Friday, October 31, 2008

What should be every writer’s credo

“That is what I care about: making defensible statements.”

Frederick Crews, “Partisans: Reply to Peter Wirth,” NYRB 26 (February 8, 1979).

William Wharton dies at 82

William Wharton, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Birdy (1979), has died at the age of eighty-two. He raised and sold canaries as a boy. This deep and encyclopedic knowledge of birds is what gave his first novel, published when he was fifty-three, its effortless authority. He thought of himself primarily as a painter; he signed his paintings with his birth name, Albert William du Aime; but it was as William Wharton that he earned a lasting reputation, even if his later novels, which he turned out at the rate of every year or two, never quite approached the level of his first.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Best American Poetry

Jorie Graham, ed., The Best American Poetry 1990 (New York: Collier Books, 1990). 283 pp. $9.95.

Mark Strand, ed., The Best American Poetry 1991 (New York: Collier Books, 1991). 326 pp. $12.95.

Originally published in Commentary 93 (January 1992): 59–61.

Ever since Joseph Epstein, writing in Commentary in August 1988, pointed out the obvious—namely, that contemporary poetry is not precious to very many readers in America, and for good reason—the poets have been raising a stink. According to a May 1991 essay in the Atlantic by Dana Gioia, over thirty rebuttals to Epstein have been published so far, and more, probably, are to come. It is not safe to outrage any group in America—especially not contemporary poets, who are used to writing away like mad, without giving a lot of thought to it.

In an effort to demonstrate the good health of contemporary poetry, Collier Books (a division of Macmillan) has taken to issuing an annual prize volume—the best American poems published during the previous year, as selected by a poet of esteem. David Lehman, the general editor of the series (which numbers four volumes so far), says the books' reception—good reviews, a place in 1989 on the independent booksellers’ bestseller list—has gone far to prove that “[p]oetry in the United States today does have a vital readership; rumors regarding the death of the reader have been greatly exaggerated.”

It might be asked, though, whether The Best American Poetry does not prove just the opposite. The books seem intended not so much to be read as greeted with tribute and approval. The selections are arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name, as if in a catalogue or directory. They are followed by nearly fifty pages of biographical and explanatory notes. These go into full detail about the contributors’ births, degrees, publications, awards, honors, grants, and fellowships, places of residence, and academic appointments (permanent and visiting). And then the poets come forward to explicate the mysteries of their own poems, often at tedious length. The notes alone are enough to put to rest any curiosity about poets or poetry.

Meanwhile, the opening pages of each volume are given over to prose introductions, by Lehman and the year’s designated editor, which are composed in the tone of a begging letter, like the encomiastic dedications that were once attached to literary works to angle for the favor of a patron. Prize volumes are themselves a modern variety of literary patronage. And what The Best American Poetry really proves is that poetry in the United States today is the ward and client of a vital system of patronage.

The new patronage of poetry assumes institutional shape in the so-called writers’ workshops. Of the one hundred thirty four poets chosen over the past two years to appear in The Best American Poetry, all but twenty or so—eighty-five percent—earn a living by teaching creative writing. A number of critics such as Epstein, Gioia, Karl Shapiro, the late Jean Stafford, Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Greg Kuzma, and Bruce Bawer have attacked this system. Under its influence, they say, contemporary poetry is produced not out of inner necessity, but in response to institutional pressures. “Like their colleagues in other academic departments,” Gioia observes, “poetry professionals must publish, for purposes of job security and career advancement.” Contemporary poems are not written to be read, but to be listed on a curriculum vitae.

All this is true, but there is more to the story. Ideas are more corrupting than institutions, and contemporary poets are the dupes less of bad social or professional arrangements than of a bad conception of poetry. Creative writing does seem to be at the bottom of things, but only because it is itself founded upon the same basic doctrine which underlies and gives impetus to the writing of much contemporary poetry—the doctrine of creativity.

Creativity is both an educational and a poetic doctrine. In education it operates as the belief that children develop themselves most fully by being released from adult standards and adult expectations to pursue activities of their own choosing, in which they discover for themselves what they might do. In poetry, this “creative” activity is prolonged far beyond childhood and the days of apprenticeship—even mature poets seek to realize themselves as poets (to “find their voice”) in the act of writing a poem.

To be sure, creative freedom is a necessary condition for good poetry; but it is not a sufficient condition. It cannot substitute for faithfulness to experience or responsibility to an audience, as embodied in a tradition of art. Nor does it supply any real reason for writing. Lacking such a reason, the poet is confined to a solipsistic putting forth of self, and poetry is reduced to gesture. The effects are on display in The Best American Poetry.

