Commentary Magazine


Topic: literary fiction

The Girl Who Is Always Just Out of Reach

Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She Is Missing (Berkeley, Calif.: Soft Skull Press, 2012). 272 pages.

Her publisher is casting Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s tantalizing debut as a postmodern novel “told in lists, 3×5 notecards, and even the occasional screenplay.” I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a sucker for the Junk Drawer Novel — the novel into which everything is thrown, without apparent order — ever since I tore through E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as a very young man. Seven years later, nauseated by the Left’s reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I turned Right and found I could no longer abide Doctorow’s politics. Yet I remained vulnerable to his cagey and sundry method for telling the story of atomic spies who were exactly like the Rosenbergs. I realized that, along with straightforward narrative, Doctorow had also evaded the truth about the Rosenbergs, but still I admired the way he was able to digress without a jolt into little essays on Old versus New Left, the genealogy of the Cold War, crowd control at Disneyland, the irresponsibility of graduate studies. I admired the form even as I shuddered at the content.

Rosenblum’s lesbian romance had almost exactly the opposite effect upon me. Herself When She Is Missing is a brilliant case study in romantic obsession, and in particular the special kind of romantic obsession that nearly everyone has suffered through (and no one, so far as I know, has ever written about): namely, the obsessive attraction to a partner who is elusive, emotionally unavailable, just out of reach. Unlike Doctorow, Rosenblum has no political ax to grind. She is more interested in the experience of lesbianism than in its ideology:

Both earnest Women’s Studies majors, Andrea and Linda touch each other carefully, Linda keeping meticulous score of how many orgasms they each have. After Andrea goes down on Linda, Linda thanks her politely, then plops herself between Andrea’s legs. “Scootch up,” she says. Their mouths and hands have no relation to Bogart and Bergman, no connection to history or literary passion or anything greater than themselves.

I love that “Scootch up.” Is there a heterosexual equivalent to politically correct sex? When lesbianism is uncoupled from ideology, it is no longer earnest or equitable, but it is a lot more familiar: “Andrea has no word to describe sex with Jordan”; Jordan is the lover whom the protagonist is powerless to resist; “in fact, the act empties her of words.” Rosenblum’s ambition is to connect lesbian passion to literary passion, to something greater than the lovers themselves.

Herself When She Is Missing mostly succeeds, although the story must be pieced together after the fact. Andrea, a UCLA graduate student in her early twenties, meets fortyish Jordan at a concert given by Cry Wolf, a brother-and-sister rock duo. Andrea has followed Cry Wolf since she was a teenager, nursing a crush on the sister of the act, writing her love letters, driving hours to grab a spot near the head of the line for tickets. In fact, she selected UCLA’s English program, moving to the coast from Wisconsin, in order to be closer to the singers, who live 15 minutes away in Venice. Andrea goes to their concerts by herself, because (as she confesses to Jordan at their first meeting) it is embarrassing to be “obsessed like this.” “Are you kidding?” Jordan replies. “This isn’t obsession; this is what makes us who we are.”

Their affair begins two months later. Jordan is living with another woman, but as Andrea observes afterwards, she has cheated on everyone she has ever been with. The sex is so good it is “drastic.” For the first time in her life, Andrea feels like “one solid person” — whenever she is having sex with Jordan, that is. Meanwhile, Jordan proves herself trustworthy only when she is having sex with Andrea. (There is a lot of talk about sex in the novel, but few sex scenes.) Andrea takes to calling her the Criminal Mastermind. Jordan embezzles money from the church where she works as an office assistant, steals from her live-in lover Patricia. She is also a racist. But Andrea focuses on the sex and ignores the warnings. After two years or so together, Jordan deserts her for a hairdresser. And then, after another two years, she makes her way back into Andrea’s life, only to leave again after another two years or so. “Her departure is implied by her arrival,” Rosenblum writes, “inevitable, like a cresting wave.” Jordan is unapologetic about her behavior. “I just hold a little something back,” she explains to Andrea. “No one wants everything I have.”

But Andrea does, and the portrait that emerges of the self-abnegating lover, who forfeits her integrity “because she can’t live without the sex,” is frightening and unforgettable. The novel’s biggest problem, however, is that its form interferes with its content. The documentary bricolage, the avoidance of one-thing-after-another storytelling, encourages Rosenblum to resort to set pieces. When these are dramatic vignettes, they are tense and arresting, such as the time Andrea arranged for her best friend Roslyn to meet the oft-discussed Jordan at a diner. After some back and forth, Jordan manufactures a pretext to stalk out of the restaurant. “She couldn’t charm me,” Roslyn comments, “so she decided to throw a fit.”

       “It’s not that simple.”
       “Andrea,” Roslyn takes her hand, an unexpected move, “simple is exactly what it is.”
       “What, you think she’s stupid?”
       “Not stupid, no.” Roslyn settles her sunglasses on top of her head.
       “She’s sensitive; don’t judge her.”
       “She’s not worth judging. I’m judging you.”
       “Don’t do that either.” Andrea stands.
       “Where are you going?”
       “I have to find her.” Jordan must be halfway down the block by now.
       “Andrea, when is enough enough?”
       “You don’t understand. I can’t let her walk away angry — who knows what she’ll do?” Voice rising, Andrea pulls cash from her pocket.
       “You know what? I can’t do this.” On her feet, Roslyn throws money on the table.
       “What is that, a threat?” Andrea swallows, certain she’s going to be sick.
       “I feel like a goddamn enabler.”
       “You can’t leave me alone in this.” Panicked, Andrea waves her arms crazily, her gesture taking in the diner, absent Jordan, everything empty inside.
       “Look how scared you are. This isn’t a normal way to feel.”

With a few deft strokes, Rosenblum captures both the fear of abandonment which lurks within romantic obsession as well as the unmistakable tones of women’s friendship. (“To hell with her,” a man would have said, or words to that effect. “Let her go.”) The stacks of 3×5 cards, the lists of Things Jordan Convinces Andrea (Against Her Better Judgment) to Do or Other Reasons to Stay (In Order), set off from the narrative in an IBM Selectric typeface, encourage Rosenblum to dwell on the kind of close and detailed over-analysis of another person’s actions and motives that someone engages in after a breakup. As a result, Herself When She Is Missing is full of observations and almost entirely devoid of ideas. Jordan is just not interesting enough, or representative enough, to support the weight of the analysis. Rosenblum writes beautifully, sharply, distinctively. But after a while, readers may get tired of hearing about the girl who is always just out of reach. They may react like Andrea’s friend Roslyn: “You can call when you get your shit together; until then, please don’t.”

On the evidence of the talent on display in her first novel, though, Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a good bet to get it together wonderfully and completely in her next book. In the mean time, Herself When She Is Missing is an insightful window into the obsessiveness of a lesbian romance.

Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She Is Missing (Berkeley, Calif.: Soft Skull Press, 2012). 272 pages.

Her publisher is casting Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s tantalizing debut as a postmodern novel “told in lists, 3×5 notecards, and even the occasional screenplay.” I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a sucker for the Junk Drawer Novel — the novel into which everything is thrown, without apparent order — ever since I tore through E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as a very young man. Seven years later, nauseated by the Left’s reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I turned Right and found I could no longer abide Doctorow’s politics. Yet I remained vulnerable to his cagey and sundry method for telling the story of atomic spies who were exactly like the Rosenbergs. I realized that, along with straightforward narrative, Doctorow had also evaded the truth about the Rosenbergs, but still I admired the way he was able to digress without a jolt into little essays on Old versus New Left, the genealogy of the Cold War, crowd control at Disneyland, the irresponsibility of graduate studies. I admired the form even as I shuddered at the content.

Rosenblum’s lesbian romance had almost exactly the opposite effect upon me. Herself When She Is Missing is a brilliant case study in romantic obsession, and in particular the special kind of romantic obsession that nearly everyone has suffered through (and no one, so far as I know, has ever written about): namely, the obsessive attraction to a partner who is elusive, emotionally unavailable, just out of reach. Unlike Doctorow, Rosenblum has no political ax to grind. She is more interested in the experience of lesbianism than in its ideology:

Both earnest Women’s Studies majors, Andrea and Linda touch each other carefully, Linda keeping meticulous score of how many orgasms they each have. After Andrea goes down on Linda, Linda thanks her politely, then plops herself between Andrea’s legs. “Scootch up,” she says. Their mouths and hands have no relation to Bogart and Bergman, no connection to history or literary passion or anything greater than themselves.

I love that “Scootch up.” Is there a heterosexual equivalent to politically correct sex? When lesbianism is uncoupled from ideology, it is no longer earnest or equitable, but it is a lot more familiar: “Andrea has no word to describe sex with Jordan”; Jordan is the lover whom the protagonist is powerless to resist; “in fact, the act empties her of words.” Rosenblum’s ambition is to connect lesbian passion to literary passion, to something greater than the lovers themselves.

Herself When She Is Missing mostly succeeds, although the story must be pieced together after the fact. Andrea, a UCLA graduate student in her early twenties, meets fortyish Jordan at a concert given by Cry Wolf, a brother-and-sister rock duo. Andrea has followed Cry Wolf since she was a teenager, nursing a crush on the sister of the act, writing her love letters, driving hours to grab a spot near the head of the line for tickets. In fact, she selected UCLA’s English program, moving to the coast from Wisconsin, in order to be closer to the singers, who live 15 minutes away in Venice. Andrea goes to their concerts by herself, because (as she confesses to Jordan at their first meeting) it is embarrassing to be “obsessed like this.” “Are you kidding?” Jordan replies. “This isn’t obsession; this is what makes us who we are.”

Their affair begins two months later. Jordan is living with another woman, but as Andrea observes afterwards, she has cheated on everyone she has ever been with. The sex is so good it is “drastic.” For the first time in her life, Andrea feels like “one solid person” — whenever she is having sex with Jordan, that is. Meanwhile, Jordan proves herself trustworthy only when she is having sex with Andrea. (There is a lot of talk about sex in the novel, but few sex scenes.) Andrea takes to calling her the Criminal Mastermind. Jordan embezzles money from the church where she works as an office assistant, steals from her live-in lover Patricia. She is also a racist. But Andrea focuses on the sex and ignores the warnings. After two years or so together, Jordan deserts her for a hairdresser. And then, after another two years, she makes her way back into Andrea’s life, only to leave again after another two years or so. “Her departure is implied by her arrival,” Rosenblum writes, “inevitable, like a cresting wave.” Jordan is unapologetic about her behavior. “I just hold a little something back,” she explains to Andrea. “No one wants everything I have.”

But Andrea does, and the portrait that emerges of the self-abnegating lover, who forfeits her integrity “because she can’t live without the sex,” is frightening and unforgettable. The novel’s biggest problem, however, is that its form interferes with its content. The documentary bricolage, the avoidance of one-thing-after-another storytelling, encourages Rosenblum to resort to set pieces. When these are dramatic vignettes, they are tense and arresting, such as the time Andrea arranged for her best friend Roslyn to meet the oft-discussed Jordan at a diner. After some back and forth, Jordan manufactures a pretext to stalk out of the restaurant. “She couldn’t charm me,” Roslyn comments, “so she decided to throw a fit.”

       “It’s not that simple.”
       “Andrea,” Roslyn takes her hand, an unexpected move, “simple is exactly what it is.”
       “What, you think she’s stupid?”
       “Not stupid, no.” Roslyn settles her sunglasses on top of her head.
       “She’s sensitive; don’t judge her.”
       “She’s not worth judging. I’m judging you.”
       “Don’t do that either.” Andrea stands.
       “Where are you going?”
       “I have to find her.” Jordan must be halfway down the block by now.
       “Andrea, when is enough enough?”
       “You don’t understand. I can’t let her walk away angry — who knows what she’ll do?” Voice rising, Andrea pulls cash from her pocket.
       “You know what? I can’t do this.” On her feet, Roslyn throws money on the table.
       “What is that, a threat?” Andrea swallows, certain she’s going to be sick.
       “I feel like a goddamn enabler.”
       “You can’t leave me alone in this.” Panicked, Andrea waves her arms crazily, her gesture taking in the diner, absent Jordan, everything empty inside.
       “Look how scared you are. This isn’t a normal way to feel.”

With a few deft strokes, Rosenblum captures both the fear of abandonment which lurks within romantic obsession as well as the unmistakable tones of women’s friendship. (“To hell with her,” a man would have said, or words to that effect. “Let her go.”) The stacks of 3×5 cards, the lists of Things Jordan Convinces Andrea (Against Her Better Judgment) to Do or Other Reasons to Stay (In Order), set off from the narrative in an IBM Selectric typeface, encourage Rosenblum to dwell on the kind of close and detailed over-analysis of another person’s actions and motives that someone engages in after a breakup. As a result, Herself When She Is Missing is full of observations and almost entirely devoid of ideas. Jordan is just not interesting enough, or representative enough, to support the weight of the analysis. Rosenblum writes beautifully, sharply, distinctively. But after a while, readers may get tired of hearing about the girl who is always just out of reach. They may react like Andrea’s friend Roslyn: “You can call when you get your shit together; until then, please don’t.”

On the evidence of the talent on display in her first novel, though, Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a good bet to get it together wonderfully and completely in her next book. In the mean time, Herself When She Is Missing is an insightful window into the obsessiveness of a lesbian romance.

Read Less

Celebrating Edith Pearlman

The National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction was awarded last night to Edith Pearlman. The victory of this avowedly Jewish writer is significant in many respects, but we take special pride in noting that one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY.

