Tag Archives: National Book Award winners

NBAW, number 40: 2015’s non-winner, A Little Life.

9 Feb

1.

In 2015, Hanya Yanigara did not win the National Book Award for her astonishing novel of childhood trauma, A Little Life. And although it doesn’t exactly fit with this series to focus on the non-winners, but I’ve been so enraptured and consumed by this horrifying novel that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Two weeks ago, my wife read A Little Life. She cried, gasped and even sobbed while she read it in a mad spree of near-constant reading. I picked it up the day she left off. And I feel headlong into the same compulsive experience.

A quick synopsis:

There are four college roommates—Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB—who all go on to immense success in a variety of fields. But as the year’s pass, Jude’s childhood traumas, and his inability to talk about them or deal with them in any meaningful way, continue to bubble up to the surface. The friendships are handled with delicacy and care, and the various characters, except perhaps Malcolm, are finely drawn. The novel follows them for close to 50 years of their lives.

Time passes, everyone is rich and successful, New York is amazing, and the actual struggles most people have—the stuff of real life, no matter how big or little—are mostly elided. But it doesn’t matter, and might even be part of what Yanigara is up to, as Jude’s self-loathing and self-disgust are the twin engines of much of the novel. The novel is about Jude’s suffering, and how his traumas impact the decent and caring people around him.

Yanigara’s latched on to something profound. Maybe. The story is propulsive, but in a tormented and disgusting parade of suffering, pain, suffering, pain, self-loathing, disgust, suffering, pain, all punctuated by moments of human warmth and decency. She writes in the Stephen King style, fun to read and sliding back and forth through time, when convenient for the author. This isn’t a criticism, but rather something interesting in a novel so ballyhooed. (She was, after all, short-listed for both the Man-Booker and a finalist for the National Book Award.)

She writes well. She’s a natural storyteller, creating strong scenes. And if she lacks the zip and pow of the fiction I enjoy reading, the dissonant dialogue, or the jangly electric shock of a character’s sudden shift in attitude or behavior (I just finished Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, which is all of these things and more), she’s still a very fine writer. A sense of inevitable doom hangs over everything, and she does little to cut against it. There is little humor, and some of the subplots go nowhere.

So, I continued to read it out of a disturbing desire to see what fucked up thing the author was going to subject Jude to next. Base prurience. And this would be brilliant, if she were forcing me to interrogate this desire to see a fictional character suffer. (Go see Funny Games, if you want to know what I mean.) But there is no meta-fictional satire or challenge to the reader. It’s basic presentation, layered onto social situations where Jude, as an adult, is reliving over and over the traumas of his childhood. It works, only there’s so much dread and suffering, it begins to lose its power. By the time she cuts loose with her inner DeSade, ecstatically delineating the rape and mutilation of Jude as a child, it feels obscene. And not in a good way. Great art is as much about what isn’t on the page, and here, by her uncompromising and unflinching encyclopedic exploration of Jude’s various disasters, it loses its power and its shock. It’s almost funny—if you see excess on the page as a kind of over-the-top carny show, especially when gussied up with literary window dressing—how much horror she heaps on her main character. The near-relentless degradation of Jude reads like parts of Oldboy, or some sado-masochistic paperback pulp novel from the 1950s.

Unforgettable and haunting.

Unforgettable and haunting.

But she writes the scenes of abuse with such precision, it’s difficult to dismiss. Here he’s discovered by a character who narrates a few sections in the first person:

“He turned toward me then, and his face was an animal skinned and turned inside out and left in the heat, its organs melting together in a puddle of flesh: all I could see of his eyes were their long line of lashes, a smudge of black against his cheeks, which were a horrible blue, the blue of decay, of mold.”

Or here, later:

“At lunchtime he changes the bandage he had applied the night before, and as he eases it off, his skin tears as well, and he stuffs his pocket square into his mouth so he won’t scream out loud. But things are falling out of his arm, clots with the consistency of blood but the color of coal, and he sits on the floor of his bathroom, rocking himself back and forth, his stomach heaving forth old foods and acids, his arm heaving forth its own disease, its own excretia.”

There’s always more, more, more. More suffering. More degradation. More damage. All rendered in a direct, descriptive and compelling style.

 

2.

And she pulls it off, up to a point. In fact, up to a point, A Little Life is one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time. But Yanagihara lost me with this sentence, right here: “At the home, they knew what he was, they knew what he had done, they knew he was ruined already, and so he wasn’t surprised when some of the counselors began doing to him what people had been doing to him for years.”