When it goes bad, contemporary poetry is either pseudo-creative, or sub-creative. Pseudo-creativity shows up as weird typographical layouts, departures from the norm in punctuation and syntax, repeated enjambment to disrupt the natural order of words, random tallies of minute details, narrative structure with no story to tell, cuckoo nests of literary apparatus in which poets invade the traditions of poetry to take over such things as the names of ancient genres, epigrammatic mottoes, dedications in memoriam, set stanzaic patterns, Roman-numeraled subsections—and then neglect to put them to any use. Many contemporary poems have the mere appearance of poetry. On the page they are printed in lines that veer away from the right-hand margin, but on a closer reading they turn out to be not the real thing but merely parasitic on poetry’s outward form.

If the pseudo-creative poet mistakes incoherence for true creativity, the sub-creative poet goes to a different extreme, elaborately working out a negligible theme. The most interesting of today’s poets have recognized the need to restore a sense of factual basis and dramatic necessity to the writing of poetry, and many of their poems are efforts, admirable in themselves, to refurbish the principle of meaning which fell into disrepute in modern literature. But the meanings these poets come up with tend to be trivial, and, worse, to go on being trivial at length.

Thus, in The Best American Poetry, Alfred Corn imagines what Frances Trollope (author of Domestic Manners of the Americans) would have said in conversation about nineteenth-century life in Cincinnati, after her return to England; Robert Pinsky reconstructs ancient Jewish worship in a wilderness setting like Yosemite national park; Laurence Lieberman recreates Sir James Rodney’s invasion of St. Eustasius in 1781; Michael Ryan recalls how his father used to transfix him with tales about playing the violin in East St. Louis dance halls in the 20's; David R. Slavitt retells the myth of Telephus; Melissa Green describes Boethius’s death in prison. All these poets mean to be both careful and definitive in statement, but under the spell of the creative doctrine they lapse into garrulousness, writing in a style that (in Hazlitt's phrase) “occupies more space than it is worth.”

There are exceptions, some included in these volumes. Poets of an older generation, who were not trained in writers' workshops, or poets who were educated in other countries—Amy Clampitt, Donald Davie, Richard Wilbur, Ruth Stone, Reed Whittemore, Anthony Hecht, Thom Gunn, John Hollander, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky—stand aside from the new creative dispensation. And at least two younger American poets write with more than occasional brilliance. They are Rosanna Warren and Elizabeth Spires, both of whom are represented in The Best American Poetry 1990, Warren by a moving elegy to her aunt, and Spires by a taut philosophical meditation upon a shipwreck off Land’s End. Among younger poets not published in either of the last two years' volumes one might also mention Timothy Steele, David Middleton, Eric Trethewey, R. L. Barth, and George Bilgere, who deserve more attention than they have received from their peers.

For most of the remainder, however, there is only the solipsism of creativity. Whether contemporary poets will grow tired of this stance and find something better to do in the next century (even if the better activity is not poetry) is something nobody can predict. Until they do, though, they should not be surprised when readers turn away from them, pitying the small value and less charm of even The Best American Poetry.

Too isolated, too insular?

Daniel Green has a long post over at the Reading Experience, taking issue with the now-famous comments by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, to the effect that the U.S. is “too isolated, too insular” for its writers to be considered for the Noble Prize in Literature. “They [the States? the writers?] don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl went on to say. “That ignorance is restraining.”

Green rightly finds Engdahl’s comments to be incoherent:

Either Engdahl is asserting that not enough American writers are contributing to some ongoing “dialogue” about literature separate from their own writing, or the allegation is that they don’t conceive of their writing as a contribution to “the big dialogue of literature.”Both notions are equally preposterous, Green continues, but it is the second that is especially damaging:[L]iterature isn’t a “dialogue” monitored by self-appointed arbiters who decide what part of the conversation deserves a prize for its insight. It isn’t an attempt to “say” anything, except circuitously or by accident. I’m tempted to construe Engdahl’s scolding of American writers for their insularity as just another expression of impatience with the “merely literary,” with writing that isn’t morally or politically useful, but I doubt he really meant to go quite that far. He is simply reiterating a commonly-held, if implicit rather than thought-out, view that literature is more about dialogue and discussion and nicely articulated platitudes [and] less about art and aesthetic consummation, which indeed often occurs in isolation and, in literature, as a “dialogue” only between the author and his/her text.Now, the last thing I want to do is to defend Engdahl’s stupid comments. The mere fact that Vladimir Nabokov never won it, and Günter Grass did, is enough to disqualify the Nobel Prize from serious discussion for all time.

But I would like to suggest that Green’s view that literature is “about art and aesthetic consummation,” that the only dialogue in literature is between a writer and his text, is not merely insular but sterile, narcissistic, and, well, boring. Don’t get me wrong. Green faithfully reflects the official ideology of America’s literary class. He rephrases, in fresh language, the familiar mottoes of the New Criticism, which were chiseled on the walls of Creative Writing Workshops when they were first founded in the Forties and Fifties.

