Monday, December 24, 2012

Applesauce and raspberry mousse

Anne Bernays, The Man on the Third Floor (Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Permanent Press, 2012). 184 pages.

Anne Bernays cannot decide whether her tenth novel is a comedy of manners or a roman à thèse on behalf of gay marriage. The internal evidence is on both sides of the question, and so is Bernays’s literary reputation. Her best-known book, Professor Romeo (1989), was the first American novel on the subject of campus sexual harassment. It merchandises the thesis that, no matter how unpleasant the faculty lecher—and Bernays’s is very unpleasant—he is still the plaything of changing moral fashions and campus hysteria, a theme Francine Prose developed with greater success in Blue Angel. Bernays’s most interesting and accomplished novel is Growing Up Rich (1975), the tale of a half-Jewish girl who is orphaned at fourteen when her wealthy parents die in a plane crash and must then adapt to the financially straitened circumstances of the loud and messy middle-class Jewish family that takes her in. Bernays was able to flaunt her mastery of detail, her eye for subtle and revealing social convention, in two different milieux.

The Man on the Third Floor threads back and forth between both strains in Bernays’s writing. Set during the ’fifties (with Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee prowling menacingly in the background), the novel is careful to define the homosexual condition in a hostile era:

We were a despised lot; the descriptive “gay” had just begun to circulate. Give enough drink—and only in the company of men like ourselves—we might act “gay” from time to time, but mainly we were anxious, worried that people would discover our secret and punish us for loving men.On the other hand, Bernays also takes elaborate pains to establish the social scene. Her hero, Walter Samson, works for a New York publishing house apparently modeled upon Simon & Schuster (“one of the three clearly ‘Jewish’ publishing houses”). He descends from a family of well-to-do German Jews (“if God chose the Jews, he was partial to the German branch of this tree”). Bernays depends upon a sharp memory for the precise details. A great-grandniece of Freud, she too worked in publishing (serving as managing editor of Discovery, the literary magazine put out by Pocket Books) until her marriage to the biographer Justin Kaplan and relocation to Cambridge. The social atmosphere of the novel—the private clubs, the formal lunches, the parties, the weddings of New York’s “smartest,” who have more status than money—is utterly convincing; as convincing as anything in Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss; more convincing, indeed, than the homosexual theme.

Walter has his first homosexual experience at summer camp when he is fourteen. Confined to his tent by a sprained ankle, he is visited by a counselor with a “frankly Aryan glow” and “bulging muscles.” “I’ve brought some Vaseline,” the counselor says, telling Walter to take off his shorts and turn over:“Relax, kid,” he said. “This is supposed to be fun.” Then he instructed me—not in the tone he used while coaching tennis, but in a sweet whisper—what I was supposed to do. When his penis entered me I felt an electric shock so violent it made me scream. He told me “for chrissake, be quiet.” I held onto my voice as the shock melted and turned into a sensation of delight. I almost passed out. “There,” he said finally. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I couldn’t talk. He put on his shirt and shorts. “Can’t say anything. I couldn’t my first time either.”The experience is not repeated for twenty-five years. By then Walter is married, the father of two children, a senior editor at Griffin House. With the fortune inherited from his father (a department store magnate), Walter purchases a three-story house on the Upper East Side.

One day at work he is interrupted by a carpet layer who needs to measure his office. Walter is struck by the young man’s “beauty like that of an Italian noble in a Renaissance portrait.” He is uncomfortably aware of “looking at this man as if he were a woman.” He is reminded of the Aryan-looking counselor and what they had done at summer camp. A “dangerous warmth” floods his body. A thought occurs to him: “somewhere deep there lurked a Walter Samson who might want to be loved by a man more than by a woman.” On an impulse, he asks his Figaro (real name: Barry Rogers) for a drink after work.

Within a few weeks he has persuaded his wife to hire Barry as a driver and install him in a small room on the third floor. For the next decade, as he rises to become editor-in-chief of a major New York publishing house, Walter leads a double life—or, rather, a doubled life, as he prefers to think of it. He considers himself a heterosexual. He remains attracted to his wife, “not so much to her sexual promise as to her spirit,” but what he feels for Barry is different—“a love so ferocious, so mindless, it’s hard to breathe.” He continues to have sex with his wife, but she is not who he thinks about. “Let’s say the difference between applesauce and raspberry mousse,” he ventures.

The ménage cannot last, and of course it does not. While it lasts, though, Walter is not “torn,” he says, but “compacted.” He is fully cognizant of the dangers: “The punishment for engaging in man to man sex was worse in this country than in the Soviet Union.” He realizes that most people would view his living arrangement as “sick,” but he is energized by the sexual variety available to him. The “domestic situation,” he reflects, “gave me everything I needed—or thought I needed.”

The inevitable exposure comes as relief. His wife leaves him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, the Tribune writes up a story on the “cozy Grecian trio.” The public reaction is ill-informed, but predictable:It amused me, in a sick sort of way, that so many people seemed to think homosexuality was catching: don’t let us work for the government, don’t let us into the armed forces, don’t let us drill your teeth, and don’t, whatever you do, let us teach math to your seventh grader.Nothing tragic or particularly vexatious occurs in the sequel, however. Walter and Barry move in together. (Barry does the cooking.) The owner of Griffin House stands by him, and nobody there drops a word about his “unwholesome behavior.” Still, he experiences a “change so complete that I felt as if I had left Walter behind and was someone else.” He finds his work more satisfying. He is more tolerant of other people’s feelings. He loses weight. Life with Barry, taken all around, is pretty darn good. “I can’t help but notice that sometimes we sound like an old married couple,” Walter says, “and I remarked how nice it would be if they allowed people like us to get married.”

It would be even nicer if people like them had as much personality as their social circumstances, but Bernays’s characters are accumulations of traits and experiences instead of real people. For such a short book, The Man on the Third Floor also contains an excessive amount of padding. It’s not hard to see why. The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel—the moral dilemma of homosexuality—is no real dilemma at all, because the moral shame of homosexuality has disappeared. Anne Bernays is unable to summon it back again, and what she is left with is a man who is not “torn,” but merely biding his time until he can live openly with the love of his life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My favorite Martians

A friend of this blog throws one of my throwaway remarks back in my face: “Everyone who reads novels as if they were his morning prayers,” I wrote four years ago, “has longtime favorites that he wants to press on his friends.” So what are they? he asks impatiently, before wishing me good health.

What follows, then, are the books I’ve reread several times, not out of a conviction they represent the best that has been thought and said in any place or time, but simply because I enjoy reading and rereading them. They are like favorite players. They may not be the best ever, but they appeal to you on other grounds, probably irrelevant grounds: their unassuming talent, their fundamental decency, their work ethic, their respect for the traditions of the game, their willingness to give themselves up.