For more about Pearlman’s work, please read D.G. Myers’ appreciation of her on our Literary Commentary blog, and as a special treat, her story “Settlers,” which appeared first in the January 1986 issue of COMMENTARY.

The National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction was awarded last night to Edith Pearlman. The victory of this avowedly Jewish writer is significant in many respects, but we take special pride in noting that one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY.

For more about Pearlman’s work, please read D.G. Myers’ appreciation of her on our Literary Commentary blog, and as a special treat, her story “Settlers,” which appeared first in the January 1986 issue of COMMENTARY.

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Votaries of the Snake

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.

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Téa Obreht’s Anti-War Message

Just wrapped up a discussion of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in my course on contemporary literature. In my remarks, I made no secret of my unease with the novel’s ideological message. After the bombing raids start in an unnamed city in an unnamed Balkan country at some unspecified time in the last 12 years, her grandfather makes clear to the narrator Natalia his view of war:

When your fight has purpose — to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of the innocent — it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling — when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event — there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

A little later in the novel, the grandfather explains that he has no side in the war. “I am all sides,” he says. The novelist too, by all appearances. Obreht’s method is to strip history from The Tiger’s Wife. Even when Germans “arrive” in grandfather’s village and “finally the train” begins to run through town, “the rattle and cough of the tracks” awakening the villagers at night, the Germans are not identified as Nazis and the train is not identified as going to Auschwitz (and the Jews are erased altogether). The “endless war” could be any war in which any innocents are killed in any way.

And my students were quick to notice as much. One pointed out how neatly the grandfather’s passage fits the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another student observed that this is just his generation’s basic view of war. (Obreht, who is 26, is only slightly older than the students in my class.) “We are ambivalent about it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict],” he said. “For us, neither side is clearly in the right.”

A clear majority of my students disliked The Tiger’s Wife, although their reasons were aesthetic rather than ideological. (Loose ends were not tied up, they complained. “I will not explain what happened between the tiger and his wife,” Natalia announces three pages from the end. “I had to read a whole novel to find out you were not even going to tell me what happened?” a student cried in outrage.) But my own dislike of the novel was almost entirely ideological. Its generalized dissatisfaction with the wanton destruction of endless (and featureless) war removed the story from the Balkans and set it in a No Place, where magical stories provide a magical refuge from history. Except for scattered references to rajika and gossip about the origins of its celebrated young author, there would be no way of knowing that The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about the Balkans and no reason to care.

Just wrapped up a discussion of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in my course on contemporary literature. In my remarks, I made no secret of my unease with the novel’s ideological message. After the bombing raids start in an unnamed city in an unnamed Balkan country at some unspecified time in the last 12 years, her grandfather makes clear to the narrator Natalia his view of war:

When your fight has purpose — to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of the innocent — it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling — when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event — there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

A little later in the novel, the grandfather explains that he has no side in the war. “I am all sides,” he says. The novelist too, by all appearances. Obreht’s method is to strip history from The Tiger’s Wife. Even when Germans “arrive” in grandfather’s village and “finally the train” begins to run through town, “the rattle and cough of the tracks” awakening the villagers at night, the Germans are not identified as Nazis and the train is not identified as going to Auschwitz (and the Jews are erased altogether). The “endless war” could be any war in which any innocents are killed in any way.

And my students were quick to notice as much. One pointed out how neatly the grandfather’s passage fits the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another student observed that this is just his generation’s basic view of war. (Obreht, who is 26, is only slightly older than the students in my class.) “We are ambivalent about it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict],” he said. “For us, neither side is clearly in the right.”

A clear majority of my students disliked The Tiger’s Wife, although their reasons were aesthetic rather than ideological. (Loose ends were not tied up, they complained. “I will not explain what happened between the tiger and his wife,” Natalia announces three pages from the end. “I had to read a whole novel to find out you were not even going to tell me what happened?” a student cried in outrage.) But my own dislike of the novel was almost entirely ideological. Its generalized dissatisfaction with the wanton destruction of endless (and featureless) war removed the story from the Balkans and set it in a No Place, where magical stories provide a magical refuge from history. Except for scattered references to rajika and gossip about the origins of its celebrated young author, there would be no way of knowing that The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about the Balkans and no reason to care.

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Farewell to Independent Bookstores

Fascinating discussion of independent bookstores yesterday at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds started things off by linking to a Slate article by Farhad Manjoo, which characterized independent booksellers as “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.”

Reynolds’s readers piled on, describing indies as “unwelcoming” and “elitist,” with an inventory of books that is “ridiculously one-dimensional.” Amen to all that. When American fiction went through its Great Schism in the early Eighties, dividing into a “literary” rite and a “genre” rite, bookstores followed suit. The large chains with franchise stores in shopping malls (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) scooped up the largest market share; the hoi polloi shopped there for the books they had heard about, the books everyone was reading — including the fiction that still believed in Story.

The indies went upscale. By the time Borders was acquired by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks in 1992, the concept of the bookstore had been changed forever. The new bookstore, modeled upon famous indies like the Gotham Book Mart, City Lights in San Francisco, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, were more like literary salons than retail businesses. They were identified with local writers and literary schools; they hosted readings; they recommended this book, not that one (definitely not that one); they supported causes (say hello to Banned Book Week). They were the storefront headquarters of the literary left.

Perhaps most tellingly, they encouraged their customers to loiter. They offered comfortable reading chairs and library desks. You were urged to take a stack of books to a corner and stay awhile. You were even welcome to sit down with a cup of coffee (and eventually the bookstores opened their own coffee shops on the premises). The books were confined to the walls: large open spaces were given over to those who wished total immersion in the pseudo-literary experience. (Before long, teenagers had commandeered the library tables for after-school get-togethers, where they could gossip and text instead of studying and no adults would hush them or chase them away.)

I keep trying to imagine a hardware store with a floor plan (and a customer base) like an independent bookseller — middle-aged men, sprawled in chairs, intermittently gunning the impact driver; talkative groups of day laborers crowded around a table saw, slurping energy drinks and hoping that no one hires them. Clerks sniff haughtily if a customer asks for Black & Decker. In the evening, a soulful drywall man expounds, in a dramatic voice, his emotional experiences with joint compound and black silicon carbide paper.

Maybe the independent bookstores have a lousy business model? Maybe that is what’s killing them — that and the inevitable crash of the high-end literary market. Not Amazon. The only advantage that Amazon really enjoys is an understanding of the book market, which is still strong when customers can be served efficiently (and with a minimum of self-congratulation on the part of sellers).

Although some of my happiest memories are of bookstores, where I have passed long hours of my life, I haven’t “browsed” in a new bookstore for several years now. The only time I linger, losing an entire afternoon to fruitless searches and unexpected discoveries, is in a used bookstore. Despite feeling sorry for the employees who lost their jobs, I wasn’t particularly upset to see Borders go bankrupt, and I am not saddened by the plight of the independent booksellers. They bet everything upon the literary elite, and the shooter has crapped out.