Engdahl is an incoherent spokesman for it, but there is a rival view that is fully coherent and worth considering. It is a view with, yes, a European pedigree, I’m sorry to say. It is the view that literature is a debate, stretching across languages and centuries, over the best way to write, the social or moral or political function of literature, the meaning and value of the literary experience. Green himself testifies to the power of such a view, because he himself contributes to the debate.

So do the writers he mentions. John Hawkes, for example, doubtless believed that his novels were a dialogue between himself and his literary language, but in this belief he implicitly rejected the dominant (or at least celebrated) novelistic mode of the postwar era as represented by, say, The Adventures of Augie March or Invisible Man, both of which are an explicit address to the reader. (“You! I know there is a you!” E. L. Doctorow later spoofed the epideictic mode in The Book of Daniel.)

The best novels are written against other novels. Which means that the literary vocation requires a wide education—not merely in creative writing, and perhaps not ever in creative writing—and that the “insular” and “isolated” writer is he who really is only in dialogue with himself.

Which is the terror

“Our old culture in which humanity transmitted its common life from one generation to the next was a moral culture, and the ethical was supreme: no greater good than good, no greater evil than evil. The death of our old culture came about when the evil greater than evil occurred—which is the terror. The good greater than good does not yet exist on earth: it is joy, which wants eternity. Together with terror, joy must replace the old pair of opposites, the old limits, which are now surpassed. Joy beyond good and terror beyond evil—the only principles. Everything else is privation.”

Isaac Rosenfeld, “The Meaning of Terror” (January 1949), in An Age of Enormity: Life and Writing in the Forties and Fifties (Cleveland: World, 1962), pp. 208–09.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Literary fiction

I hate the term. “Literary fiction” is therapeutic. It is what is good for you, what you should read.

As currently used—that is, to distinguish fiction with high-culture pretensions from “popular” or “genre” fiction—the term can probably be traced to New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.

In January 1984, in an article entitled “Mysteries Join the Mainstream,” Kakutani struggles to explain what she means. Everybody knows that there are “suspense stories” and there is “ ‘serious’ fiction,” but “it is not quite as simple as many bookstores would have us believe to separate books into such categories as ‘Suspense,’ ‘Famous Authors’ [and] ‘General Fiction.’ ”

The occasion for her article seems to have been the popular success of Humberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Paraphrasing Eco’s views, Kakutani says that “serious” writers “have begun now to appropriate old-fashioned storytelling techniques from the popular genres. . . .”

Kakutani then delves into literary history:

During the 20th century . . . something curious happened. As the boundaries between popular and “literary” fiction became more pronounced, such traditional elements of storytelling as suspense and “poetic justice” were increasingly identified with genre writing.Although she may have intended to contribute to erasing the distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction, Kakutani turned it to stone.

Before the 1980’s, the term literary fiction was used either to refer to an authorial pose (Wyatt’s claim to write songs for the lute, for example, was a “literary fiction”) or to distinguish the fictional (i.e., not literally true) from fiction that is written down and published in a book. That’s how the Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin used it in The Wake of the Gods (1963), opening his study of Melville with the declaration that “since all myth is by definition fictional, no one should be surprised to find that literary fiction is mythic.”

Now the term is used by tedious self-promoters like John Banville, who insists that his 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea is a “real book,” that is, “literary fiction” as opposed to “more populist work.”

Balls. The only meaningful distinction is between writing that is good and writing that is not. The Sea may be “literary,” but it is lousy.

Truthful expression or nothing

“Now, in all we say about literature, and (above all) in all that we say about criticism, we instinctively take the autonomous individual for granted. The whole of modern European literature—I am speaking of the literature of the past four hundred years—is built on the concept of the intellectual honesty. . . . The first thing we ask of a writer is that he shall not tell lies, that he shall say what he really thinks, what he really feels. The worst thing we can say about a work of art is that it is insincere. And this is even truer of criticism than of creative literature, in which a certain amount of posing and mannerism, and even a certain amount of downright humbug, doesn’t matter so long as the writer is fundamentally sincere. Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is either the truthful expression of what one man thinks and feels, or it is nothing."

George Orwell, “Literature and Totalitarianism” (June 1941), in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 2: 134–35.

Literature of cancer

Joe Eszterhas’s Crossbearer (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95) arrived in the mail yesterday. I haven’t had the time to read much of it, but so far I have not been impressed by its treatment of Eszterhas’s throat cancer.

Admittedly, Crossbearer is a “memoir of faith,” not of cancer. So far in my reading, though, Eszterhas is more worried about not smoking, and not writing, than of dying. The best reflections on cancer belong to others, whom he quotes:

“Every cancer is a journey,” said [a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic]. “You never know where the journey will take you, where you’ll go. . . . What’s important is to go with it—wherever it goes. I could never say ‘enjoy the ride’ in this context, but that’s sort of what you have to do. . . . You have to accept that you’re not entirely the driver. . .” (p. 6).Exactly so. And this is why, although Eszterhas unaccountably does not make the connection, that cancer diagnoses so often lead to conversions or renewals of faith. The cancer patient must learn to accept that his fate is not in his own hands.