I’ve written about several of my favorites already, including: Frederick Buechner’s Godric, Esther Forbes’s Mirror for Witches, Zoë Heller’s Believers, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre, J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban, Francine Prose’s Goldengrove, Charles Willeford’s Shark-Infested Custard, John Williams’s Stoner, Thomas Williams’s Hair of Harold Roux, and Leon de Winter’s Hoffman’s Hunger. Here are some more of my personal darlings; these I’ve never written about. They might as well be aliens from another planet; many people have never even seen a copy of them. Although I might not want to claim that they are classics, their humaneness makes them good company.

• Richard P. Brickner, Tickets (1981). Alan Hoffman is ga-ga for opera (learnedly so). Then he meets Betsy Ring, a married woman, and commences an operatic love affair with her. Witty, hyper-intelligent, deeply affecting. Or, in other words (Benjamin DeMott’s words, in this case), a “flawless contemporary romance.”

• R. V. Cassill, Clem Anderson (1961). The satisfyingly bulky faux-biography of a larger-than-life literary figure who is something like Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas rolled into one. A reminder of how seriously some people used to treat literature.

• Martha Coooley, The Archivist (1998). The daughter of Holocaust survivors who converted to Christianity wants to get her hands on T. S. Eliot’s letters, hoping to learn something about conversion. The archivist who guards them refuses her request, but does not refuse her.

• Thomas Gallagher, Oona O’ (1964). Pregnant and penniless and abandoned by her baby’s father in Italy, Oona O’Hagen must fend for herself, having the child on her own and finding a way to return to America. “Her expectations,” Gallagher writes, “never went beyond the immediate future, which was perhaps why she was so demanding of the present.” The most charming and believable woman in fiction—perhaps ever.

• Mark Harris, Wake Up, Stupid (1959). An epistolary novel about an English professor who is famous on campus for waking slumbering students by yelling the book’s title at them. He is also a Mormon, an ex-boxer, and an obsessive admiring reader of James Boswell’s journals.

• Howard Jacobson, The Very Model of a Man (1992). Jacobson’s kookiest and least typical novel. Cain narrates the years after Creation until the collapse of Babel’s tower. His relationship with God, “the walking voice,” “His Great Pervasiveness,” is hilarious. Avoid all liquids while reading.

• Thomas Keneally, Passenger (1979). A novel narrated by a foetus from the first stirrings of consciousness during a sonogram (“[T]hat’s the thing about self-awareness,” he says. “It brings with it the yen to make memoirs”) through the months of gestation, while his parents travel to Teheran and Tel Aviv and he is visited by unaccountable memories of things experienced by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of the convicts who originally settled Australia. Really, how often can you honestly describe a book as one of a kind?

• Larry McMurtry, Moving On (1970). The novel that manages to be both the best ever written about rodeo and the best ever written about graduate school in English. It introduces the characters who would later become more famous in Terms of Endearment.

• Richard Price, Lush Life (2008). If Abraham Cahan’s Rise of David Levinsky was the definitive novel of the Lower East Side for the early twentieth century, Price’s crime novel (though too intricately plotted, too crowded with distractingly unique characters, too multifarious of theme and observation for a crime novel) is the same thing for the early twenty-first. Good fiction for fans of The Wire.

• Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997). One of the great Jewish talking novels (as I’ve taken to calling them). At the age of sixty-eight, Barney Panofsky finally sits down to write the novel he had once hoped to write as a young bohemian expatriate in Paris. Abandoned by his wife (the love of his life), just beginning to suffer the onset of Alzheimer’s, Barney tells his life story and fully vents his opinions. Thankfully, he comes equipped with a 99.4%-foolproof bullshit detector.

Well, there are ten more to add to the first ten. If these are not enough, however, you could always pick up a novel—any novel—by the great underappreciated Elizabeth Taylor. Start with her first, At Mrs Lippincote’s (1945). Twelve more wonderful novels, for a grand total of thirty-two.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The novel of belief

“Where has the novel of belief gone?” Paul Elie asks, spotting yet another of the dubious literary trends the New York Times Book Review is notorious for. Author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own—an appealing study of four Catholic writers in postwar America—Elie is a critic who should know what he is talking about. Where Flannery O’Connor called upon Christian novelists to shout if necessary to “make belief believable,” Elie worries that more recent novelists “with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.”

The obvious counterexample is Marilynne Robinson, whose 2009 Terry Lectures, published together as Absence of Mind, established her as the most powerful and convincing advocate for religion’s place in the human experience. Her masterpiece, Gilead, would seem to be exactly what Elie is calling for. He dispenses with it, though, by placing a rigorous condition on the novel of belief. Gilead, he says, is “highly representative” of the American novel’s abandonment of religion: it is “set in the past, concerned with a clergyman, presenting belief as a family matter, animated by a social crisis.”

It is not immediately clear why a setting in the past should disqualify any novel from the category “of belief.” Perhaps the greatest religious novel ever written by an American—Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop—is also set in the past. So too Vardis Fisher’s Children of God, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre, Frederick Buechner’s Godric, Brian Moore’s Black Robe, and Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. There have been enough historical novels of religious faith written by Americans that Elie’s demand for contemporaneity begins to seem arbitrary.

The stipulation is convenient, though, in eliminating from consideration a profound novel of religious insight like Marly Youman’s Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, which is set during the Depression. Otherwise Youmans’s novel, among the best of 2012, satisfies all of Elie’s criteria. It draws on sacred texts and references, expecting its reader to recognize the Pauline theology of radiance or apaugasma. It dramatizes the encounter with a “supreme being recognized through faith” (in O’Connor’s words), whom Youmans describes as the “radiant other.” It shows how the encounter changes a person’s life: the main character, a wanderering exile, decides to make a home with his older sister and her sons. It exhibits the transformative religious event as an “individual one” rather than a “social matter” (those phrases are Elie’s). Moreover, it is not the story of a clergyman, but of a solitary young man who has never before felt the presence of God.

Elie also stipulates that the novel of belief be a novel of Christian belief, which leaves out of account the remarkable turn toward religion on the part of Jewish novelists like Steve Stern (The Frozen Rabbi), Zoë Heller (The Believers), and John J. Clayton (Mitzvah Man). I spotted the turn back in January in an essay for Commentary, and since then Joshua Henkin—himself descended from a famous rabbinical family—has explored the tension between Jewish secularism and the Jewish religion in The World Without You.