Fascinating discussion of independent bookstores yesterday at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds started things off by linking to a Slate article by Farhad Manjoo, which characterized independent booksellers as “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.”

Reynolds’s readers piled on, describing indies as “unwelcoming” and “elitist,” with an inventory of books that is “ridiculously one-dimensional.” Amen to all that. When American fiction went through its Great Schism in the early Eighties, dividing into a “literary” rite and a “genre” rite, bookstores followed suit. The large chains with franchise stores in shopping malls (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) scooped up the largest market share; the hoi polloi shopped there for the books they had heard about, the books everyone was reading — including the fiction that still believed in Story.

The indies went upscale. By the time Borders was acquired by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks in 1992, the concept of the bookstore had been changed forever. The new bookstore, modeled upon famous indies like the Gotham Book Mart, City Lights in San Francisco, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, were more like literary salons than retail businesses. They were identified with local writers and literary schools; they hosted readings; they recommended this book, not that one (definitely not that one); they supported causes (say hello to Banned Book Week). They were the storefront headquarters of the literary left.

Perhaps most tellingly, they encouraged their customers to loiter. They offered comfortable reading chairs and library desks. You were urged to take a stack of books to a corner and stay awhile. You were even welcome to sit down with a cup of coffee (and eventually the bookstores opened their own coffee shops on the premises). The books were confined to the walls: large open spaces were given over to those who wished total immersion in the pseudo-literary experience. (Before long, teenagers had commandeered the library tables for after-school get-togethers, where they could gossip and text instead of studying and no adults would hush them or chase them away.)

I keep trying to imagine a hardware store with a floor plan (and a customer base) like an independent bookseller — middle-aged men, sprawled in chairs, intermittently gunning the impact driver; talkative groups of day laborers crowded around a table saw, slurping energy drinks and hoping that no one hires them. Clerks sniff haughtily if a customer asks for Black & Decker. In the evening, a soulful drywall man expounds, in a dramatic voice, his emotional experiences with joint compound and black silicon carbide paper.

Maybe the independent bookstores have a lousy business model? Maybe that is what’s killing them — that and the inevitable crash of the high-end literary market. Not Amazon. The only advantage that Amazon really enjoys is an understanding of the book market, which is still strong when customers can be served efficiently (and with a minimum of self-congratulation on the part of sellers).

Although some of my happiest memories are of bookstores, where I have passed long hours of my life, I haven’t “browsed” in a new bookstore for several years now. The only time I linger, losing an entire afternoon to fruitless searches and unexpected discoveries, is in a used bookstore. Despite feeling sorry for the employees who lost their jobs, I wasn’t particularly upset to see Borders go bankrupt, and I am not saddened by the plight of the independent booksellers. They bet everything upon the literary elite, and the shooter has crapped out.

Read Less

“One Novel a Decade Isn’t Going to Cut It”

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Read Less

Defeats and Victories Not Recorded in the Annals of History

If it were published today John Williams’s novel Stoner would be labeled “literary fiction.” Because it was published 46 years ago, it’s called a classic — at least by NYRB Books, which keeps it in print under the classic designation — and for many readers, that may be even worse.

Williams’s book suggests how much is lost by dismissing any novel that does not fit into a ready-made marketing niche as “fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.” It’s true that Stoner probably won’t appeal to readers who are looking mainly for feats of physical derring-do, intricate plot twists leading to a panting climax, or paranoid obsessions that scare them silly. It’s also true that Williams’s persons are not very important, nor do they suddenly find themselves in extremis.

Williams’s achievement is of a different order, and far more impressive. Stoner takes an outwardly nondescript life, the sort of life that many of us want to escape into fiction, and demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good. It’s hard to make such a book sound very exciting. That Stoner is exciting — unexpectedly so, and incredibly moving — is the true measure of Williams’s achievement.

The novel is the story of William Stoner, who left his parents’ farm in central Missouri a few years before the First World War to study agriculture at the state university forty miles away, and then spent the rest of his life there after switching majors to English and becoming a literary scholar. Or, as he would prefer to say, a teacher. He himself does not discover his vocation until his undergraduate adviser, having learned that Stoner has no intention of returning to the farm, suggests that he might stay on to earn an M.A. while teaching freshman composition. The young man is dumbfounded:

     “[D]on’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” [the adviser] asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
     Suddenly [the adviser] seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
     “I’m sure,” [the adviser] said softly.
     “How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
     “It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” [the adviser] said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

Stoner has fallen in love with learning. He has already taught himself enough Latin and Greek, eyes burning from lack of sleep, to read simple texts. He remains faithful to his first love, even when the United States enters the war against the Germans in 1915. His two best friends enlist, but Stoner remains at the University of Missouri to finish his PhD dissertation on “The Influence of the Classical Tradition on the Medieval Lyric.” His old undergraduate adviser, now the department chairman, supplies Stoner’s reasoning: “There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.”

There in one sentence is Stoner’s theme. The remainder of the novel resembles nothing so much as a military campaign, conducted behind closed doors and without benefit of publicity. To defend his love of learning (and the institution that was established to represent it), Stoner must face two determined adversaries: his wife Edith, who battles him for the affections of their daughter Grace, and a new department chairman, who does everything in his bureaucratic power to rout Stoner’s career.

The war over his daughter is heartbreaking. Because her mother suffers a nervous breakdown shortly after her birth and then takes up a frantic and nearly hysterical social existence to avoid domesticity, Grace spends most of her first eight years of life with her father, knowing only his voice and his touch and his love. In the evenings they sit together in Stoner’s study. He had “found a small desk and chair for her, so that she had a place to read and do her homework” while Stoner sits at a larger desk beside her, grading papers and writing scholarship. The portrait of a father, perfectly content in the company of his child, has never been done any better.

Stoner’s wife Edith decides abruptly that Grace is not sufficiently feminine and not sufficiently social, and she takes Grace away from her father. Eventually she is able even to take away Stoner’s study.

On campus, Stoner is thwarted too. After trying to get a student dismissed from the department’s graduate program for dishonesty and incompetence, Stoner becomes the chosen enemy of the new chairman, whose prize pupil the incompetent is. His graduate seminar is taken away from him; he is assigned four sections of freshman composition at widely spaced hours on six days of the week; he is never promoted beyond assistant professor.

Even when he finds a young woman who shares his “illicit and dangerous” love for the “mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print,” Stoner must give her up. His life, his career, is a series of soul-grinding defeats. Somehow, though, Stoner maintains his commitment to teaching, his allegiance to the university, his fidelity to learning. His devotion becomes his triumph, and Williams’s account of his triumph — Stoner’s hard-fought survival of the defeats — is wholly persuasive and oddly gripping. Even the most undramatic of lives are full of urgent drama when you realize what is at stake.