Again, one Sunday at Holy Angels Church, Eszterhas is wrestling with his life: “Would I be able to continue to resist my addictions? Would my cancer return? Would I live or die? Would I ever write anything again?” After Mass, the priest stops and says to him:“Do you know what this means? This means that the best is yet to come. The best part of your life is still ahead of you!” (p. 9)It’s unclear exactly what the priest is referring to, although “this” probably refers to Eszterhas’s return to the Church after a lifetime of mocking it. Equally true, though, is it to say a diagnosis of cancer means that “the best is yet to come,” because for the first time in your life you are living under sentence of death. And anything retrieved from that sentence is inexpressably sweet.

Of all the books on cancer that I have read, only Gillian Rose’s brilliant, fragmentary, and difficult Love’s Work (1995) admits such a recognition. Rose died of ovarian cancer less than two years after she was first diagnosed.

The Medical School at New York University has a partial bibliography of the literature of cancer, although the list is not annotated and works by and about sufferers and survivors—to say nothing of the distinguished and mediocre, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry—are tossed together like clothes donated to Goodwill.

Except perhaps for Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, which is less about cancer than post-Stalinist Soviet Communism, not a single great novel has been written about the disease. Philip Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman suffers from prostate cancer—Roth does not—and in Exit Ghost he reencounters Amy Bellette from The Ghost Writer. She now has brain cancer. Zuckerman, however, is more taken with a sexy young woman whom he cannot bed, because a radical prostatectomy has left him impotent.

The other novels on the NYU list are only about cancer in passing. The best writers on the disease have been poets, especially L. E. Sissman. No one else has quite nailed your reaction to being diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening illness:Abridged, I burned with moral purpose, seethed
With fever to persist, sang angry songs
Of vengeful, mutinous futility,
Slowed my halt feet to a death march, prolonged
The bittersweetness of each breath, paroled
Myself with garlands of last words. . . .
Sissman lived a decade with Hodgkins’s disease before finally dying of it. He understood the experience of cancer better than most. He understood that, accustomed to living in freedom, you are embarrassed and disoriented and angered to be reduced to the necessity of “enjoying the ride” of your disease.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Religious novels

John Updike’s smug recommendation that Sarah Palin ought to read his Month of Sundays, because she “is religious and so am I,” raises the question of novels that are more genuinely religious.

The de Vries novel that Updike struggles mightily to reproduce is The Mackerel Plaza (1958). It too is a first-person account by a liberal Protestant minister—the spiritual leader of “P.L.,” People’s Liberal. There the resemblance stops. Rev. Mackerel looks upon the Awakening of the fifties as backsliding. To buck up his congregation, he delivers sermons on the difference between American and British pronunciation. De Vries himself believed in something like Puritanism, which he comes perilously close to affirming in Mrs. Wallop (1970), and he has great fun bumping the Rev. Mackerel against a less tentative Christianity. He also has something that Updike lacks: genuine comic talent.

Frederick Buechner is himself a Protestant minister—a Presbyterian—who wrote a series of novels, collected as The Bebb Book, about a flawed minister. His best, though, is Godric (1980), a historical novel about the hermit St. Godric of Finchale (ca. 1065–1170). A stylistic triumph, Buechner’s novel is written entirely in an English reduced to its Anglo-Saxon roots just as St. Godric himself would have. The account of Godric’s self-purification is not merely marvelous to behold, however; it is genuinely moving.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Baal Teshuvah, translated into English as The Penitent (1983), adopts the universal convention of the profligate—sexually profligate—sinner who only partially and intermittently manages to turn his life around. But it is the only account I know of the B.T. experience, as Orthodox Jews call it. (A baal teshuvah [literally, “master of return”] is a Jew who “returns” to Judaism: a “born-again” Jew.)

The best religious novelist now writing is, of course, Marilynn Robinson. I have pressed Gilead on so many friends that they cross the street when they see me coming. And I intend to review her recent Home, and so I won’t say anything about it here. Suffice it to say that Mark Sarvas caught her, at an event last Thursday at the Los Angeles Public Library, saying “There’s nothing in the world I admire more than a good sermon.” And try to imagine any other working novelist saying something like that.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hillerman dies at 83

The detective novelist Tony Hillerman, who launched his literary career at the age of forty-five with The Blessing Way, has died at eighty-three of pulmonary failure.

Updike recommends himself to Obama, McCain

Asked by the Guardian what reading he would recommend to the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, John Updike recommends four novels by—John Updike.