There is no possible stipulation, however, which can explain Elie’s neglect of Christopher R. Beha’s extraordinary What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I’ve called the novel a modern saint’s life. It has everything Elie is looking for—the living language of religious faith, a distinct and conclusive personal transformation under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the acceptance of religion’s explanatory power, a commitment to the established Church instead of the Do-It-Yourself religiosity that so many Americans seem to prefer, an ethical quandary that is directly caused by Christian faith, an emphatic and unembarrassed Roman Catholic character, and best of all, it is entirely contemporary in its setting—but its author is young and not yet famous (he will be), his publisher is a small house (not like Elie’s own Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and it does nothing whatever to confirm the trend away from novelistic belief which Elie is at such pains to illustrate. Even worse, Beha’s novel may be part of a countervailing trend toward a new Catholic fiction, which rejects the literary Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor for predecessors like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh instead.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A “novel-bashing trend”

The rhetorical strategy of the Jewish anti-Zionist philosopher in The Finkler Question—a philosopher who is far too lucid to be modeled upon Judith Butler—is “to quote whoever said something that supported her, and then to ignore them when they said something different.”

Some such strategy was adopted by the memoirist Darin Strauss, who quoted me in the New York Times Book Review to support his claim that a “novel-bashing trend” has made its way among us. Discussing Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which he calls a “legitimate masterpiece” (as if its parentage were in doubt), Strauss groused that “its reception in the press has been too muted.” (Remove the mutes from your trumpets, boys!) To prove his point, he cited the piece for Commentary in which I wailed unhappily about “the Worst National Book Award list since the Last National Book Award list.”

To be fair, Strauss quoted only the title to my piece, which mitigates his intellectual irresponsibility somewhat by shoving it into the closet of laziness. Apparently it would have required more energy than Strauss is capable of summoning—that is, a five-minute Google search—to learn that I also described Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, another of his “legitimate masterpieces,” as perhaps the “best book yet” by the novelist who “may end up to be the star of his literary generation after all.”

Longtime readers of this blog know just how ridiculous it is to enroll me among the novel-bashers. My worry is that I have raised a tabernacle at the opposite extreme. (I defend the reading of fiction here.) Like Cynthia Ozick, I revere the novel as “the holy vessel of imagination.” I don’t bash it often enough!

What really angers me, though, is how my criticisms of Fountain’s Iraq war novel are swallowed up, in Strauss’s quoting of me, by an extraliterary protest over literary prizes. I was unusual among the critics in disliking Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The novel received a great deal of praise, despite what Strauss says. Writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman used almost his exact words, calling the novel a “near-masterpiece.” (Perhaps that’s what he means by a muted reception, lowering the voice to mutter “near-masterpiece” when the critics should really be blaring “legitimate masterpiece.”)

But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a masterpiece if and only if a masterpiece is derivative. Fountain’s debt to Joseph Heller, his comic hyperbole, his basic view that war is absurd, is obvious. A derivative novel can be great fun to read, and Fountain’s novel is great fun, but it can’t be a great novel. Erase Catch-22 from literary history and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could not have been written.

I rarely use the word masterpiece, and then typically to designate Mr Sammler’s Planet as Bellow’s masterpiece or Bread Givers as Anzia Yezierska’s. If I were asked, though, to supply at least one necessary and sufficient condition of a literary masterpiece—a masterpiece of literature and not merely of a novelist’s oeuvre—I would have to say that a legitimate masterpiece solves a longstanding literary problem, breaks a literary logjam, punches a literary kind out of the corner in which it has been boxed.

In Leopards in the Temple, the great critic Morris Dickstein argues that, since the Second World War, the American war novel has been divided between two starkly different approaches—either the proletarian (The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity) or the absurdist (Catch-22, Mother Night). The war novel “seemed at first to look backward toward the social fiction of the Depression,” Dickstein observes, but by the early ’sixties it “also looked forward to the black humor, the anguished sense of alienation of the postwar years.” Novels of the Vietnam war were split along similar lines. Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is heavily indebted to Catch-22 in structure, theme, and tone; some of the lesser known novels of the war, including James Webb’s Fields of Fire and William Turner Huggett’s almost completely forgotten Body Count, focus on the social life of the military’s working class—the infantry platoon.

The great novel of the Iraq war has yet to be written. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not it. By the time American novelists came to write about the Iraq war, they had been reduced to mannerism. They fooled around with the techniques they had inherited, but they failed to hammer into shape a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. Even the proletarian mode had largely disappeared from the repertoire of American novelists. Absurdism was, for them, the only possible response to war. (And if an absurdist novel of the Iraq war is what you want, David Abrams’s Fobbit is twice as crazy and three times as funny as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.)

From this perspective, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, while a much lesser novel of the Iraq War, is also much braver. Powers stumbled upon the promising idea of adapting an untried Jamesian voice to the novel of combat. The result, however, is painful to read. (I quote a particularly embarrassing passage here.) But at least Powers sought to knock down the rigid conventions of the American war novel. Fountain’s may be the better novel, and it is enjoyable to read, but it is ultimately a “genre novel.” And if it comes to that, I’d prefer a novel like Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn, which gladly embraces the restrictive conventions of a tightly fit genre in order to create something entirely unexpected.

I’m no fan of the Iraq war novels that have been published so far, but this makes me a “novel-basher” only if you ignore my reasons why—only, that is, if you are not a legitimate critic, but a rah-rah literary booster like Darin Strauss.

Update: In the original version of the above, I used feminine pronouns to refer to Darin Strauss, because I did not know any better about him. I have apologized to him on Twitter, and I’d like to repeat my apology here. (I too have been mistaken for a woman in print, although there is something about the mistake that is strangely flattering.) At all events, I had to change nothing else in changing the pronouns above. You’ll notice what little difference the changes made to my argument.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The pick of Roth’s litter

The Daily Beast asked several writers and critics to pick their favorite novel by Philip Roth, newly retired from fiction. My choice of American Pastoral comes last, after William H. Gass, who doubts Roth will stay retired, has taken The Counterlife.

Genre fiction is fan fiction

Looks like I will be doing battle with the false distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” till my dying day. The confusion comes about as a result of wanting to claim literary as a term of prestige, or a warning of boredom ahead, instead of using it in its standard meanings, either “having to do with literature” or simply “written.”

I suppose you could say that a novel like Christopher R. Beha’s brilliant What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which is literary in being about literature, might be described, accordingly, as literary fiction. But the description still sounds off key. Beha’s literary fiction is that one half of Sophie’s story, told in first person by a friend and ex-lover who is also a novelist, is really a true and faithful account of what really happened to her—fact and not fiction, that is. The reliability of an unreliable narrator is a dependable literary fiction. To advance the term as a taxonomic distinction instead is to give up an exact and effective means of describing what else a fiction pretends to be.