Stoner has a special significance to me, because it is based upon the life of my beloved teacher J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to the poet Barbara Gibbs. I also revere it, because no other novel — no other book, except perhaps for Cunningham’s own Poems — makes a better case for the life of scholarship. But even readers who care little for Cunningham and less for scholarship will love John Williams’s Stoner. It will remind you why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives. And perhaps that is the final cause of all good fiction. Perhaps it is written to preserve the defeats and victories not recorded in the annals of history.

If it were published today John Williams’s novel Stoner would be labeled “literary fiction.” Because it was published 46 years ago, it’s called a classic — at least by NYRB Books, which keeps it in print under the classic designation — and for many readers, that may be even worse.

Williams’s book suggests how much is lost by dismissing any novel that does not fit into a ready-made marketing niche as “fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.” It’s true that Stoner probably won’t appeal to readers who are looking mainly for feats of physical derring-do, intricate plot twists leading to a panting climax, or paranoid obsessions that scare them silly. It’s also true that Williams’s persons are not very important, nor do they suddenly find themselves in extremis.

Williams’s achievement is of a different order, and far more impressive. Stoner takes an outwardly nondescript life, the sort of life that many of us want to escape into fiction, and demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good. It’s hard to make such a book sound very exciting. That Stoner is exciting — unexpectedly so, and incredibly moving — is the true measure of Williams’s achievement.

The novel is the story of William Stoner, who left his parents’ farm in central Missouri a few years before the First World War to study agriculture at the state university forty miles away, and then spent the rest of his life there after switching majors to English and becoming a literary scholar. Or, as he would prefer to say, a teacher. He himself does not discover his vocation until his undergraduate adviser, having learned that Stoner has no intention of returning to the farm, suggests that he might stay on to earn an M.A. while teaching freshman composition. The young man is dumbfounded:

     “[D]on’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” [the adviser] asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
     Suddenly [the adviser] seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
     “I’m sure,” [the adviser] said softly.
     “How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
     “It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” [the adviser] said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

Stoner has fallen in love with learning. He has already taught himself enough Latin and Greek, eyes burning from lack of sleep, to read simple texts. He remains faithful to his first love, even when the United States enters the war against the Germans in 1915. His two best friends enlist, but Stoner remains at the University of Missouri to finish his PhD dissertation on “The Influence of the Classical Tradition on the Medieval Lyric.” His old undergraduate adviser, now the department chairman, supplies Stoner’s reasoning: “There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history.”

There in one sentence is Stoner’s theme. The remainder of the novel resembles nothing so much as a military campaign, conducted behind closed doors and without benefit of publicity. To defend his love of learning (and the institution that was established to represent it), Stoner must face two determined adversaries: his wife Edith, who battles him for the affections of their daughter Grace, and a new department chairman, who does everything in his bureaucratic power to rout Stoner’s career.

The war over his daughter is heartbreaking. Because her mother suffers a nervous breakdown shortly after her birth and then takes up a frantic and nearly hysterical social existence to avoid domesticity, Grace spends most of her first eight years of life with her father, knowing only his voice and his touch and his love. In the evenings they sit together in Stoner’s study. He had “found a small desk and chair for her, so that she had a place to read and do her homework” while Stoner sits at a larger desk beside her, grading papers and writing scholarship. The portrait of a father, perfectly content in the company of his child, has never been done any better.

Stoner’s wife Edith decides abruptly that Grace is not sufficiently feminine and not sufficiently social, and she takes Grace away from her father. Eventually she is able even to take away Stoner’s study.

On campus, Stoner is thwarted too. After trying to get a student dismissed from the department’s graduate program for dishonesty and incompetence, Stoner becomes the chosen enemy of the new chairman, whose prize pupil the incompetent is. His graduate seminar is taken away from him; he is assigned four sections of freshman composition at widely spaced hours on six days of the week; he is never promoted beyond assistant professor.

Even when he finds a young woman who shares his “illicit and dangerous” love for the “mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print,” Stoner must give her up. His life, his career, is a series of soul-grinding defeats. Somehow, though, Stoner maintains his commitment to teaching, his allegiance to the university, his fidelity to learning. His devotion becomes his triumph, and Williams’s account of his triumph — Stoner’s hard-fought survival of the defeats — is wholly persuasive and oddly gripping. Even the most undramatic of lives are full of urgent drama when you realize what is at stake.

Stoner has a special significance to me, because it is based upon the life of my beloved teacher J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to the poet Barbara Gibbs. I also revere it, because no other novel — no other book, except perhaps for Cunningham’s own Poems — makes a better case for the life of scholarship. But even readers who care little for Cunningham and less for scholarship will love John Williams’s Stoner. It will remind you why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives. And perhaps that is the final cause of all good fiction. Perhaps it is written to preserve the defeats and victories not recorded in the annals of history.

Read Less

Literary Fiction: An Autopsy

There are only two ways to use the word literature. Either it means everything that has been written (as in the “literary language” distinguished from the spoken language) or it means the best that has been written. Think of how the word is used in other contexts. In the sciences, a knowledge of the literature is a ready familiarity with everything that has been published on a subject — to know only some of it, to know only the “settled science” (in the partisan commonplace), is to admit to ignorance.

In certain clearly focused and well-defined fields, it is entirely possible to read and know the entire literature. You can master American slave literature or the literature of supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. In fact, the definition of the field eases the acquisition of the knowledge, because it gives rise to canons of relevance, levels of expectation, backgrounds of belief and agreement.

But there is writing that gives rise to a different kind of impulse altogether — the impulse to admire it, to express astonishment at it, to preserve it from loss or destruction, to pass it on to friends and family. This is writing that you like, quite apart from (or in addition to) any knowledge or benefit that you derive from it. As a class or category, as a field of human study, literature is simply that. Nothing more.

Critics have labored for centuries to single out the special qualities and necessary features of literature — it is mimesis, it is sublimity, it is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings — but even though it seems to refresh itself with each new effort, the labor has been defeated again and again. Give me a definition of literature and off the top of my head I can give you nine or ten literary masterpieces outside your borders.

Except as a way of saying “I like this book” (therefore it is literature) or “I don’t like that one” (therefore it isn’t), the word literature is feckless. Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

For the past quarter century, though, the word has become attached to a species of prose fiction that can best be identified by the via negativa. “Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as Lev Raphael quoted a best-selling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.

You know what I mean. Literary fiction is serious fiction, although the epithet serious has problems of its own. Some of the funniest writing on earth requires the most careful consideration and thought. The term literary fiction was popularized by the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and it has become standard usage for distinguishing fiction of deep and earnest intent from bestsellers and “genre fiction.”

