertilize our crops. Did we tell them ‘Salvation?’ Did we mean a dwelling forever in the City? Everlasting life? An earthly paradise restored, their island as it used to be given them back? Probably. Thinking all the time of the little brothers numbered among our blessings. Indeed, if they save us from hunger in this world, then beyond, in Christ’s kingdom, our salvations must be, in like measure, inextricable. Otherwise the dodoes would be only what they appear as in the world’s illusory light—only our prey. God could not be that cruel.”


1973 was a very fine year for literature, especially around the world. Milan Kundera published his second best novel, Life Is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. Iris Murdoch, Mervyn Peake, Patrick White, Mario Vargas Llosa, Graham Greene, J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, and Julio Cortazar all published notable novels.

Things were crowded here, too. In the U.S., Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Tim O’Brien released If I Die in a Combat Zone. Cormac McCarthy published his ultra-violent Child of God. Gore Vidal released his fascinating, and underrated, novel of historical revision, Burr. Kurt Vonnegut put out his oddball, and strangely unsettling novel Breakfast of Champions. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Underground favorite Jerome Charyn put out Tar Baby. And in the popular realm, James Jones, Roger Zelazny, Robert Ludlum, Rex Stout, Jaqueline Susann, Jack Vance, Irwin Shaw, L. Sprague de Camp, and August Derleth all released new books.

A titanic list. The American literary landscape was evolving. MFA programs were beginning to unload new voices into the mainstream. The two big trends of American literary fiction—maximalism (or metafiction or postmodernism) and regionalism (or minimalism)—were colliding in the 1970s. Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, for example, published their first collections of short stories in 1976. Regionalism tended towards small moments of emotional devastation, hard drinking blue collar people. Both trends feel a bit dated now.

But Pynchon stands apart, somehow both sillier and more serious than his contemporaries. If you can stomach it, Gravity’s Rainbow is an earth-shattering experience.


[1] DeLillo’s entire body of work can be understood by his constant theme of the imperfections, and degradation, of language.l Boo

Interlude 4: I review Grand Budapest Hotel. (I loved it.)

14 May

(I haven’t abandoned the National Book Award winners, I’m just on a reading binge of other books: Annihilation; Chess Story; Hawthorne & Child; The Metaphysical Club; and now The Son.)


Grand Budapest Hotel is a fabulous film, an amalgamation of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the stories of Stefan Zweig, and the novels of Joseph Roth. It is Wes Anderson’s best film in years, grounded in a melancholic yearning for the past and a deep sadness at the passage of time. Although Hotel is a repository of styles and impressions from other films—there’s even some Hitchcock rattling around in here—it’s also a deeply personal piece of filmmaking, a culmination of Anderson’s passions, obsessions, impulses and influences.

If you like Anderson, you’ll love it.

If you don’t, you’ll find more depth, skill and power than his naysayers thought possible.

There’s something about the time period—of a decadent, decaying Europe on the brink of total annihilation—that lends itself to Anderson’s retro-gazing and his fetish for bold colors and ornate architectural lines.

The story has three narrative layers, a little girl in post-Soviet Budapest reading the novel of a now-dead writer, the book itself a retelling of the story of an old man and his eccentric hotel in the mid-1960s. The old man (played masterfully by F. Murray Abraham) remembers a time when the now-crumbling hotel was a masterpiece of bustling tourism, and his early days as a lobby boy.

Presto! We’re back in 1932.

The lobby boy falls under the tutelage of Gustave, the perfectionist concierge, played to near-perfection by Ralph Fiennes. Gustave spends his time romancing elderly rich ladies, but unlike Zero Mostel in The Producers, he enjoys their company and their sexual attention. He’s a rake, but an affectionate one, and he doesn’t swindle or cheat.

The trouble begins when Fiennes is embroiled in an inheritance battle with an elderly lady’s greedy son (played by Adrian Brody) and her three miserly daughters. He inherits a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple,” and the painting enters the swirl of the bustling Budapest hotel.

Meanwhile, the Nazi party is gathering power, with fascism and nationalism on the rise throughout Europe.