The term genre fiction is less disturbing only because those who throw it around are less pleased with themselves. I don’t want to offend them. How about substituting the term fan fiction, then? [Ed.: But see below.] “[H]alf the readers in the country,” Howard Jacobson writes in Zoo Time, “no sooner finished one book than they started another identical in all but the tiniest and most irrelevant details. . . .” My hard-working and voracious wife is among them. She reads only mysteries. Originally hooked on Rex Stout, she has over the course of our marriage been steadily working her way through Anne Perry, Laurie R. King, Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert, Virginia Thompson, Emily Brightwell, Elizabeth Peters, Sara Paretsky, and Kate Ellis (to name only the authors she owns multiple copies of). Right now she is in the middle of Eggsecutive Orders, a “White House Chef mystery” by Julie Hyzy. The very title will appeal to fans and ward off all others. The so-called “genre” serves merely to gather together in one convenient location, as in a bookstore, a stack of nearly identical books.

Call me a snob if it makes you feel better. I’m not opposed to mystery writers the way I’m opposed to government-run healthcare. There are three mystery writers I particularly enjoy—Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Bill James—but the literary nexus into which I’ve fit them has little to do with “genre.” Ross Macdonald led me to John Fante and Oakley Hall—two more southern California writers—and I came around to Bill James only after reading Colin Macinnes and Patrick Hamilton, two earlier novelists of the English lower depths.

Fan fiction has its uses, especially for readers who prefer suspense to fear and anxiety to pity. But leave the word genre alone. It too has its uses, but among them is not the marketing device of amassing recommendations for readers whose tastes are confirmed and confirmed again.

Update: In a tweet, Miriam Burstein observes that “fanfiction is already a thing” (although the term parasitical fiction would describe it better, if you ask me). I confess that I had entirely blanked on its existence, since it is so clearly sub-literary. Burstein suggests “comfort fiction,” which is a lot better than “junkie fiction,” I suppose. But I wonder if fanfiction and what I’m calling “fan fiction” here aren’t two varieties of the same cultural phenomenon, one amateur, one professional—or, rather, one that expresses itself in writing, the other as a search for something more to read.

Monday, December 17, 2012

On boring books and even more boring readers

I’m not known for much, but one thing I’m known for is my dislike of the term literary fiction. The term could be helpful in distinguishing, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather from Mario Puzo’s. The one is cinematic fiction; the other, literary fiction. But that’s not how the term is used anymore. Literary fiction, as I’ve said before on this blog in trying to define it, is therapeutic fiction. It is fiction that is good for you. It’s like tofu, as I later tweeted. No one really likes it, although many people think they should eat it. But how do you know it when it’s on the shelf in front of you? Only by the via negativa, as I wrote elsewhere:

“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 [the novelist] Lev Raphael quoted a bestselling mystery author as saying, fiction where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting.The trouble, as I observed in a review, is that nobody knows what else to call it. If not “literary,” then what exactly is the name for fiction that is not intended to be read as quickly and painlessly as possible? In disputing the “wicked idea that good writing and entertainment are incompatible,” the British novelist Howard Jacobson declares, “The better the writing, the more fun there is in reading it.” But when he must settle upon a name for it, Jacobson falls back upon calling it serious fiction (he was, after all, a student of F. R. Leavis).

An Arnoldian term, serious has its own shortcomings. But I was wrong four years ago when I said that it has no natural opposite. My students at the Ohio State University this semester have taught me that the opposite of serious is whatever the opposite of boring is. Assigned a critical dictionary as a course-ending project, more than a dozen of them defined literary fiction, a term I had introduced in class for the sake of quarreling with it, as “boring fiction.” Here is perhaps the most representative student entry:Literary Fiction . . . is the type of fiction that is thought of as boring to the ordinary person. It is mostly read by the scholarly or students that are forced to read it through academia. Classic novels, not mainstream books, often fall into this category. Literary Fiction is thought provoking and can be difficult to understand; it is not mindless entertainment. Literary Fiction contains beautiful writing and is supposed to have a great moral lesson that we all should learn from. People that like literary fiction are often thought of as having good taste and as being smarter. Ordinary people look down on literary fiction because they think it is too confusing or time consuming.By contrast, the same student defined genre fiction, that hunky and handsome younger cousin of literary fiction, as the “kind of fiction people do not have to be forced to read.” I was tempted to quote Arnold: “Force till right is ready.”

When did boredom go from being an admission about the self (“I’m bored”) to an accusation against a going-on (“It’s boring”)? For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people complain that baseball games are boring, but I paid no attention, because the complaints were so obviously an expression of unfamiliarity and ignorance. Coronary artery bypass surgery is boring too—it can take up to eight hours—but if your parent or spouse needs it, you don’t care about the boredom overmuch; certainly not enough to complain about it. If a book bores my students, though (and many, many other people in the culture, I would wager), the fault is the book’s, not theirs.

“One can . . . tell a great deal about a person by what bores him,” Joseph Epstein wrote in his essay on boredom. But that may be in the process of becoming untrue. To call something boring any more is to give a damning and faithful evaluation of it. More and more, one can tell a great deal about a thing from who is bored by it. I’ve started asking my students whether great literature might not be bored by them.

Update: Scott G.F. Bailey has a reply and further reflections here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The books I’ve stolen

It’s a shameful thing to admit to, but I have stolen a few books in my lifetime—sneaking out of the synagogue library with a treasured volume stuffed into my trousers, removing titles they’ll never miss from my parents’ or in-laws’ house (or girlfriends’, but never real friends’). The only reason I’ve never shoplifted anything from a bookstore is my fear of getting caught—that, and my vestigial respect for booksellers, even if Waldenbooks and Borders never deserved any respect. Nor have I stolen books from a public or university library. To do so would represent the triumph of experience over hope.

Howard Jacobson’s new novel Zoo Time opens hilariously with Guy Ableman’s arrest for stealing a book from an Oxfam shop in Chipping Norton. Guy objects when the constables who pinch him accuse him of stealing:

       I didn’t think the word was accurate given that I was the author of the book I was supposed to have stolen.
       “What word would you use, sir?” the younger of the two policeman asked me. . . .
       “Release,” I said. “I would say that I have released my book.”
       “Released from what exactly, sir?” This time it was the older of the two policemen who addressed me. . . .
       Roughly, what I said to him was this:
       Look: I bear Oxfam no grudge. I would have done the same in the highly unlikely event of my finding a book of mine for sale second-hand in Morrisons. It’s a principle thing. It makes no appreciable difference to my income where I turn up torn and dog-eared. But there has to be a solidarity of the fallen. The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom—“Everyman, I will go with thee and by thy guide” and all that—is dying. Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer.
I’ve never stolen my own Elephants Teach, but then I’ve never come across it in a bookstore either. When I was home for Thanksgiving, though, I found a copy of Rabbit Is Rich wrapped in the dustjacket for Humboldt’s Gift. Such an offense had to be redressed as quickly as possible.