The distinction is bunk. As Catie Disabato pointed out in a wonderful little piece at Full Stop last week, genres are not the niche markets that publishers have cultivated in order to sell books to readers who want to know in advance just what they’re getting: a genre is a “literary tradition that has thrived longer than the modern construct of ‘literary’ fiction.” The tradition of the novel includes mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, romances, horror, even Westerns. The question is not to what subgenre a book belongs. The question is whether it is any good. And if it is good only according to the conventions of a subgenre, and not in the larger tradition of the novel, then it is not any good at all.

Literary fiction — or what the British novelist Linda Grant has taken to calling LitFic — ought to be a haughty way of saying “good fiction.” But that’s not how the term is used. What, then, is it? Easy. Literary fiction (like 98.5% of poetry these days) is written by and for the entrenched bureaucracy of the creative writing faculty in the universities. There is good fiction, there is bad fiction, and there is fiction written in creative writing workshops.

There are only two ways to use the word literature. Either it means everything that has been written (as in the “literary language” distinguished from the spoken language) or it means the best that has been written. Think of how the word is used in other contexts. In the sciences, a knowledge of the literature is a ready familiarity with everything that has been published on a subject — to know only some of it, to know only the “settled science” (in the partisan commonplace), is to admit to ignorance.

In certain clearly focused and well-defined fields, it is entirely possible to read and know the entire literature. You can master American slave literature or the literature of supraventricular and ventricular arrhythmias. In fact, the definition of the field eases the acquisition of the knowledge, because it gives rise to canons of relevance, levels of expectation, backgrounds of belief and agreement.

But there is writing that gives rise to a different kind of impulse altogether — the impulse to admire it, to express astonishment at it, to preserve it from loss or destruction, to pass it on to friends and family. This is writing that you like, quite apart from (or in addition to) any knowledge or benefit that you derive from it. As a class or category, as a field of human study, literature is simply that. Nothing more.

Critics have labored for centuries to single out the special qualities and necessary features of literature — it is mimesis, it is sublimity, it is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings — but even though it seems to refresh itself with each new effort, the labor has been defeated again and again. Give me a definition of literature and off the top of my head I can give you nine or ten literary masterpieces outside your borders.

Except as a way of saying “I like this book” (therefore it is literature) or “I don’t like that one” (therefore it isn’t), the word literature is feckless. Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

For the past quarter century, though, the word has become attached to a species of prose fiction that can best be identified by the via negativa. “Literary fiction” is not “genre fiction” (crime fiction, science fiction); it is not thrilling, exciting, suspenseful, page-turning fiction, ripped from the headlines and set to serviceable prose for comfortable beach reading; it is, as Lev Raphael quoted a best-selling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.

You know what I mean. Literary fiction is serious fiction, although the epithet serious has problems of its own. Some of the funniest writing on earth requires the most careful consideration and thought. The term literary fiction was popularized by the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, and it has become standard usage for distinguishing fiction of deep and earnest intent from bestsellers and “genre fiction.”

The distinction is bunk. As Catie Disabato pointed out in a wonderful little piece at Full Stop last week, genres are not the niche markets that publishers have cultivated in order to sell books to readers who want to know in advance just what they’re getting: a genre is a “literary tradition that has thrived longer than the modern construct of ‘literary’ fiction.” The tradition of the novel includes mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, romances, horror, even Westerns. The question is not to what subgenre a book belongs. The question is whether it is any good. And if it is good only according to the conventions of a subgenre, and not in the larger tradition of the novel, then it is not any good at all.

Literary fiction — or what the British novelist Linda Grant has taken to calling LitFic — ought to be a haughty way of saying “good fiction.” But that’s not how the term is used. What, then, is it? Easy. Literary fiction (like 98.5% of poetry these days) is written by and for the entrenched bureaucracy of the creative writing faculty in the universities. There is good fiction, there is bad fiction, and there is fiction written in creative writing workshops.

Read Less

Review: All for the Sake of Love

Lee Martin, Break the Skin (New York: Crown, 2011). 272 pp. $24.00.

After it is all over, after the perpetrators have all been caught and tried and sentenced, one girl catches the eye of another in court and understands at once how easy it is to get swept up in a crime. “It was all about wanting to matter to someone,” she says, “wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love.”

You don’t have to agree with the conclusion to Lee Martin’s fifth novel, or even find it convincing as an explanation why good people do bad things, to admire the execution of Break the Skin. Martin adapts the convention of alternating chapters — one of the basic formulae of contemporary American fiction — to tell the stories of two young women who are connected by love of the same man, although they are strangers to each other, living in two different parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt that Martin is so good at impersonating his women, poorly educated, working class, without resorting to either dialect or pity. (Full disclosure: Martin and I both teach at the Ohio State University, but I know him only through his published writing.)

Laney Volk is a high-school dropout living in Mt. Gilead, a small town located at the junction of U.S. 50 and state route 130 in southeastern Illinois. Laney says she is “as ordinary as bread from the wrapper,” despite a singing voice as big as Whitney Houston’s, which reminds her listeners that “no matter how scruffed up your life might be . . . you could still feel.” The music teacher and her mother urge Laney to “claim” her talent, or at least go to college, but she takes a job on the “gravedigger” shift at Walmart. When her mother warns that she is “on a fast track to nowhere,” Laney moves out and takes up residence in a double-wide trailer with Delilah Dade, whom she describes as “the pretty one,” but whom her mother describes as “trashy.” Rose MacAdow soon joins the household. A “big woman with a big heart,” Rose also works at Walmart. When Delilah takes up with Tweet Swain, a local rocker — the names are not the novel’s best feature — Laney just naturally takes up with Lester Stripp, a hanger-on with the band. And Rose is left alone with her bitterness.

Without transition or narrative juncture, the scene shifts to Denton, a small city on the edge of the Dallas metroplex (and home to North Texas University, where Martin taught before coming to Columbus). There Betty Ruiz (“most folks known me as Miss Baby”) finds a man wandering the streets in what is explained later as a fugue state. When she goes through his wallet, Miss Baby discovers that his name is Lester Stripp. She renames him Donnie True and reinvents his life for him. A tattoo artist with a salon called Babyheart’s Tats, Miss Baby tells him and everyone who will listen that they are married. What she is doing is crazy, she admits, but you must understand “how desperate I’d always been for a good man to watch over me.” Before long Lester (er, Donnie) is dragged into the family problems. A latter-day cattle rustler, Miss Baby’s brother Pablo has cheated his partner and is now on the run from both the police and a violent sociopath named Slam Dent. When the police come looking for him, they just naturally take an interest in the mysterious Donnie True.

In Mt. Gilead, the tangle of bitterness and jealousy ends with a double murder; in Denton, with a ferocious beating and the flight of a wanted man. Neither Laney nor Miss Baby seek out criminality, but they are both “so starved for love” that their lives “spin out of control.” On trial for her role in a conspiracy to commit murder, Laney is prepared to admit the truth:

There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people — you could even swear you loved them — and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined. You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.