My favorite line: “[Sarah] Palin is religious and so I am. She should read A Month of Sundays, which is about an errant minister rehabilitating himself in the Arizona desert.” Now, Updike may be religious in his private life. Who knows? There is utterly no evidence of it in his novels, but stranger transformations have occurred off the page. A Month of Sundays is no kind of religious novel, however. It is Updike’s effort to write like Peter De Vries—to pull off a comic novel about a Protestant minister whose private life is “coming loose, tumbling.” Updike is more interested in Rev. Mansfield’s tumbling—and in his golf scores—than in his redemption.

“[N]o U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike,” the late David Foster Wallace wrote eleven years ago in the New York Observer. Apparently, Updike never read that review; or at least he never took it to heart.

Wallace went on, mistakenly, I think, to describe Updike as the chronicler and voice of the 60’s and 70’s—“the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” Don’t get me wrong. Wallace is not wrong about the self-absorption of either the 60’s generation or Updike. He was and is, however, the voice of no one other than himself.

Hortatory sentences

An enormously fruitful suggestion from Hilary Putnam’s recent Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life (Indiana UP, 2008). Discussing I And Thou, Putnam says that

when Buber writes about the impossibility of describing or theorizing about God, he is not engaged in ‘negative theology,’ as one might at first suppose; his sentences are hortatory, not descriptive, and they are meant to suggest, to point, to invite to a certain mode of being in the world, not to prove or demonstrate. (pp. 66–67)For years I have argued that Derrida’s sentence “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” or Foucault’s “[T]ruth isn't outside power, or lacking in power. . . . Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint” are self-refuting.

There is nothing outside the text. If the previous sentence is in a text then it refers only to an element of that particular text; it establishes nothing whatever about truth-assertions as such. So too for Foucault. If truth indeed is power then is that an assertion of a truth? If so it is not true but only an exercise of domination. But if it is true then at least one truth-assertion stands outside relations of power; namely, that one; and if one why not more?

Perhaps, though, what Putnam suggests about Buber is true also of Derrida and Foucault. They are not describing how truth-assertions operate. They are exhorting their readers to think of them that way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 9/11 novel

In a post entitled “Arts and Inspiration in the Collapse” over at The Millions, C. Max Magee argues that

nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a ‘9/11 novel.’ Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world.This would be true if and only if the effect of 9/11 were universally acknowledged and its meaning a formula like “the slaughter of World War I.” But that is precisely what is at stake in post-9/11 writing.

In an Investors’ Business Daily editorial today, for example, Charles Krauthammer points out that Barack Obama “refers to the most deliberate act of war since Pearl Harbor as ‘the tragedy of 9/11,’ a term more appropriate for a bus accident.” I don’t intend to make a political comment. In literary terms, Senator Obama has the tendency to ascribe events to “the gods”—i.e., large impersonal unseen forces, some malevolent, some benign. (He also says that the Berlin Wall came down because of “a world that stands as one.”) There is small agency in Senator Obama’s historical thinking.

A similar tendency shows up in the American novels that have explicitly responded to 9/11. Except for John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), none has even tried to penetrate the world view of the Islamists who highjacked the airliners on September 11, 2001. Instead, the 9/11 novel has been exclusively a victim’s or bystander’s novel.

In even the best of them, 9/11 is little more than a novelty, a seasonal flavor of brand-name ice cream. In Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children (2006), for instance, the attack on the World Trade Center strands an adulterous husband in the apartment of his much younger girlfriend. In order to spend the night with her, Murray Thwaite tells his wife Annabel that he has a speaking engagement in Chicago on September 10th, and will return to LaGuardia the next afternoon. He takes a limo to the airport and then a cab back to Manhattan.

The next morning his girlfriend is showering when she hears him cry out. “Look at that,” he says. “They’ve got some colossal fire going. It must be a bomb or something, so high up.”

But it is of course the North Tower. And as he watches the television coverage (“the whole world was seeing this, and the Pentagon, too, and this was how you knew that it was really true”), Murray learns that flights all over the country have been grounded.    “I’m in Chicago,” he said, in his shirt and undershorts and dark socks, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking not at [his girlfriend] but at the television screen. “Nobody’s moving. I’m supposed to be in Chicago.”
     “You can stay with me,” she said. “Until, you know, you can get home from Chicago.”
Here is a very promising moment—when the attacks of 9/11 force a man, against his will, into an ethical dilemma. Instead, though, Messud lets him off the hook. “I need to go home,” Murray announces. “And don’t ask me what I’m going to say [to Annabel] because I couldn’t tell you.” And the dilemma is resolved in the conventional style of the adultery novel, with a confession, the end of the affair, bitterness, etc.

“[I]t seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful moment for the fiction writer," Magee concludes. But if the 9/11 novel is any example, this moment is unlikely to be fruitful unless novelists themselves are profoundly changed by events, which, given their literary training and habits—far more conservative than their politics—is very nearly an impossibility.