The books I’ve released from a dusty oblivion on the shelves of non-readers to spend their remaining days among others of their voluptuous and desired kind include Middlemarch (in a nice Oxford reprinting), Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Philip Roth’s Professor of Desire (first edition hardback), Primo Levi’s If This Be a Man, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States, Gravity’s Rainbow (a girlfriend had been assigned it in college and may even have asked me to take it away: I don’t remember), my father’s read-once-and-abandoned copy of The Grapes of Wrath, and Walter Noble Burns’s Saga of Billy the Kid (I myself was a kid). There are probably more that I’ve forgotten. Stolen books do furnish a concise intellectual autobiography.

I’ve been the victim of book theft too, and I am not referring to the books loaned to friends who never returned them (bowing our friendship under the weight). When Charles Bukowski read at Santa Cruz—I was to introduce him—I asked him to autograph The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills in a beautiful first edition from Black Sparrow. He signed the book and then asked if he could borrow it to read from. I blushed—honored and humbled to be brushed by literary fame. When he was done reading, Bukowski set the volume down and someone walked away with it. I’ve never even tried to replace the book. It isn’t as good as the anecdote.

When my wife was in St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston to give birth to our third son, I escaped to the cafeteria to read The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel about Novalis. I got up to refill my coffee, and when I returned to the table, the book was gone. The theft was the excuse I needed to buy a fine hardback edition of the novel instead.

Book theft is not a crime, but an act of disobedience against illiteracy. More writers should confess to it and name the titles they have stolen. The secret history of literature could be compiled from the lists.

Update: A friend and longtime reader of this blog writes to confess his own book theft: “I stole a first of Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck from a public library in the late ’sixties and had Gass sign it when I met him in 1994. He said, ‘Boy, I don’t see many of those.’ Pride mingled with guilt.”

Update, II: My teacher Joseph Epstein sends along a brief comment: “I'd say that the fellow who stole Omensetter’s Luck got the punishment he deserved.”

Update, III: “Ouch,” my friend says, reading Epstein’s comment. “He’s right.”

Update, IV: The incomparable Nige attributes his own days of profligate book theft, when “fully a third” of his library consisted of stolen volumes, to “stark insensibility.” I attribute it to the book-lust of youth, which youth (having not yet been let down by books that promise more than they can deliver) is powerless to resist.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The critic’s credentials

The novelist William Giraldi, who is no stranger to controversy, has kicked up more dust with a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay in which he deplores what has become of literary criticism as it has migrated from “respectable print publications” to “blogs and social media sites.” In yet another enforcement of Gresham’s law, the “online culture of masked assassins” is driving out “serious criticism.” Giraldi’s description of the quality of book discussion to be found online is carefully tailored to offend just about everybody: “If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog,” he says, “you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.”

Ouch. As if on cue, my fellow book bloggers rose up in arms. But I’m not sure why. Giraldi was not questioning their venue, but their credentials. And he was unusually clear—for a writer who prefers a more baroque style, he was shockingly plain—in saying what he meant by the critic’s credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” What Giraldi expressly did not say is that discrimination and learning can only be exercised in “respectable print publications” and never never never in “someone’s personal blog.”

Indeed, the biggest shortcoming in Giraldi’s essay is not its sweeping condemnation of book bloggers, which is not to be found there, but its short-changing of what I’d call the gatekeeper problem. The editors of print publications, respectable or not, used to supervise the gates of literary criticism. Only the critics they approved of, only the criticism they found acceptable, were allowed to proceed into print. They selected the books for review; they assigned the reviewers. They decided how long the reviews would be and when the reviews would run (if at all). The editor’s judgment, not the critic’s, was final.

Every writer needs an editor, I suppose, but as someone who has written both for “respectable print publications” and on his own blog, I can tell you that the difference is between criticism that is constrained and criticism that is free (in every sense of that word, sadly). To the degree that blogs and social media have broken editors’ power, I am all in favor of them. I’ve had editors who angrily refused to review a writer out of personal malice, who spiked a review because they disagreed with its conclusion, who garbled an argument by cutting it to fit, who botched an allusion by failing to recognize it and recasting it in their own (superior) words, who introduced errors by inserting their own points. Worst of all, in my experience, has been the fundamental difference between editors and critics over the very function of criticism.

Giraldi quotes a wonderful passage from Percy Lubbock’s Craft of Fiction, which gets at the difference:

If you ask Henry James whether he “likes” some book under discussion, the roll and twinkle of his eye at the simplicity of the question is a lesson in itself, and one that a young critic will never forget. Where, he seems to say, on the loose fabric of a mere preference or distaste will be found the marks of the long wear and tear of discrimination that are the true critic’s honorable and recognizable warrant? It needs a solider consistency to stand the pressure and take the imprint of the accumulating weight of his scrutiny; and certainly there was no light fondness or hasty petulance in Henry James’s praise or blame of a book. A large unhurried mind, solitarily working and never ceasing to work, entirely indifferent to the changes and chances of the popular cry, it was this that gave its sonorous gravity to Henry James’s opinion of the thing that he rated.A critic’s verdict on a book is almost never a simple question of whether he “likes” it. In my experience, though, an editor wants to know very little more, and he will pressure the critic for a definitive assessment, up or down. The origins of Amazon’s five-star rating system lie in magazine and newspaper editors’ impatience with the “long wear and tear of discrimination.”

Here’s a good example of what I mean. Mark Athitakis recently reviewed Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, a study of families with children “whose identities are radically distinct from their parents’,” for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Writing at the top of his game, Athitakis burrows deeply into Solomon’s book:No amount of praise for the book—and it deserves much—can soften how challenging the material is. Interviewing more than 300 families, Solomon gathers up sheaves of tragedy. Ostracism abounds for parent and child alike, and helplessness is common. I doubt a more heartbreaking page has been published in a book in 2012 than one here listing the ways despairing parents have murdered their autistic sons and daughters.This is how criticism should be written: with rapt attention to the book, and an evaluation of it implicit in the close description of it. This exemplary paragraph, however, is followed by a remarkable jarring:So why read it?Just like that. I was sufficiently amused to tweet an ironic commendation, to which Athitakis replied: “Nothing quite like an editor who insists you get to the point.” Right now. On his timetable. In as few words as possible.