Martin studiously keeps his own views to himself. A critic can’t help but wonder, though. Two of the most destructive trends in American culture are the decline of marriage and the loss of religious faith among the working poor. It is perhaps no accident that there is neither a church community nor an intact marriage in Break the Skin. “All for the sake of love,” as Lee Martin tragically shows, does nothing to provide “ragged lives” with social mobility or economic well-being or, sometimes, even simple ordinary freedom.

Lee Martin, Break the Skin (New York: Crown, 2011). 272 pp. $24.00.

After it is all over, after the perpetrators have all been caught and tried and sentenced, one girl catches the eye of another in court and understands at once how easy it is to get swept up in a crime. “It was all about wanting to matter to someone,” she says, “wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love.”

You don’t have to agree with the conclusion to Lee Martin’s fifth novel, or even find it convincing as an explanation why good people do bad things, to admire the execution of Break the Skin. Martin adapts the convention of alternating chapters — one of the basic formulae of contemporary American fiction — to tell the stories of two young women who are connected by love of the same man, although they are strangers to each other, living in two different parts of the country. It doesn’t hurt that Martin is so good at impersonating his women, poorly educated, working class, without resorting to either dialect or pity. (Full disclosure: Martin and I both teach at the Ohio State University, but I know him only through his published writing.)

Laney Volk is a high-school dropout living in Mt. Gilead, a small town located at the junction of U.S. 50 and state route 130 in southeastern Illinois. Laney says she is “as ordinary as bread from the wrapper,” despite a singing voice as big as Whitney Houston’s, which reminds her listeners that “no matter how scruffed up your life might be . . . you could still feel.” The music teacher and her mother urge Laney to “claim” her talent, or at least go to college, but she takes a job on the “gravedigger” shift at Walmart. When her mother warns that she is “on a fast track to nowhere,” Laney moves out and takes up residence in a double-wide trailer with Delilah Dade, whom she describes as “the pretty one,” but whom her mother describes as “trashy.” Rose MacAdow soon joins the household. A “big woman with a big heart,” Rose also works at Walmart. When Delilah takes up with Tweet Swain, a local rocker — the names are not the novel’s best feature — Laney just naturally takes up with Lester Stripp, a hanger-on with the band. And Rose is left alone with her bitterness.

Without transition or narrative juncture, the scene shifts to Denton, a small city on the edge of the Dallas metroplex (and home to North Texas University, where Martin taught before coming to Columbus). There Betty Ruiz (“most folks known me as Miss Baby”) finds a man wandering the streets in what is explained later as a fugue state. When she goes through his wallet, Miss Baby discovers that his name is Lester Stripp. She renames him Donnie True and reinvents his life for him. A tattoo artist with a salon called Babyheart’s Tats, Miss Baby tells him and everyone who will listen that they are married. What she is doing is crazy, she admits, but you must understand “how desperate I’d always been for a good man to watch over me.” Before long Lester (er, Donnie) is dragged into the family problems. A latter-day cattle rustler, Miss Baby’s brother Pablo has cheated his partner and is now on the run from both the police and a violent sociopath named Slam Dent. When the police come looking for him, they just naturally take an interest in the mysterious Donnie True.

In Mt. Gilead, the tangle of bitterness and jealousy ends with a double murder; in Denton, with a ferocious beating and the flight of a wanted man. Neither Laney nor Miss Baby seek out criminality, but they are both “so starved for love” that their lives “spin out of control.” On trial for her role in a conspiracy to commit murder, Laney is prepared to admit the truth:

There were all these lives going on in people and they didn’t even know it, all these lives festering just beneath the skin. The prick of a needle here or there, and everything you thought you weren’t could get out and stain you forever, could ripple out to other people — you could even swear you loved them — and hurt them in ways you never could have imagined. You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news, that person who’d done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen.

Martin studiously keeps his own views to himself. A critic can’t help but wonder, though. Two of the most destructive trends in American culture are the decline of marriage and the loss of religious faith among the working poor. It is perhaps no accident that there is neither a church community nor an intact marriage in Break the Skin. “All for the sake of love,” as Lee Martin tragically shows, does nothing to provide “ragged lives” with social mobility or economic well-being or, sometimes, even simple ordinary freedom.

Read Less

Review: Where Things Are Allowed to Have Complexity

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (New York: Scribner, 2011). 235 pp. $24.00.

Nobody much likes the term literary fiction, but nobody knows what else to call it. Publishers and booksellers feel the need to reassure shoppers that the novel they are weighing in their hand is not a “thriller” or a “detective novel” — it’s not, God forbid, “genre fiction,” whose readers know exactly what they are looking for. But in the process, as Howard Jacobson grouses in the Independent, intelligent readers are put off and 1,000 good writers are consigned to “the scrapheap of oblivion.”

“The truth is,” Jacobson concludes, “the best novels will always defy category.” Maybe that should be the category term. It sure fits Dana Spiotta’s breakthrough novel Stone Arabia, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Partly about the relationship between a sister and brother in middle age, partly about a “garage band” rocker who compiles detailed scrapbooks of his career as a secret rock star, partly about the sub-middle class life of marginal and dislocated people who are not quite Bohemians in L.A., Spiotta’s novel is made up of parts that fit together only in the unique logic of family and personal­ity.

The miracle is not only that the novel fits together at all, but it does so in a way that is continually surprising and unexpected without ever becoming pretentious, self-conscious, “experimental.” Better perhaps than any other novelist I have read recently, Spiotta is successful at avoiding the “neat­ness” of conventional form and structure, at wrapping things up in literary artifice, while not overbalancing into the fallacy of imitating ordinary life’s untidiness in an extraordinarily untidy narrative. Her story is carried along, not by “observations” on the American scene or framed samplers on the human con­dition, but by Spiotta’s style of exacting and remorseless sympathy.

Stone Arabia also defies summary. The year is 2004; the place, Los Angeles. Denise Kranis is a 47-year-old personal assistant to a real estate mogul. Her three-years-older brother Nik is a guitarist and songwriter, whose real art is not rock music but his life. Although he played with a pretty decent warmup band as a teenager, and though he later discovered a natural gift for songwriting, Nik is without ambition or career. He spends his time drinking, smoking, and taking drugs (“a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future”). Outside of work—to pay the rent he tends bar—he obsessively chronicles a fantasy life as a famous rock star, compiling scrapbooks of his invented career “in minute but twisted detail.” He began the Chronicles in 1978, when he was 24:

They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his chronicles—scrapbooks, really—thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work.