Let me unpack it for you: Jude has been beaten, raped, assaulted, debased, degraded his entire life. And then, after he’s been saved from a pimp, the counselors and therapists who are assigned to help him, they decide, oh, well, let’s just rape him some more. It isn’t just highly implausible—that this particular boy has the worst luck in the history of the world—it becomes nigh impossible, the endless succession of sexual predators who work in the field of childcare and mental health. And without plausibility, a novel about the effects of trauma falls apart.

This passage cut into the verisimilitude of Yanagihara’s novel, and turns any metaphor into mush. It isn’t enough for Jude to be betrayed, beaten, savaged and raped; he has to be subjected to these things by everyone. That isn’t the way the world works, and it isn’t the way her novel works, either; she’s breaking the very rules she’s created in the first 400+ pages. Two, and this is a stranger critique, I don’t think a writer should pummel his/her characters with endless horror for no particular reason. There is still some type of moral structure, I believe, in fictional worlds. Most writers, when pressed, agree on this. Roberto Bolaño, for example, had this great realization that he would never kill another child in a story or novel again, not after having his own children. He found the idea indecent. And Bolaño was, anyone can attest, not a prude.

Then there’s the sexuality. The horror of it. Yanagihara captures Jude’s disgust, with himself and with all sexual acts, well. But she seems unsure of her own writing prowess, returning to it over and over. As if to re-iterate and reinforce the psychological bedrock of her novel. It grows tedious. And inelegant. And long.

Here’s a line that threw me, too: “. . . he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had.” Um, what? Is there some immense colony of bi-sexual men hiding in plain sight? Yanagihara has already established the sexuality of her characters. Five hundred pages in, all of a sudden? It isn’t just a strange writing choice; it harms the novel’s central relationship. This surfeit of shifting bi-sexuality distracts from the love and affection many of the characters share with each other. As if Yanigahara lives in a world where sexual preferences are obsolete and a thing of the past. A place where people can just jump into bed with lifelong friends.

It’s excess of a different type. And excess in fiction is its own worst enemy. Any act becomes tedious when repeated, ad nauseum, in print. Restraint is needed.

Every novel over 300 pages has problems of one kind or another; it’s inherent in the epic form. Yanagihara hints at an answer of her over-the-top trauma, pointing to Jude’s damaged psyche—so hollowed out and ruined—that the narrative itself has taken on skewered and nightmarish dimensions. (But, honestly, I’m being generous.)

 

3.

And just as I was ready to toss the book aside, with only 75 pages to go, she reigns it back in, switching the tone to somber meditation, ruminating on the feeling of loss and the passing of life. The epic sweep of the book is re-installed; the other characters offer glimpses of their own trials and tribulations. The horror of the flashbacks solidifies. The demons in Jude’s life don’t diminish, but gain power with time. She pulls it all back together, reigns in the squalor, and

The book is moving, heart-rending, one of the saddest literary journeys I’ve been on. The writing is strong—it’s hard to write about it without misrepresenting either its power or how much you care about the characters, and even my criticisms above seem bitchy when thinking about the novel as a whole—but I kept feeling like I was being punished for caring about the characters. Which is a very strange feeling indeed. The ultimate theme of the book seems to be, you can’t escape your past; life is (mostly) suffering. But this feels like a copout, and too philosophically tidy, when extended over 750 pages. Everyone who reads the book says the same thing: it’s punishing, powerful, I wish I hadn’t read it. The last 60 pages, in particular, captures the feelings of loss and melancholy as well as any novel I’ve read. It’s a shattering. The closest thing I can think of is Michel Houellbecq’s The Elementary Particles, or Richard Flanagan’s The Long Road To the Narrow North, or perhaps Bela Tarr’s film, The Turin Horse. But Houellbecq’s novel is short (if not probably grimmer and harder to get through), and Flanagan’s novel has dozens of characters and shifting points of view.

Anyway, here, near the end, are two passages that broke me up:

“His life is a series of dreary patterns.” (Does it matter which character she’s describing?)

And,  “ . . . it feels as if his heart is made of something oozing and cold, like ground meat, and it is being squeezed inside a fist so that chunks of it are falling, plopping to the ground near his feet.” Who hasn’t felt this way? I can’t remember the last novel I read that exactly evoked the precise mood I had experienced. (But here’s a weird one, Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion, where a character feels he is about to be captured and killed, and turns to the character next to him and says, “Tell me the most beautiful thing you know about God.”)