Perhaps instead of asking about critics’ credentials, Giraldi might have inquired into editors’. If he is right that “readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious”—and he is right—the reason is not that Amazon reviewers and chitty chitty bang bang blogs have taken over the field. The reason is that the “long wear and tear of discrimination” has always been in short supply, never more so than at present, and readers who are looking for it can no longer depend upon the venue of criticism for an imprimatur. They will have to exercise their own judgment; they too will have to suffer the “long wear and tear of discrimination.” To a dividing of the shit from the serious there is no end, and no one who cares about literature is excused from it. As with literature so with criticism: the only way to tell whether it is shit is to smell it.

There is, in short, no outside credentialing agency. As the great Ruth R. Wisse once said in reflecting upon her own experience as a critic:What you don’t want to do is feel you have to prove your bona fides, to make it clear what a good person you are and all the rest of it. If you have to do that, it weakens the force of your argument. It already suggests there’s something suspect about your position.The critic’s credentials are in her argument and nowhere else.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Meursault goes home again

Marly Youmans, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2012). 261 pages.

When Albert Camus published L’Étranger in 1942, he whipped up an extraordinary popular delusion among the literati, especially the Anglo-American literati. The existential outsider became the hero of postwar literature, and his alienation from a world in which he could find no meaning became the era’s great theme. One wag even suggested that postwar critics had a special key on their typewriters for the word alienation. Both Richard Wright and the twenty-four-year-old British prodigy Colin Wilson wrote books, published within three years of each other, called The Outsider. Here was a man, according to Wright, who “found his obligations intolerable,” not merely because of his position between two cultures—Wright’s outsider was African American, Camus’s a French North African—but because “there resided in his heart a sharp sense of freedom that had somehow escaped being dulled by intimidating conditions.” By the time his vogue had passed and the literati had moved on to eulogize the Other instead, the outsider had become a hippie.

In her fifth novel, Marly Youmans pumps new life into the old figure. Like Camus’s Meursault, Pip Tattnal is an orphan who lacks all relatedness, except perhaps to a world that is overwhelming, occasionally radiant, but forever unmoved by moral experience:

In the lull after the memory departed, it came to him that this was all, that there was an utter randomness at the foundations of the world, and that only a few stray moments of beauty and intensity shone in a cold and ever-widening space. In its precincts could be found the murk of cruelty and evil and the cold boredom of pre-dawn mornings squatting in frozen scrub next to steel and sleepers. All he could hope for was enough stars to illumine a way.In September 1935, Pip is ten years old and living in a “cottage-style orphanage” on a sharecropped farm in Emanuel County, Georgia, when his two-years-younger half-brother Otto is murdered. “What could a boy do about such evil?” Pip asks himself. He is questioned by the authorities, he is permitted to visit the cemetery, but after four months he is given to understand that no one intends to do anything. Otto was the son of a white father, Pip’s father, and a black mother; therefore, he was a nigra or a nigger, depending upon who was speaking. He was “scorned for his skin.”

Pip concludes that the reason his brother was murdered may have been as simple as this: “Otto was just the same as the others until somebody noticed that maybe he wasn’t.” There is nothing for him, he realizes, at an orphanage named for a secret organization much like the Ku Klux Klan. In January, when he turns eleven, Pip jumps on the 2:15 Southern Railway local bound for Savannah. He longs for scenery beyond Georgia—mountains, canyons, oceans—but he does not know what to expect. “[A]ll his knowledge was a child’s,” Youmans writes, “a piecing together of a world based on insufficient information.” Thus begins what she frankly calls his picaresque.

Pip is not a rogue, however—not the traditional hero of a picaresque. He does not exhibit what I have described elsewhere as the reckless cunning, hopscotch logic, and narrow-eyed attitude toward life which typifies a rogue. Pip leaves the White Camellia Orphanage not because he is fleeing from, but because he is looking for. And though it is clear almost from the beginning what he is looking for (“He wished that he belonged to somebody”), it takes him three whole years, five inches of growth, and thousands of miles riding the rails to find where and to whom he belongs.

Youmans is particularly good at sketching in the background of the Depression years. Pip is tossed into the company of hobos and migrants—“floaters,” as he calls them—who are “roving North America with no place to lay their heads.” The work is scarce when there is any work at all, the pay is barely anything, kindness is rare, the hunger and loneliness are unrelenting, and violence is never far from the surface. Pip is beaten by railroad bulls, knifed by a man who covets his slice of cheese. Hopping freights is even more treacherous, and Pip witnesses his share of bloody death. There are also the sad cases, like the man known only as Mr. Can o’ Heat, who squeezes Sterno through a filthy handkerchief to stay drunk on its alcohol. The dead and discarded of those years, Pip says, were “lost grain[s] of history, sliding into the abyss.”

Pip is determined not to become one of them. Although he remains an outsider among outsiders (“this aimless tribe of young men, an unconnected troop who had banded together out of a fear of wandering in a world without bounds and with no end to danger”), Pip never abandons his hope of belonging to “people who had a meaning to one another. . . .” Then, one day in October 1941, riding a Missouri Pacific freight that is heading east, Pip is handed a worn railroad timetable by two brothers who share his boxcar. Hand-lettered on it are the words “Mrs. Lil Tattnal Tattnal. L. J. Tattnal Farm Road.” She is his older sister, whom he hardly remembers and then only as an image in a photograph. “That lady gave us the best feed we’ve had all year,” one brother says. “She was sure one nice lady,” the other agrees.

Holding the paper in his hand, teetering between going and not going, Pip realizes that he is tied to the place where the White Camellia Orphanage once stood: “he was entangled with that landscape as if the very clay of him had been scooped from the Georgia fields.” And so he returns, arriving in Emanuel County two days after Pearl Harbor. He intends only to take a meal and a bath before departing again, but Lil speaks the words that stop him: “You’ve gone and swapped your free nights and days for a home,” she says. “It’s not such a bad trade.” Going to sleep between clean sheets for the first time in years, Pip reflects that she may be right:It came to him that he had seen many wonders in his travels, had gone north until he met the midnight flares of the aurora borealis, had waded through the high prairie grass until he knew it to be endless, and had crossed a western beach piled with agates and inset with pools of pink and green stars, but that now he had come to what might be home and this sight was the strangest of them all.Although Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison have both published novels called Home in the past four years, Youmans knows better than anyone that, for the peripatetic outsider, who feels as if he must keep moving, home is not without its costs. “The price,” Pip understands, “had been the death of his freedom, the halt to his long running away. . . .” But the loss of his freedom is not, for Youmans, the end of the story. When his freedom is taken away, Meursault opens his heart to la tendre indifférence du monde; Pip settles down to become an uncle to his sister’s boys—not, however, before he too opens his heart. Visiting the graveyard where his brother Otto is buried, Pip closes his eyes:For some moments he felt the simple aspiring of a flower for the sun: as if he had gone past everything he had known and even past himself until he was nothing human but some radiant other. In that instant everything he knew about himself from the beginning and everything he hoped to be was lost in one burning sphere of longing.Pip is delivered from existential despair—and the novel is delivered from sentimentality—by the grace of Youmans’s prose, in which tender poetry and jubilant lyricism are carefully separated from realities that are unyielding and often foul. The style affirms what the facts deny; or at least until the very end, when poetry and reality mesh at last. Where Meursault found only indifference in the world, Pip finds radiance, the immanence of glory which St. Paul called, in his letter to the Hebrews, apaugasma. (It is no accident that, in Christianity, home is identified with the Church.) One of the best novels of 2012, A Death at the White Camellia Orphange is a moving and powerful novel of the religious experience, the longing and the search for God’s presence in the world, without ever once speaking religion’s dirty name.