A partial list of 9/11 novels:

• Abbott, Shirley. The Future of Love. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008.
• DeLillo, Don. The Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
• Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
• Glass, Julia. The Whole World Over. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
• Kalfus, Ken. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. New York: Ecco, 2006.
• McPhee, Martha. L’America. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006.
• Messud, Claire. The Emperor’s Children. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
• Nissenson, Hugh. Days of Awe. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005.
• O’Neill, Joseph. Netherland. New York: Pantheon, 2008.
• Price, Reynolds. The Good Priest’s Son. New York: Scribner, 2005.
• Prose, Francine. Bullyville. New York: Harper Teen, 2007.
• Rinaldi, Nicholas. Between Two Rivers. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
• Schulman, Helen. A Day at the Beach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
• Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. The Writing on the Wall. New York: Counterpoint, 2005.
• See, Carolyn. There Will Never Be Another You. New York: Random House, 2006.
• Tristram, Claire. After. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004.
• Updike, John. Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
• Walter, Jess. The Zero. New York: Regan, 2006.

Richard Ford

Richard Ford, Independence Day (New York: Vintage, 1995). 451 pp. Paperback. $14.95.

By coincidence, two different friends—both physicians, but otherwise dissimilar—happened to ask my opinion of Richard Ford within days of each other. I replied that I don’t think very much of him. To explain why, I am posting my review of Ford’s Pulitizer Prize-winning novel, which originally appeared in Commentary in November 1995.

*       *       *        *       *

A sequel to The Sportswriter, a 1986 novel that garnered a fair amount of praise, Independence Day takes up the life of Frank Bascombe after a lapse of five years. Although Frank says that he has now entered his “Existence Period,” during which a man learns to ignore what seems “worrisome and embroiling,” little has in fact changed: he is no longer a sportswriter, but he talks about writing itself just as much as he ever did, and still regards himself as the author of Blue Autumn, a volume of short stories that he published in his twenties. To make a living Frank now works as a realtor in his pleasant New Jersey town. His ex-wife has remarried and moved with their two children—a troubled son and a sweet daughter—to Connecticut. He himself is now unmarried, and only uncertainly attached.

The action of the novel takes place on the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. Frank has planned a two-day automobile trip with his son Paul to the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, but before getting on the road he must take care of business: showing a house to Joe and Phyllis Markham, a hard-to-please couple from Vermont; checking in at Franks, a hot-dog-and-root-beer stand outside town of which he is co-owner; collecting rent on a house that he owns in the black district; and dropping by for a quick meal and visit with Sally, the forty-two-year-old divorcee he is “seeing.”

None of these encounters comes off without a hitch. To tempt Joe Markham to look at the house, Frank has to give him deep advice on life (“There's only so much anybody can do to make things come out right. . . . You make choices and live with them . . .”). At the root-beer stand, he has to calm his partner’s fears of Hispanic bandits. Collecting rent, he nearly gets himself arrested. Sally is impatient with his noncommittal philosophy of romance (“The good mystery’s how long anything can go on the way it is”) and hustles him out the door. And as might be expected, the trip with his son ends badly, if not in disaster, when the youngster receives a self-inflicted injury. At the end Frank returns home alone, closing off his Existence Period by resolving gamely to do his best.

Frank Bascombe struggles conscientiously, if unheroically, with the familiar problems of marriage, job, child-rearing, service to community. As his life enters middle age—the end of the beginning, as someone once put it—he learns to accept that not everything is possible; that the true meaning of freedom is not unlimited possibility but making decisions and standing by them; that the great role in life is being a father, which entails moral instruction, the handing-down of what one has learned to accept oneself.

“It’s ennobling,” he concludes, “to help others face their hard choices, pilot them toward a reconciliation with life.” Hard-earned wisdom.

Or is it? Although Frank Bascombe causes little visible damage, he does his share. He is isolated and inattentive to others, absorbed in his own affairs. At a younger age, in The Sportswriter, this inattentiveness had contributed to a suicide, when Frank—itchy to escape to his girl—failed to respond to a friend’s distress. Now, in Independence Day, Frank cannot figure out why his latest girlfriend does not jump at the chance to snag him, and seems unaware that he gives very little of himself to her or anyone else, including his children. Yet he is a “decent” person, and one of whom his narrator wholeheartedly approves; indeed, Ford obviously looks upon Frank Bascombe as his alter ego, a vehicle for delivering individually wrapped insights into literature, recent history and politics, life, love, and the present condition of American reality.