There’s a lawyer (played by Jeff Goldblum), a henchman (Willem Defoe), a police chief (Edward Norton), some French servants (Matthew Almaric and Lea Seydoux), and dozens of bellhops, elevator operators, soldiers, cads, raconteurs, smokers, hangers-on, dandies, shitbirds, and royalty. There’s even some monks.

A great cast at play.

A great cast at play.

The movie has a ski chase, a prison sequence, an underground network of hotel concierges, the looming Nazi party and the breakdown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a heady, frantic mix of high and low brow, held together with whipsmart writing, immense technical expertise and an astonishing performance by Ralph Fiennes. It’s a busy film, crowded, bursting with events, incidents, emotion. The movie runs with a wild manic energy, propulsive, joyous.

Then it stops. And a meditative gloom settles in.

And the long twilight. And the nightmare of history.

And the belief that the best days, or even the good days, are long gone.


Anderson achieved too much, in retrospect, with his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore; he set himself up to fail. Rocket is confident, bold, meandering, funny, loose and exhilarating. It’s first-time filmmaking at its best, with a hard, painful pit at its core.

Rushmore is quirkier—set in a private boarding school in some indiscriminate past—and has an astonishing return-to-form performance from Bill Murray. Rushmore follows The Graduate in a lot of ways[1]. It has great music, with lust and innocence and infatuation as its themes; the tone is comic and melancholic simultaneously. There’s even a similar pool scene, only this time it’s a middle-aged man unable to comprehend the life of his children. It’s a hilarious picture, but also lonely.

Only Peter Bogdonavich—with The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon—has produced two such fabulous early films in succession. (And perhaps Francois Truffaut with The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player.) The movies felt personal, accomplished, unique. Anderson had from the start a superb ear for soundtracks and impeccable art design, intriguing casting and arthouse brio.

His next film was The Royal Tennenbaums, a huge affair, advertised as a blockbuster movie with an all-star cast. Tennenbaums is two movies at once, a heartbreaking comedy about a family that’s falling apart, and a cloying, overcooked dramedy that tries too fucking hard. It has a great cast, a wonderful turn from Gene Hackman, astonishing music and a knockout visual style. The actors are all great, but it’s a shaggy affair, with a dumb climax and odd castaway moments (most of them involving co-writer Owen Wilson’s character) that should have been cut. It mostly works, but when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Anderson had grown precious, cutesy, solipsistic, decadent. (Having said that, Alec Baldwin’s narration is amazing, and the movie remains unforgettable.)

The Life Aquatic was worse, tone-deaf in places, weirdly violent in others, full of misfired jokes and a sense of purposelessness. The movie has too many stars, too many twists, too many emotions. It’s a kid’s movie, with pirates and gunfights and undersea bases and even a three-legged dog, but what kid would like it? But it has a killer soundtrack, great set pieces, and a wonderful style. It’s too ambitious, perhaps.

Or too cutesy. Or too mannered. Or too disconnected to any notion of real life.

The Darjeeling Limited is Anderson’s take on a Cassavetes film, or a New Yorker short story. It’s elegant, worldly, sophisticated and glossy. It’s also loose and jaunty, with a distinct feeling of too much improvisation. The plot is intriguing, but the flashback provides little payoff. Everyone is working hard, including Anderson, but the movie doesn’t have enough glue. It’s beautiful colors and great ambience and some funny jokes and excellent music. That’s it. I like Darjeeling a lot, but it’s all over the place. There’s chases and fights and breakups and hookups and a wild lion and a child dies and he has a scene right out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only not as strong.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a return to greatness, one of the great animated films and a wonderful movie for children. It’s somehow both a Roald Dahl story and a Wes Anderson film at the same time. The stop-start animation works with Anderson’s oddball obsession with symmetry and bold colors and perfection.

A study in Anderson's visual style: bold and complex but never cluttered.

A study in Anderson’s visual style: bold and complex but never cluttered.

