Tag Archives: 1980s literature

NBAW, number 27: 1984’s Victory over Japan, by Ellen Gilchrist.

7 Apr

1.

In 1984, Ellen Gilchrist won the National Book Award for her brilliant, sexy story collection, Victory Over Japan.

Gilchrist is southern, writing in the southern tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah. There’s something jittery, even gleefully evil, in her stories. She torments her characters. She teases them. And she smashes them. She’s also raunchy—thank God, as it is exhausting to read the careful gentility of so much short American fiction—and the book has great sex scenes.

Gilchrist is a witty, careful and incisive writer. Her best stories revolve around Rhoda, a wild, amoral, intelligent but almost feral woman with a rough childhood. Gilchrist dips into different periods of Rhoda’s life. Here is the beginning to “The Lower Garden District”:

“Rhoda woke up dreaming. In the dream she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sheepdogs. Or else she was crushing the skulls of Jody’s sisters. Or else she was crushing Jody’s skull. Jody was the husband she was leaving. Crunch, crunch, crunch went the skulls between her hands, beneath her heals.”

And, a paragraph later,

“She woke from the dream feeling wonderful, purged of evil. She pulled on Jody’s old velour bathrobe and sat down at the dining room table to go over lists. Getting a divorce was as easy as pie. There was nothing to it. All you needed was money. All you needed for anything was money. Well, it was true. She went back to her lists.”

Gilchrist puts Rhoda through a variety of punishing tests, moral, physical, even aesthetic. And Rhoda’s survival instincts overrule any other considerations. She’s a fabulous character, with a barely restrained sexuality pushing against conventions, so carefully invented her thoughts seem real. She’s a strange yet familiar character. Just wonderful.

Japan is one of the better collections of short stories I’ve read. Short story collections often are either a giant bite of an author’s work (and unless your John Cheever, the career is often besieged by inferior pieces), or a combination of stories that don’t hold together. Gilchrist here has a book that feels like it belongs together, with re-occurring characters, themes, locales. It’s reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (with a similar ghostly, druggy feel), and Barry Hannah’s Airships (flat-out astonishing, rule-breaking, iconoclastic, and funny as hell). Bit Gilchrist is a ribald raconteur, funnier than Johnson (who, it must be said, is humorless as hell) and more serious than Hannah (who, it must be said, often has a cartoonist’s eye for slapstick).

And the Southern thing, the hard drinking, the ennui, the racism, the storytelling, the poverty, she delves into all these themes, but stays away from that absurd glorification of manual labor that bedevils so many southern novels. She isn’t looking for redemption—there isn’t any. Her stories are tight but never tidy; there’s wildness aplenty in them, swerving plotlines, random incidents, but all of it modulated by the fantastic control of her writing.

Gilchrist’s characters are urbane and educated, even when they live in shacks outside of mining towns in Kentucky, or in run-down old plantations outside of New Orleans. She’s reminiscent of the early Fred Chappell (of The Gaudy Place and It Is Time, Lord before he fell into that love and glorify the land trap), holding to a high-wire act. On one side there’s the grotesques (look at the lesser novels of Harry Crews—who I adore—to see how miserly this trap can be; or go out and watch Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) and the simply besotted, blatto and miserable. But she’s funny, irreverent, and so goddamn good at writing that she holds it all together and pulls it off.

One of the better short story collections I've read.

One of the better short story collections I’ve read.

2.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the Southern thing. Southern literature is a vast and often wild place, holding within it such disparate luminaries as William Gay (a thousand times yes!), Cormac McCarthy (blessed be his name), Flannery O’Connor (holy yet wicked), Walker Percy, Margaret Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Fred Chappell, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, John Pritchard, Padgett Powell, Anne Tyler, Larry Brown and Eudora Welty all the way down to the menagerie of “new” southern writers, such as Tom Franklin and Karen Russell. The specter of slavery and Jim Crow hangs over most of it, the casual racism, the even more casual violence, the hard-drinking, the rural muck of it all, the fecund, or fetid, swamps and marshes and deltas. A surreal carnival of eccentric peoples. A creeping ennui of a lost (and happily so) way of life. An identity that is, well, an opposite.