The sum of these insights is pretty thin. Frank is a liberal, in a conventionally partisan sense. He dislikes Ronald Reagan, is contemptuous of patriots and of any “Grenada-type tidy-little-war,” keeps a LICK BUSH election sticker on his car, and hopes the new strip mall in town will go bankrupt so the land can be turned into a people’s park or a public vegetable garden. “Holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the 60’s,” he sighs, “is getting hard as hell.” These are the sentiments which make up the ground of his decency, a decency which to Richard Ford clearly has everything to recommend it, but which just as clearly lacks anything resembling a moral center.

And where would such a center come from? Frank is a man without settled principles. Although he “worships” at a Presbyterian church (the ironic quotation marks are his), he does not believe in God. When his ex-wife urges him to “do something a little more wholeheartedly,” he shrugs: “my view is that I do the best I know how.” Yet the best Frank Bascombe knows how is all he knows, or wishes to know; and that crippling, complacent limitation is, finally, the trouble not only with him (as his ex-wife rightly sees) but with the book of which he is the hero.

Ford’s book is sustained not by a plot or even by a story but by one man’s “voice,” and in the end the man is not particularly interesting. That he is significant, however, and perhaps even, in his pallid way, emblematic of his American moment, cannot be denied. We live, after all, in an age of reduced expectations, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, and decency (considering the alternatives) is hardly to be sneered at. But just as in life it takes more than protestations of decency to turn good intentions into moral behavior, so in art it will take deeper talents than Ford’s to restore the American novel to (in Saul Bellow’s words) “an indispensable source of illumination of the present.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Brass Verdict

Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict (New York: Little, Brown, 2008). 422 pp. $26.99.

Connelly’s second legal thriller opens with the liar’s paradox. “Everybody lies,” Mickey Haller begins the account of his return to criminal law, which he had temporarily shelved in The Lincoln Lawyer (2005). “Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie. A trial is a contest of lies.” The job of the defense attorney, he says, is “[t]o be the truth in a place where everybody lies.”

The trouble is that there is no obvious reason to trust the truth-telling claims of someone who glibly declares that “Everybody lies.” Connelly appears to be a stranger to the concept of the unreliable narrator. And this is the basic defect of The Brass Verdict. As in the earlier book about him, Haller is supposed to be the voice of integrity. In both novels, he manages to find a way around the legal and ethical obstacle of attorney-client privilege, and makes sure that the guilty party (his client) gets what is coming to him. That this has the opposite effect than Connelly intends—that Haller comes across as a man without principles—seems never to occur to him.

After a year’s absence, Haller is summoned back to the practice of law when another defense attorney is found murdered in a parking garage. The chief judge of Los Angeles Superior Court orders Haller to serve as replacement counsel for the dead lawyer’s clients. Among them is a “get-well client,” a high-profile defendant who pays enough to relieve the lawyer from having to scour up new cases to keep the money flowing. Walter Elliott is a movie producer accused of shooting his wife and her German lover.

Elliott accepts his replacement counsel—as long as Haller agrees to proceed immediately to trial with no more of the delays that Hamlet gave as a reason for suicide. Elliott is supremely confident of acquittal, and much of the novel is taken up with Haller’s efforts to discover why. When he does, the plot unravels. Elliott, guilty as sin, but not free as a bird, is shot down by the German lover’s brothers, who prefer the “brass verdict” of the title—a sentence wrapped in brass slugs—to the corruption of the American justice system. Haller is disgusted too, and vows to quit the practice of criminal law altogether.

The L.A. police detective investigating the death of Elliott’s first lawyer is Harry Bosch, hero of Connelly’s better-known series of police procedurals starting with The Black Echo (1992). Connelly fans will be tickled at the meeting of Bosch and Haller, but then confirmed followers of Moving On and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers were equally thrilled to find out more about Danny Deck and Patsy Carpenter when they cracked open Terms of Endearment. Not many other readers treated Larry McMurtry’s 1975 novel as a mere sequel, however. The same here. Those who have never read the Bosch novels will wonder why Connelly bothered.

Little else distinguishes the novel. Connelly’s is a newspaper prose, intended to go down as painlessly as possible; it does not follow, however, that the writing is defined by concision. Perhaps the only information imparted by the novel, apart from the plot, is legal procedure. Connelly neatly describes a lawyer’s cash flow and court appearances, but does not use any of it. The plot unravels by other means than legal devices and maneuvers. Instead, Connelly’s prose seems designed not to confuse or distract from the subplots and counterplots that tangle and then untangle the main issue. As a consequence, the prose—along with much of the story—disappears from memory almost the instant that the book is set down.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” his classic essay on the genre, Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective is a man who goes down mean streets but “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. . . . He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” Only such a man can gain a measure of redemption from what he must do in order to pursue justice.

In back-to-back novels now, Mickey Haller has felt himself to be dirtied by the practice of defending criminals. Twice now he has promised to give it up. No other redemption has been vouchsafed to him. A man of honor, though? Certainly: if he says so himself. But perhaps not so much—if asserting that everybody lies entails the acknowledgment that he himself must then lie too, and must seek something more than an all-knowing authorial approval to gain redemption.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Philip Roth, Indignation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008). 231 pp. $26.00.