Moonrise Kingdom was not good, the worst of all of his infatuations—youth, first love, mannered acting. People loved it, but I felt hoodwinked and a bit cheated. Where was the movie? It was too precious, too cloying. (Submarine—itself clearly inspired by Wes Anderson—came out in 2010, and is a far better Wes Anderson movie about first love. Directed, strangely enough, by Richard Ayoade.)

Critics have, on the whole, been unkind. Criticism of his movies seems to fall into two camps. Some critics argue that he hasn’t fulfilled the promise of his early movies; he isn’t Wes Anderson enough. The other side castigates him for making movies that are too similar to each other; he’s too much like himself.

I think Anderson remains one of our best and most intriguing directors, still humming with energy and promise. None of his movies are bad, not in the way of say, Wolf of Wall Street. Even his weaker movies are interesting. I challenge anyone to watch The Life Aquatic and not come away with something. Ditto for Darjeeling. And if Anderson is overly concerned with style, with intricacy, with mannerisms and mannered behavior, well, he’s the filmmaker. He makes the movies he wants.

He reminds me of a character in a Steven Millhauser short story, an artist who makes miniatures and falls under an obsessive spell, making smaller and smaller pieces of art, with finer and finer components, until no one can see any of it without a magnifying glass.


Anderson’s camerawork has never been this clean and bold. There’s a scene, near the end of the movie, where Willem Defoe tracks Jeff Goldblum through winding streets and a dark museum that is astonishing. The hotel itself is a labyrinthine structure of gilded passageways, ornate balustraded stairwells, and those bright, bold colors of pink and purple and orange. The movie revels in its idiosyncrasies, an interior window with little curtains, roman baths, aging art deco furniture.

Ralph Fiennes is superb. So is his costar, Tony Revolori. Adrien Brody is good. So is Harvey Keitel. Anderson has always had a way with actors.

He doesn't know it yet, but the lobby boy is experiencing the best days of his long life.

He doesn’t know it yet, but the lobby boy is experiencing his best days. Soon, the deluge.

The film isn’t flawless. There’s something off-putting about the occasional tough guy patois, the inconsistent accents, the odd shifts towards violence. The movie has some throw away little bits of dialogue that don’t quite work, and Anderson still relies on big emotional moments without doing the heavy lifting of character-building beforehand. There aren’t enough female characters. And the message of the movie—in the lead-up to the charnel house of World War II—seems to be about manners and hygiene.

But I can’t remember a film that attempts so much and gets so much of it right.

Two weeks later and it’s still rattling around inside me.


[1] I think it’s just as important.

Interlude 3: The academic novel.

9 May

(And the crime novel. And my life in academia. In 55 lovely points.)