Friday, December 07, 2012

“Fiction was king”

The other day, in his excellent blog at the American Conservative, Alan Jacobs quoted the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, who recalls with nostalgia when “Fiction was king.”

Color Jacobs skeptical:

[I]f there was an age when “fiction was king,” surely it was the Victorian era, when writers like Dickens and George Eliot and (in a very different American context) Harriet Beecher Stowe were treated as profound social critics and moral sages. Almost all major novelists since then have at least occasionally suffered from the feeling that they came on the scene too late.Keneally, however, seems to have been thinking back upon his own career, which began in 1964 with The Place at Whitton, a mystery about a string of murders in a monastery. He had written fourteen novels by the time he struck it rich in 1982 with Schindler’s Ark, his docu-novel or historical novel about the German businessman who saved nearly a thousand Jews from Hitler’s war upon them. Keneally went on to write fourteen more novels, but something had fundamentally changed.

Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, released eleven years after the novel, was only partly to blame. The main problem was that Keneally’s achievement was historical, not literary. In bringing Oskar Schindler’s story to wider notice, he added to historical knowledge—even though his original intention was not knowledge alone, but also the excitement of pain and danger, the rousing of the strongest emotions the heart is capable of. Most everyone now knows the story, but not everyone has experienced the emotions.

A young man or woman, just starting out, is unlikely to share any such grandiose conception of the novel. A source of knowledge and emotional power? You’ve got to be kidding! What has changed, as Cynthia Ozick wrote in her Afterword to the 2004 reprinting of Trust, is “the nature of ambition.” The Great American Novel has been replaced by what she calls “prompt gratifications and high-velocity fame”—the Great American Blog Post! “The sworn novelists, who, despite the devourings of the hour, continue to revere the novel,” Ozick says—“these novelists remain on the scene, if not on the rise.” But the conception of the novel as “the holy vessel of imagination,” a conception that passed from the Victorians to the Modernists, had become undone by the ’seventies. What has disappeared since then are not the novelists, but the institutionalized religion of the novel:The altars are gone. The priests are dead. Writers and artists of all kind are no longer publicly or privately abashed by the rewards of commerce. The arbiters of literary culture have either departed (few remember Irving Howe, say, or Randall Jarrell) or have devolved into popular celebrities, half sage, half buffoon.Ozick presses on “in homage to the old ambition.” But she, like Keneally, began her career prior to the ’seventies. (Trust, her first novel, was published in 1966 and begun even earlier.) And if the old ambition continues to be shared by some of her readers, they are likely to be graying too. Sworn readers are now even more rare than sworn novelists:[A]s the old ambition has faded, so has readers’ craving: recognizable bookish voluptuaries and print-cannibals are rare. Readers nowadays will hardly tolerate long blocks of print unbroken by dialogue or action, and if there are to be long blocks of print at all, they must be in familiar, speedy, colloquial, undemanding prose.Ozick does not blame television and film, which have themselves been affected by the same impatience and wilting ambition. What else, she asks, is the camera technique of “panning” than a jitteriness with the slow development of character and setting?

If fiction is no longer king the reason is not, as Tom Wolfe once prophesied, that something else has superseded it as “the number one genre.” There are no more genres (a concept as square as the novel). There are mashups; there are porous boundaries between high and low, popular and serious, literature and its negation; but there are no longer any distinct kinds. Indeed, there is a creeping horror of distinctions as such. If fiction is no longer king the reason is that the faith which sustained it for so long, the belief system which led writers and readers alike to defer to its supremacy, has disappeared. What has disappeared is any confidence in the power of the word.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Joseph Epstein, my teacher

Joseph Epstein’s latest book, Essays in Biography, is being praised hither and yon, although the review over at the Millions, referring to the extraordinary author of twenty book-length essays and collections of essays as “Uncle Joe,” an overly familiar name first hung on him five years ago by the young novelist Joshua Cohen, rankled me. Maybe I was only jealous. If anyone who is not his nephew is entitled to call Joseph Epstein “Uncle Joe,” it is I. Or at least I once was.

As a matter of fact, the waiter at a bagel shop in Evanston mistook me for Epstein’s nephew when we lunched together there one pointless overcast day in Evanston. Epstein and I are the same height (on the shady side of five and a half feet), the same physical type (as my mother used to reassure me when I was a boy, dynamite comes in small packages), with the same lines on our faces and spectacles on our noses. At the time I was a PhD student in English at Northwestern University. Although I had gone to Evanston expressly to study under Gerald Graff, I was intrigued to learn that Epstein taught at Northwestern too. The intrigue only deepened when I discovered that Epstein and Graff had been friends for years—they attended Senn High together, then the University of Chicago together, then had written for the New Yorker together—before falling out with each other over a case of academic freedom. Naturally, then, I asked Epstein and Graff to direct my PhD dissertation together.

It was an arrangement that only two prickly hard-headed Jewish intellectuals could endure. (The third member of the committee, the poet and critic Paul Breslin, would sometimes try, gently and awkwardly, to broker a peace agreement between Graff and Epstein, but after a while he chose the better part of valor.) The dissertation got written because I knew what I wanted to do with it, and even though I admired Epstein and Graff equally, if for different reasons, I ignored their advice and instructions when they were at odds with my ambitions for the project. When it was finally published as The Elephants Teach, I thanked them together: “The most profound influence” on my book, I wrote in the Preface,

has been that of my mentors Joseph Epstein and Gerald Graff. As dissimilar as they are in so many ways, they are remarkably alike in intellectual integrity, independence, courage, and strength. This book is an effort to live up to their example,although neither was pleased that I had lumped them together. Personal history was one thing—they could not deny they had shared that—but intellectual virtue? As I recently relearned to my sorrow, the question of what will affront Jewish intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals) surpasseth human understanding.