Nik writes and records the music documented in the Chronicles; he even designs the album covers and painstakingly hand-letters the liner notes; but outside of Denise and an ex-girlfriend or two, his only audience is Nik himself. Four decades ago, Robert Coover wrote a novel about a solitary obsessive who creates a parallel universe for himself, but The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is about a man who gradually loses touch with reality. Nik Kranis (or Nik Worth, as he calls his rock-star self) does not go insane. He is not ashamed of his secret vice. He ignores all entreaties to “get real.” His life, like his music, is entirely self-referential. And there is, according to his sister, some integrity in that:

Nik was liberated from any dialogue with the past work of others and certainly with the current work of others. His work was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years. I knew his solipsism had become his work, in a sense, that this was complicated to think about, but at some point there is the unyielding, the concentration, and the accumulation that becomes a body of work. Whatever the nature of that work, it is hard to argue against.

But what is left out of account is Nik’s relationship with his sister Denise, and the toll it takes on her. As she wryly comments, “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.” Denise does not have any such luxury. Her work is the ordinary business of living, although their complicated closeness—Nik calls her an extension of himself—complicates her life as well. By all appearances she leads a fairly normal life (a job, a daughter, a house and mortgage, boyfriend, an elderly mother whom she cares for), and yet Denise is the one who is more disabled for living. She experiences memory problems and is tossed by the nightly news—the abduction of an Amish child, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Beslan school hostage crisis—between extremes of terror and apathy.

“Imagine total freedom,” Nik tells his niece in trying to explain what she calls his “fake life.” But if total creative freedom ends in the sterility of an interesting solipsism, as Spiotta suggests, then its converse—responsibility to others, not seeing them as extensions of yourself—entails a submission to the real. Significantly, Denise calls her story at one point the Counterchronicles. Whatever normality she attains, whatever happiness, is the product of a sustained resistance to the gigantic want into which her brother disappears.

“A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity,” she told an interviewer four years ago. And perhaps that is what Dana Spiotta has reinvented—the novel of reality’s complications. In a literary age of adolescent wizards and romantic vampires, that may be more than enough. Stone Arabia stands as a subtle testament to the allure and damage of obsessive fantasy, the reconstructive work of ordinary living.

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (New York: Scribner, 2011). 235 pp. $24.00.

Nobody much likes the term literary fiction, but nobody knows what else to call it. Publishers and booksellers feel the need to reassure shoppers that the novel they are weighing in their hand is not a “thriller” or a “detective novel” — it’s not, God forbid, “genre fiction,” whose readers know exactly what they are looking for. But in the process, as Howard Jacobson grouses in the Independent, intelligent readers are put off and 1,000 good writers are consigned to “the scrapheap of oblivion.”

“The truth is,” Jacobson concludes, “the best novels will always defy category.” Maybe that should be the category term. It sure fits Dana Spiotta’s breakthrough novel Stone Arabia, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Partly about the relationship between a sister and brother in middle age, partly about a “garage band” rocker who compiles detailed scrapbooks of his career as a secret rock star, partly about the sub-middle class life of marginal and dislocated people who are not quite Bohemians in L.A., Spiotta’s novel is made up of parts that fit together only in the unique logic of family and personal­ity.

The miracle is not only that the novel fits together at all, but it does so in a way that is continually surprising and unexpected without ever becoming pretentious, self-conscious, “experimental.” Better perhaps than any other novelist I have read recently, Spiotta is successful at avoiding the “neat­ness” of conventional form and structure, at wrapping things up in literary artifice, while not overbalancing into the fallacy of imitating ordinary life’s untidiness in an extraordinarily untidy narrative. Her story is carried along, not by “observations” on the American scene or framed samplers on the human con­dition, but by Spiotta’s style of exacting and remorseless sympathy.

Stone Arabia also defies summary. The year is 2004; the place, Los Angeles. Denise Kranis is a 47-year-old personal assistant to a real estate mogul. Her three-years-older brother Nik is a guitarist and songwriter, whose real art is not rock music but his life. Although he played with a pretty decent warmup band as a teenager, and though he later discovered a natural gift for songwriting, Nik is without ambition or career. He spends his time drinking, smoking, and taking drugs (“a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future”). Outside of work—to pay the rent he tends bar—he obsessively chronicles a fantasy life as a famous rock star, compiling scrapbooks of his invented career “in minute but twisted detail.” He began the Chronicles in 1978, when he was 24:

They were all written exclusively by him. They are the history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews. He made his chronicles—scrapbooks, really—thick, clip-filled things. He wrote under many different aliases, from his fan club president to his nemesis, a critic who started at Creem magazine and ended up writing for the Los Angeles Times, a man who follows and really hates his work.

Nik writes and records the music documented in the Chronicles; he even designs the album covers and painstakingly hand-letters the liner notes; but outside of Denise and an ex-girlfriend or two, his only audience is Nik himself. Four decades ago, Robert Coover wrote a novel about a solitary obsessive who creates a parallel universe for himself, but The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is about a man who gradually loses touch with reality. Nik Kranis (or Nik Worth, as he calls his rock-star self) does not go insane. He is not ashamed of his secret vice. He ignores all entreaties to “get real.” His life, like his music, is entirely self-referential. And there is, according to his sister, some integrity in that:

Nik was liberated from any dialogue with the past work of others and certainly with the current work of others. His work was his own exclusive interest now and had been for years. I knew his solipsism had become his work, in a sense, that this was complicated to think about, but at some point there is the unyielding, the concentration, and the accumulation that becomes a body of work. Whatever the nature of that work, it is hard to argue against.

But what is left out of account is Nik’s relationship with his sister Denise, and the toll it takes on her. As she wryly comments, “It is easy to fill up the space when you get to make everything up.” Denise does not have any such luxury. Her work is the ordinary business of living, although their complicated closeness—Nik calls her an extension of himself—complicates her life as well. By all appearances she leads a fairly normal life (a job, a daughter, a house and mortgage, boyfriend, an elderly mother whom she cares for), and yet Denise is the one who is more disabled for living. She experiences memory problems and is tossed by the nightly news—the abduction of an Amish child, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Beslan school hostage crisis—between extremes of terror and apathy.

“Imagine total freedom,” Nik tells his niece in trying to explain what she calls his “fake life.” But if total creative freedom ends in the sterility of an interesting solipsism, as Spiotta suggests, then its converse—responsibility to others, not seeing them as extensions of yourself—entails a submission to the real. Significantly, Denise calls her story at one point the Counterchronicles. Whatever normality she attains, whatever happiness, is the product of a sustained resistance to the gigantic want into which her brother disappears.

“A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity,” she told an interviewer four years ago. And perhaps that is what Dana Spiotta has reinvented—the novel of reality’s complications. In a literary age of adolescent wizards and romantic vampires, that may be more than enough. Stone Arabia stands as a subtle testament to the allure and damage of obsessive fantasy, the reconstructive work of ordinary living.

Read Less




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