All of the genres of American fiction can be found in the crowded, discomfiting ballroom of Southern fiction, including hard-boiled crime (Daniel Woodrell, for example, or James Lee Burke or Frank Bill) to the brilliant comic novels of Charles Portis and John Kennedy Toole. Bad southern novels[1] revel in stupid stereotypes—Uncle Remus, and so on—and an overemphasis on descriptions of vegetation. I worked for a Deep South publisher, I’ve read loads of it, and I feel both qualified to write on it, and also a bit repulsed by some of the tropes found therein. It’s an impressive list, held together (barely) by not just geography but by a kind of suspicion towards New York and cities in general, and a wily exploitation of the stereotype of the southern hick. There’s a rebellious streak to many of the above-writers, a resistance to non-southern culture and also a resistance to the label of southern writer. I will say that Southern writers, almost to a person, are intellectually-minded and clever, but pretend to be anti-intellectual. It’s a conundrum, but so is the modern American South—so is America, for God’s sake—and I can only say that there are thousands of doctoral students at this very moment wringing their hands at the daunting prospect of detangling the heady mix of race, violence, history, irony, oppression, storytelling, privilege, murder, disgrace and shame that constitutes the American South.

Gilchrist sits well with this esteemed and complex list. She deserves more attention, but of course she isn’t alone there. She’s written eight novels, 12 or so short story collections, poetry and essays. She’s a dynamo. She’s fierce. You must read her.

3.

1983 was an interesting year for American fiction. The big money that came with the blockbuster novels created a tiered system of writers. (And critics/serious readers—including me—are often quick to denigrate blockbuster novels. Having said that, I usually hate them when I give them a try.)

Raymond Carver published his epoch-defining collection of short stories, Cathedral. Mark Helprin released his love-it-or-hate-it fantastical epic, The Winter’s Tale[2]. William Kennedy put out his idiosyncratic, but Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed. Norman Mailer published his Ancient Egyptian epic—and fetishized sex romp—Ancient Evenings[3]. Gore Vidal took a break from his run through American history of big, but admittedly probably underrated, novels, with Duluth. Ernest J. Gaines released A Gathering of Old Men. Thomas Berger put out The Feud.

And then look at the blockbusters: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Michener, Louis L’Amour, Jackie Collins, Isaac Asimov, Ken Follett, Nora Ephron and Danielle Steel all published novels.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard—he’s great but sour and overwhelming—J.M. Coetzee (ditto), Salmon Rushdie (not for me), Elfriede Jelinek, Roald Dahl, and Samuel Beckett, among others, all published important novels.

[1] Erskine Caldwell, despite his reputation, is a pretty terrible novelist. Great trashy sex scenes, though.

[2] I hate it.

[3] A stinker, but I have a soft spot for it.

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NBAW, 36: 1985’s World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow.

5 Mar

1.

In 1985, E.L. Doctorow won the National Book Award for his novel of coming of age in 1930s New York, World’s Fair.

World’s Fair follows a grown man revisiting, and at times re-interpreting, his childhood memories of growing up Jewish in the Bronx. As a coming of age novel, it’s very fine, evocative and detailed, capturing the emotional instability of childhood.

The writing is solid and professional. The sentences hold together. And if there isn’t that white-hot electricity of some of his peers, there are no stinkers either. The novel feels exactly like what it is: a professional work by a professional writer.

Here we have the narrator describing the wild boys of his neighborhood:

These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. They wore felt hats with the brims cut away and the crown folded back along the edge and trimmed in a triangle pattern. They wore undershirts for shirts and high-top sneakers without socks. They carried cigarettes behind their ears. Slingshots stuck out of their back pockets. They were the same boys who rode the backs of trolley cars by standing on the slimmest of fenders and holding on to the window frames with their fingertips. They wrestled sewer covers off their sears and climbed down in the muck to find things. They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.

 

And just a bit later,

“It’s bad,” Donald told me. “Whenever you see one of these, make sure to erase it. Use your shoe sole, spit on it, rub it with dirt, do anything. It’s a swastika.”

 

Doctorow is Jewish, and his characters are Jewish, and there’s a low-level rumbling of anti-Semitism throughout the novel.