  1. The academic novel is one of the great, under-appreciated subgenres in American literature.
  2. Academic novels tend to feel insulated from the real world. And yet besieged by heightened real-world problems. Of identity, sexuality. Of how to live a good life without harming others. Plus the white-knuckle terror of ideas.
  3. Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the epilogue.
  4. Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table should be added to this list. A post-script, maybe.
  5. John Williams gets my vote for the most under-appreciated great writer. He only wrote four novels, and three of them are pure dynamite.
  6. Edward Anderson, of Thieves Like Us, is gets my second vote.
  7. Thieves Like Us is one of the great crime-caper novels, with two very good film versions. (Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.)
  8. Academic novels often use the atmosphere of noir. There’s something about universities and tenure and the classroom that lends itself to the mood of crime fiction.
  9. Existentialism?
  10. Noir fiction is not detective fiction. The difference is in the details.
  11. Noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus sex.
  12. Detective fiction is crime plus honor plus lawlessness plus fearlessness plus heroism. And usually sex.
  13. Noir is death, dread, damaging sex. The hero rarely makes it out alive.
  14. Detective fiction is hard talk and individual genius. The hero rarely dies.
  15. I like both.
  16. Crime fiction has so many good writers that it’s difficult for new writers to make it their own; they risk parody or imitation. There’s little left. The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon have not been improved on.
  17. Having said that, No Country for Old Men is a fabulous crime novel.
  18. The Last Good Kiss is, too. James Crumley. He rules.
  19. It must be said: Ross McDonald is underrated. Not sure why he seems to be receding, while Hammett and Chandler are secure.
  20. But I have a hard time reading new hard-boiled fiction.
  21. The hardboiled school of writing is often more sentimental, more romantic, more false than just about any other type of writing. The detectives are often creaky old men drinking their way through clues.
  22. “Creaky old men drinking their way through clues.” This could be an analysis of much of detective fiction of the 20th century.
  23. Case in point—my favorite line in Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest: “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”
  24. I recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 above.
  25. Southern noir is the weirdest of subgenres. The kudzu, the heat, the spread out towns and cities, the drinking, the scars of slavery—it somehow works. Few shadows. Small towns. Oodles of violence.
  26. I’m struggling with the final touch-up of my latest novella. I can’t quite ratchet things into place. Everything feels right—the characters and the mood and the sentences—but something feels off. Absent. Missing. Letting my subconscious mull.
  27. Ennui: writing a random blog post while thinking about deficiencies in your own work. By the by, here’s the first sentence: “It’s almost midnight and I’m just inside my apartment with enough juice in my veins to power a steam ship across the Atlantic.”
  28. Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It is an academic novel.
  29. So is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
  30. Umberto Eco’s Foucoult’s Pendulum is an academic novel, too. Sort of.
  31. If I could go back in time, I would try to attend the best university in the world. Or study semiotics with David Foster Wallace.
  32. Lucian Carr and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg began as academics. They were drawn to transgression, drugs, petty crime, seduced in some sense by Herbert Huncke. Carr eventually murdered David Krammerer. Knifed him and dumped the body into the Hudson.
  33. Keroauc drank himself to death. Sounds like a character out of any number of crime novels.
  34. (I knew another grad student who focused on Keroauc. Only, he didn’t like Keroauc at all. Not at all.)
  35. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head.
  36. De Tocqueville said, almost two hundred years ago, that unlike Europe, America has few suicides but tons of murders.
  37. What is it, in our cultural DNA that loves murder so much?
  38. It’s a reoccurring theme: art equals intelligence plus disgust plus hard work plus crime. And usually sex.
  39. A good description of Roberto Bolano’s work.
  40. I’m getting off point here. Or maybe I’m not. 2666 is both an academic novel and a crime novel.
  41. There’s something quixotic about the life of the scholar. Something brave and wonderful and near-useless.
  42. I once met a ph.d. student focusing on English ballads of the 16th century. This was the entirety of his work. I asked him if he just loved English ballads. “Not really,” he said.
  43. I asked another grad student what her dissertation was about. “Comic book zines,” she said. What about them? I asked. “You know,” she said, “jargon jargon jargon.”
  44. John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an academic novel. (And a key meta-fictional text.)
  45. I wanted to go to graduate school for ancient history. But you have to be able to read German and French and Latin. I didn’t even apply.
  46. Like every other writer, I tried to get a spot in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I spent a month reworking three short stories, which I had already worked on for months. At the last minute, I switched one of these with a new story, which was hardly a first draft. I don’t know why I did this; some impulse to self-sabotage. This was years ago.
  47. I didn’t get in.
  48. I applied to my wife’s program, American Studies. I wanted to study gangsters, true crime, film noir and 1930s crime fiction. I titled my application essay, “The killers are us.” I thought I was a shoo-in.
  49. I didn’t get into this, either. (And thank my lucky stars for that.)
  50. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is an academic novel. The movie is fantastic.
  51. I think the magic of the academic novel is the collision of high-minded ideals with randy youth.
  52. There’s something smug about graduate students. Only tempered with a streak of self-pity, and an undercurrent of self-disgust.
  53. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is an academic novel. The movie is . . . not fantastic.
  54. For librarians, it’s the air of perpetual moral high ground. We stand for diversity, democracy, pluralism. We stand against censorship, small-mindedness.
  55. Unless we work for a law firm. Or a corporation.
  56. I eventually earned a Masters in library science, (barely) circumventing many of the tribulations facing humanities grad students.
  57. I’m a library scientist. I can’t think of any good academic novels about that.




Interlude 2: True Detective and Galveston

6 May

(Not a poem, and I kind of wish it were.)