Indignation is a new venture for
the only living novelist represented in the Library of America. After closing up the Zuckerman franchise with last year’s Exit Ghost, the 75-year-old Roth decided that he must introduce an entirely new character to his gallery of Jewish males who are neither believing Jews nor scholarly Jews nor Jewish xenophobes who can’t bear the proximity of goyim.

Marcus Messner is just a college student with an overbearing father. The year is 1951, and with the Korean War entering its second year (“U.S. casualties already totaled more than one hundred thousand”), the elder Messner becomes consumed with fear that his only son will die. To get away from him, Marcus flees his native Newark for Winesburg, “a small liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio. . . .” The allusion to Sherwood Anderson is key. Indignation is Roth’s “Book of the Grotesque.” As Anderson put it in the preface to Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a person becomes a grotesque
the moment he takes a truth to himself, calls it his truth, and tries to live by it, turning it into a falsehood.

For Marcus Messner, that moment occurs when he declares his opposition to compulsory chapel at Winesburg. “I objected,” he says, “not because I was an observant Jew but because I was an ardent atheist.” To make it through a sermon on “How to Take Stock of Ourselves in the Light of Biblical Teachings,” he hums to himself the patriotic songs that he had learned in grade school, including “what we were told was the national anthem of our Chinese allies in the war begun by the Japanese” and the source of the book’s title:

Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
With our very flesh and blood
We will build a new Great Wall!
China's masses have met the day of danger.
Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Marcus takes indignation as his truth. Summoned to the dean-of-men’s office to explain himself, he finds himself starting to sing within: “Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!” The dean asks what is going on. Still in his first semester at Winesburg, Marcus has already moved out of two different dormitory rooms after quarrels with roommates. “I found myself living with someone whose conduct I considered intolerable,” Marcus explains. “Tolerance appears to be something of a problem for you, young man,” the dean replies. Marcus protests that no one has ever said that about him before, but inwardly he “sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’ ”

Three decades ago, Roth took the proper measure of indignation. In My Life As a Man (1974), a young Nathan Zuckerman—making his first appearance in Roth’s fiction—seethes with indignation at a brush with antisemitism in the U.S. Army, knowing all the while that indignation is not “the same as running with blood. Nor is it what is meant in literature, or even in life for that matter, by suffering or pain.”

His twenty-fifth novel is a dilation of that earlier insight. Marcus’s sufferings are punier even than the same-aged Nathan’s. His interview with the dean of men works the nineteen-year-old into such a lather that Marcus delivers a long-winded paraphrase of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” to establish his ardent atheism. The “aloofly intimidating” girl he pursues, who astonishes him on their first date in a borrowed car, turns out to be “the Blowjob Queen of 1951.” A disappointed homosexual admirer soils his dorm room while he is in the hospital with a burst appendix. After he dumps her upon his mother
’s request, the Blowjob Queen has a nervous breakdown and leaves school; the dean of men accuses him of impregnating her, and in a final burst of indignation (“I would not be condemned on no evidence. I was sick of that from everyone”), Marcus tells the dean to get fucked.

Thus does the grotesqueness of his truth guarantee the fulfillment of
Marcus’s greatest fear. He is expelled from Winesburg and ends up a rifleman in Korea. And this leads to the strangest quality of Indignation. Namely: it is narrated from the grave. Not quite a fourth of the way through the novel you learn that Marcus has been killed in Korea, although he is still speaking in the first person, and has been for he doesn’t know how long.

It is not immediately clear what Roth hopes to achieve by means of this fiction. He is hardly the first to try it. In Jim Thompson’s Killer Inside Me (1952), Sheriff Lou Ford narrates his own shooting death. And there are probably earlier examples. Roth doesn’t do much with the device beyond offering some rather inconclusive conclusions:Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component? Or can it be that this is merely the afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife, each an imperishable fingerprint of an afterlife unlike anyone else’s? I have no means of telling. As in life, I know only what is, and in death what is turns out to be what was. You are not just shackled to your life while living it, you continue to be stuck with it after you’re gone.Or are these merely late-in-the-day reflections on the art of fiction? Where else, after all, are there permanent records of lives down to their tiniest components?

The difference is that, unlike life, in fiction—especially in Roth’s fiction—you are not shackled to your own life. Although Roth’s fiction has been criticized as solipsistic, it is anything but. While characters like Marcus Messner may be solipsistic, Roth’s fiction provides a “means of telling” about the inner reality, the “imperishable fingerprint,” of other people’s lives. Indignation shows how one young man’s self-importance renders him grotesque, and gets him killed. That the rest of us might pity him, and might even fear the twisting of indignation in our own lives, is an overcoming of solipsism, no matter how short-lived.