But the currents of racism, sexism, the dark shadows stalking pre-war America, they don’t result in anything in the novel, not really. The brief description of the story, man revisits memories of his childhood in the Bronx, that is an exact encapsulation of the novel.

Doctorow is very fine in capturing the demonic power—I’ve heard it called the occult superstructure—of childhood. You can see the narrator’s mythology of his childhood resting side by side the hard realities. It’s a neat trick, but once you see it, the novel sort of peters out. There isn’t much mystery. The funny bits are humorous but light. And there aren’t many stories in the book, more vignettes and little cast-away scenes. The whole novel feels light and slight and thin and airy. It feels like a YA novel, really, a la The Catcher in the Rye, only missing the jittery unreliability of Salinger’s often-misunderstood novel of the eccentric rich in New York.

The result is an odd novel, intriguing in a way but dissatisfying. Doctorow doesn’t want to invent any kind of narrative with characters growing or changing—his other novels don’t really work this way, either—but his novel is one-note, his objectives easy to digest and decipher. So it’s good writing with a slender comedic glow, but little else.

Here’s another great piece of evocative writing:

To walk out of a brisk autumn day into a Klein’s fall sale was an unimaginably perverse act even for an adult. Greeted by blasts of hot air whooshing up through the floor grates between the outer and inner doors, we passed into a harshly lit wasteland of pipe racks and dump bins hung and piled with every conceivable kind of garment for every gender, age and shape, from infants and toddlers to boys, young misses, juniors, men and women. And every single one of these garments seemed to be undergoing the imperial scrutiny of the released population of an insane asylum. Some sort of frenzied mass rite was taking place, the Flinging of the Textiles. As if in a state of hypnosis, my mother immediately joined in while I held on to her, for my life. Wriggling and elbowing her way through communicants three and four deep around a counter of sweaters, say, or scarves, she immediately began tossing them up in the air, just as everyone else was, altogether creating a kind of fountain of rising and falling colors.

Fine writing, but my beef with Doctorow in this novel is his inability to connect the very fine passages of writing to any kind of sinew or bone; the story feels like clouds, or pleasing mist. It’s all one-note—rapturous writing but dull storytelling. The characters aren’t driven, there’s no madness, the novel is trying to be realistic but comes off as not dully exactly, but quotidian. And not in a good way. It’s a thinner version of Auggie March, only Bellow has so many stories and vignettes and characters little Auggie gets a bit lost in the shuffle.

Fun to read but futile.

Fun to read, but futile.

 

2.

I was going to give an overview of coming of age novels, or New York novels, or overrated novels, or autobiographical novels, or even trends in fiction in the mid-1980s, but I’m consumed with various writing projects at the moment, so, instead, please fill in your own opinionated history of any of the above categories and run with it in your imagination. Just give me credit in your memories. That’s the ultimate goal: I should remain in your thoughts like an oily dream.

3.

Doctorow’s novel should not have won the top award; it beat out some smashing novels.

Cormac McCarthy published his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, a novel I try to re-read every other year. Larry McMurtry released his (generally believed to be) best novel, Lonesome Dove. John Irving (for me, overrated) put out his epic story of abortion[1] The Cider-House Rules. Bret Easton Ellis published his first, and by far best, novel, Less Than Zero[2]. Ann Tyler released The Accidental Tourist, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. And Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, and Amy Hempel all released novels. An impressive list, made richer over time. How Doctorow won for his pleasant little novel of memories is beyond me. Perhaps Doctorow’s novel of the 1930s, when the left still had teeth and bite, resonated with the judges stuck smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s America? And does anyone, thirty years on, believe that this novel will be remembered but Blood Meridian, The Accidental Tourist, and Lonesome Dove will be forgotten?

Over in science fictionland, two landmark works appeared. Orson Scott Card published his epic, and some argue horribly misguided, novel of militarized children, Ender’s Game. And Carl Sagan released his first contact story, Contact.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard and Anthony Burgess published novels, as did Carlos Fuentes, Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.

[1] A bad joke. Sue me.

[2] This was an enormously polarizing novel in his day, and a much better novel than the rest of Ellis’s uneven–I’m being generous—work.