During the True Detective hullabaloo, a lot of people were looking for ciphers to the show, texts that could explain what it meant, what Pizzoloto was up to, what the references to old horror fiction were doing in a police procedural. Some people suggested Robert Chambers; some suggested Ambrose Bierce or Thomas Ligotti; but the true key text was Pizzaloto’s own first novel, Galveston.

Galveston follows Cody, a hard-living, none too bright ne’er do well through a fallout with his low-rent crime boss, a man names Pritz. Cody’s double-crossed and ends up on the run with a teenage prostitute and a small child. He seeks refuge in a cheap motel on the Texas Gulf Coast and waits.

And waits. And drinks. And waits.

Let me start by saying, it isn’t great. In fact, it was a pretty big disappointment. It’s thin; it’s a bit one-note; it’s predictable; it feels undercooked; and there aren’t enough characters.

But as a precursor to Detective, it’s intriguing.

Pizzoloto uses the same split narrative device, telling the story out of order. Cody is 40, now he’s 55, now he’s 40 again. (This same device is what made Detective so compelling, only here there is none of the self-delusion or burgeoning sartorial self-awareness.)

The heat. The south. Women on the fringe preyed upon by an uncaring society. Even intimations of Satan worship, secret societies. Also the logic of crime fiction—always inexorable, always inevitable, always pre-determined—at work. Old sins come back to find you.

Don't believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

Don’t believe the blurbs or the hype. Merely okay.

What Pizzoloto does differently is shift the old crimes into something akin to old virtues. Your basic decency will find you out.

Which is the big message[1] of Detective, despite the grim tone and dark theatrics: given enough time, your heroics will emerge.

Redemption is just ten years around the corner. Isn’t that what the show is saying, as Harrelson and McConaughey stumble off under a canopy of brave stars?

It’s in stark contrast to the main lessons of crime fiction, which at its core is a fatalistic, deterministic genre of literature with a series of interlocking messages drilled into readers’ heads over and over: there are no clean getaways; nobody gets away with anything; you will pay for your sins; if you are poor, you’ll stay poor; and behind every rich man there’s a crime.

Or, to put it more succinctly: you. can’t. win.

There are many strands to crime fiction, but the roots of it are in the Great Depression and the post-war years. The high practitioners of the genre—James Cain, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson[2], James Ellroy, Ross McDonald and James Crumley to name a few—all understand the doomy loss of innocence and the necessity to persevere. It isn’t enough for the characters to give in to entropy and decay; the genre is already too disgusted with the vile grotesqueries of the world to do this. Stoicism and violence are only part of the genre’s magic. Outrage, barely contained on the page, this is yet another.

Pizzolatto is young and hungry. His first novel lacks the elegance of half of the above list, and the hard-earned, easy brutality[3] of the rest. He has very little of the outrage. (Detective, in contrast, has an overabundance.)

Galveston isn’t bad. But I’ve seen Cody before, so many times, in crime fiction. He brings to little that’s new to a genre that has so many great novels already within it. (My God, The Twenty Year Death came out last year, and Hawthorne & Child, too.) The book is humorless. The stoicism is exhausting. There’s something shaggy and indistinct about the whole affair. I felt like I was reading the middle book of a trilogy. The writing is good, but it lacks that electricity, the gasoline, the holy fire that keeps me thrilled with the written word.

Here’s a sample:

“Certain experiences you can’t survive, and afterward you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die. Everything that happened in May of 1987 is still happening, only now it’s twenty years later, and what happened is just a story. In 2008, I’m walking my dog on the beach. Trying to. I can’t walk fast or well.”

Which loops me back to True Detective, and gives us the bedrock normality of the show. Pizzolatto isn’t a visionary, he’s a devotee of a very specific genre. And he has talent—some of McConaughey’s speeches are dynamite—but he lucked out, with the cast, with the director, with HBO.

We’ll see what he comes up with next season. Or in the film version of this oh so very middling novel.




[1] I should know; I watched the mofo twice.

[2] He actually doesn’t fit in with this list, but what the hell, he rules.

[3] Hammett was a Pinkerton.