So many novels feels closer to gnomic puzzles, or ironic experiments in narcissism, or cutesy semantic labyrinths. The trend in serious novels is to cut against the novel’s themes through a variety of signposts of authorial inaccuracy or narrative deconstruction. A little voice saying, “You’re reading a novel, you know.”

Yanagihara rejects this trend, staking the entire apparatus of her novel on the emotional resonances of the characters. It’s a risky move, and mostly pays off.

But my recommendation comes with a warning, straight from my wife, who got me to read it in the first place: “I can’t really recommend it to anyone. Not in good conscience.”

 

Advertisements

NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.

NBAW, number 39: 1980’s The Book of the Dun-Cow.

12 Aug

1.

In 1980, Walter Wangerin won the National Book Award for his allegorical farmyard fantasy, The Book of the Dun-Cow.

The National Book Award people were attempting to broaden the scope of the award, as well as presumably bring in more readers and more popular attention. So they bestowed awards on science fiction and fantasy novels and a western. But they limited their scope to the single year, so in each category a strange, inferior novel won the top genre award. Wangerin beat out Norman Spinrad (an intriguing, if also minor, science fiction writer, although Science Fiction in the Real World, his overview of science fiction, is well worth a read) and Samuel Delaney (the James Joyce of science fiction, and I’m not kidding), which is just nuts.

Fantasy is, in some ways, the most conventional of genres, and drowning in an immense sea of dross. Fantasy has little self-criticism, little irony, little self-awareness and very little adaptability. Unlike science fiction—which adapts at a rate close to the speed of light—fantasy is restricted by expectations rooted in a bygone age. Worse, the great novels of fantasy seem stuck, as if the genre reached its apotheosis sometime in the 1950s.

There’s Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which looms large on the genre, utilizing the quest motif, the varied races (dwarves, ogres, elves, etcetera), a growing source of ultimate evil, intimations of pagan superstitions, giant battles, cavernous settings. And C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, with a thousand years of history in his parallel universe of knights and kings and witches and magic ships.

Also, talking animals and trees.

Fantasy has always carried a cheesy element. Blame Tolkein. Or C.S. Lewis? Dig around in most of the established great works of fantasy and you find some silly notion portrayed with absolute seriousness.

The seriousness has its roots in the genre’s progenitors, the Viking Sagas from Iceland as well as the epic poems from the medieval ages. The values of the two instill in the genre some absurd values to today’s readers: a ridiculous exhortation to bravery and cruelty in battle; anti-intellectual thinking, preferring gut decision over intelligent deliberation; notions of racial and religious purity; and a preference for bucolic over urban settings.

The genre has a few other components that drive non-fans nuts.

  1. Good triumphs over evil in a most literal fashion. It has turned the genre predictable.
  2. There’s a tradition of weird, stupid names.
  3. Much of fantasy is either allegorical, or has intimations of allegory. Allegories are simplistic by design, a lesser art form. And yet, fans of the genre will often trumpet a novel’s allegorical aspects as if these are a substitute for good writing, interesting characters, and great dialogue. (Here’s an example: The Lord of the Rings is often regarded as an allegory for World War II—which it isn’t, it’s rooted in the values and instability of the middle ages–and this is given as a reason why people should read it.)
  4. Fantasy borrows from existing mythologies with immense freedom. It heavily cannibalizes itself.

 

So beyond the classic fantasy tales, most fantasy novels are frustrating and, if read in tandem with the great novelists of the 20th century, abysmal.

There are three exceptions.

The first is Philip Pullman’s astonishing reversal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the trilogy now called His Dark Materials. Pullman creates a series of worlds with their own rules and their own creatures, and he writes with economical elegance and a swiftness of story that is a delight. But he also does some philosophical heavy lifting.

The second is the great overlooked source of literature for much of the second half of the twentieth century: comic books. Most comic books hum on the edge of the fantasy spectrum, and constitutes a spectacular body of work. (Underrated by most, overrated by a few. Just like the larger world of fantasy.) The Hellboy mythos, an ever-growing body of work built around the son of the devil, is astonishing, and the Marvel and DC universes are so complex there are multi-volume compendiums explaining who everyone is.

The third—and this gets me in trouble at parties—is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. She’s cobbled together a marvelous, often witty and funny, world that begins like a literary cartoon and grows into something rich and strange. A.S. Byatt had a famous take-down of Rowling a while back, arguing that Rowling has failed in the mythological and fantastical, that she had reduced the necessary awe in fantasy. She isn’t wrong, if you begin with some of her similar assumptions about books (that seriousness is a virtue; that good fiction has certain responsibilities; and that fantasy serves a purpose beyond entertainment). I mention Byatt’s takedown because she focuses on Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner as examples of great fantasy. (She didn’t mention Angela Carter, but she should have.) There’s something true to her words. Harry Potter is, well, silly. But Byatt—a very fine writer, if prone to lengthy novels with too much exposition—overlooks Rowling’s talents as a writer. And, this is my real point: Byatt is attempting to enforce the old standards of fantasy, as opposed to letting the genre breathe a bit.

Meaning: the fans are a big part of the problem.

Fans of the genre will despise my line of thought. Clever fans of the genre will argue that all fiction is fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is fantasy. Street of Crocodiles is fantasy. The Third Policeman is fantasy. Through the Looking Glass is fantasy.

Okay, but it isn’t fantasy in the same way. These other books don’t adhere to the often overlooked rules of the genre. I would argue that fantasy sets itself up for critical failure by being so mired in the past.

And I would argue that absurdism—filtering through dada, the Irish negating weirdoes like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett and, yes, the Austrian ghost, Franz Kafka—is its own genre with its own forms.

 

2.

So, to Dun-Cow. Wangerin pulls from medieval epics, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Christian de Troye[1], among others, but he’s writing in a very specific sub-genre called the Beast Epic, where animals have personalities and desires, engaged in an epic plot. The original story, I read somewhere, was an old Irish fable.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

The plot is pretty insipid. A rooster, in primeval times, runs a fiefdom of farm animals. Beneath the earth is a giant snake, the epitome of evil. And the farm animals exist, in part, to keep the evil buried.

Some critics compare Dun-Cow to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Watership Down is a closer comparison.

Watership Down is a good example, where the author Adams pulls off a neat trick. Readers identify with the rabbits so closely that when the humans appear their behavior is cruel and capricious. Adams uses the internal logic of fantasy to drive home his point: humans are the cruelest species.

Wangerin is up to something similar, I think. He uses the beast epic module to show the venal weakness of humans in times of crisis, as well as the sources of human strength.

Dun-Cow is written in a fable-like tone, with short paragraphs, direct characterizations, unsubtle dialogue. Here’s a taste, when Chauntecleer, the novel’s hero, is directly confronted by the evil of the world:

“It began with a laugh.

“High in the invisible sky above him, Chauntecleer suddenly heard a malevolent, screaming laughter—so cold, so evil, so powerful a bellowed laugh that he gasped and forgot his crow. His feathers stood on end. All the darkness around him swelled with the hateful sound, and the Rooster stood perfectly still.

“ ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ screamed the sky laughter.”

No worse than other fantasy writing, but not really notable either.

And I take issue with Wangerin’s value system. The female characters are servile and weak. The male characters are the heroes who fight the evil. Males have been tasked with leading, and only certain males, like the old ruling dynasties. Some creatures are meant to be servants. It’s that old divine right of kings nonsense again, a motif that I absolutely despise.

I could go on, but I won’t. There are too many great novels left to be experienced, or re-experienced, to spend another minute on this one.

 

3.

What’s left to say? I didn’t like it. It isn’t for me. But, I’ll end with some very fine fantasy novels.

Elric of Melinbone, by Michael Moorcock, is excellent, lean and strange and otherworldly. Moorcock is an intriguing writer, in the process right now of being rediscovered and re-evaluated. Don’t get lost in the Eternal champion or multiverse nonsense. Just read these on their own.

The Worm Ourorboros—I’ve never read it, but lots of people with good taste love it.

The Sandman, okay it’s a long series of graphic novels, but it’s fantastic.

Empire of the East—well, I read it as a teenager and loved it, half-fantasy, half-science fiction, written by the half-hack, half-genius Fred Saberhagen.

Please, send me your own and I’ll add them.

[1] I took a number of classes on medieval literature in college, if you couldn’t already tell.

NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)

1.

In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”

“Yeah.”

“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”

 

And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.

2.

Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.

 

3.

The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.

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.

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.

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow

5 Mar

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Auggie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

 

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Auggie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Auggie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Auggie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.

 


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.