My words in the Preface were not, however, mere flattery. If I had to describe my own style, I could do worse than to say that it is an uneasy collusion of Graff’s curt argumentativeness with Epstein’s elegant and eclectic learning. (Not that I am capable of Epstein’s elegance. The closest I can come is something like his eclecticism.) Just look at his essay in Commentary last year on boredom. The references (in order) include Albert Speer, Lorenz Hart, Truman Capote (on James Baldwin), Pascal, David Foster Wallace, Ivan Goncharov, the actor George Sanders, Dostoyevsky, Joseph Brodsky, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Morris Raphael Cohen, Byron, Santayana, Hermann Broch, Alberto Moravia, Robert Nisbet, Mae West, Barbara Pym, the neurologist Arthur D. Craig, William Harvey, Mozart, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Just to read off the names is to recognize the distinctive outlines of a Joseph Epstein essay.

No other American has sought so assiduously and so well to write essays in the tradition of Montaigne. The comparison is not a shrug accompanied by “You know?” Few of his reviewers have noticed that skepticism is as native to Epstein’s essays as to Montaigne’s. Perhaps because the deconstructionist denial of truth—the very possibility of it—has replaced the eyebrow-raising doubt of commonly accepted and advertised truths, a great reinventor of Montaigne’s skepticism like Epstein is not difficult to overlook (and leave to the literary types). The fact remains, however, that in his studied avoidance of any definitive answer once for all, in adopting an essayistic method of thought from which all middle terms have been eliminated, where predicate nudges aside predicate for harmonious serial consideration rather than clanging logical conclusion, Epstein is every inch the postmodern Montaignean skeptic. That he is not widely praised as such is our age’s fault, not his.

Epstein once told me how he started writing essays. Although he is routinely described as “America’s greatest living man of letters,” he has a much humbler conception of his literary role. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he told me, he was cowed by great literature; he could not imagine himself writing it. But when he read the intellectual magazines of the late ’fifties, Commentary and the New Republic and the Reporter in this country, Encounter and the Spectator and the New Statesman in Britain, he found in them a kind of writing he could do. He did not set out to write like Montaigne, but like Malcolm Muggeridge and Irving Kristol. And though he has become an accomplished story writer, Epstein came late to fiction, not publishing his first collection until he was fifty-four. For myself, I still prefer the essays. Perhaps the greatest crime in American literary history was his ouster as editor of the American Scholar in 1997—feminists lost their minds when he spoke of “dykes on bikes”—because then Epstein was deprived of an outlet for his familiar essays, which he had published at the beginning of every issue under the pen name Aristides (after the Athenian statesman, I believe, not the Christian apologist). Not surprisingly, too, the magazine went downhill fast after his removal.

In person, Epstein is an arresting combination of high culture (a modulated voice in the middle range, neat dress, careful speech) with the attitudes, the exuberant laugh, and sometimes even the chopping gestures of an unpretentious Jewish businessman. (His father was a successful salesman, and later owned and ran a small factory.) He likes to juggle, for instance, and is not shy about showing off his juggling ability. The first time he juggled for me, keeping four clubs in the air without hitch, I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say. I still don’t. The effect on me would be much the same if my nine-year-old son looked up from his video game and started quoting, with exact pronunciation, a Shakespearean soliloquy. That’s the thing about Epstein, though—in person and on the page. He is never predictable.

I owe him my start. It has been a quarter of a century since he contacted Wlady Pleszczynski at the American Spectator and put in a good word for me. (My first magazine piece was a skeptical report on the MLA.) Epstein and I had our own falling out several years ago—we are both Jewish intellectuals, after all, with all the usual hypersensitivities—but he dropped me a line after he saw a review of mine somewhere or other, we exchanged news and gossip, and have remained in touch, off and on, ever since. According to Jewish tradition, you must never say a bad word in public about your old teacher. In my case, the prohibition is unnecessary. I have only good words to say about Joseph Epstein, perhaps because he has done more for me than I can ever repay. He will always be my teacher.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Bonfire of the ethnicities

Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood (Boston: Little, Brown, 2012). 704 pages.

Tom Wolfe has now written four novels—four very big novels—since declaring forty years ago that the novel was no longer “literature’s main event.” Back then, Wolfe was singing the praises of the New Journalism, a promotional name for magazine writing that was said to read like fiction. Wolfe’s aim was to winch journalism out of its “terrific slough of understatement,” doing whatever it takes “to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.” The reporter would become a narrator, exchanging objec­tivity’s “drone” for a “voice” as bright as personality; and if he had to juice his prose with “interjections, shouts, nonsense words, onomatopoeia, mimesis, pleonasms,” or even resort to wild surges of punctu­ation (“dots, dashes, exclamation points, italics, and occasionally punctuation that never existed before ::::::::::”), he would do so in the name of—well, of what was not exactly clear. Newness? Overstatement? Making the author as important as his subject? This much was sure: in literary histories yet to be written, the New Journalism would be seen as “dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre.”

Then, at the relatively advanced age of 56, Wolfe came forth with a novel of his own. Published in 1987, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a vast 700-page panorama of New York City in the 1980’s, which owed more than its title and moral vision to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. It told the story of a high-flying Wall Street trader, a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” with the audacity to concoct a $3 million profit in one afternoon by cynically manipulating the bond market. He is brought low by race hustlers and a politically ambitious district attorney cynically manipulating the criminal justice system—a morality tale on the theme of vanitas vanitatum. As Wolfe explained later in a scandalous “manifesto for the new social novel” published in Harper’s, he hoped to startle American fiction into returning to life, to “big, rich slices of contemporary life.” The American novel, which he mocked as the anorexic novel, had pivoted away from the American feast. “The act of writing words on a page was the real thing,” he lamented, “and the so-called real life of America was the fiction, requiring the suspension of disbelief.”

For a writer who earlier in his career had criticized avant-garde “conceptual” art as little more than a graphic illustration of verbal theories—The Painted Word, he called it in a 1975 book—Wolfe’s admission that The Bonfire of the Vanities was written to “prove a point” might have seemed an irony too far. But the uncom­fortable truth is that Wolfe may not have entirely understood his own success. Although he crowed about taking his rightful place in the “vein that runs from Dreiser to Steinbeck,” and though he claimed to have revived the “intensely realistic novel” with its “broad social sweep,” The Bonfire of the Vanities was a pretty conventional satire. The objects of its ridicule—hypocrisy, pretension, envy, greed—have been the standard fare of English-language satire since the 18th century. What set Wolfe’s novel apart from other American novels of the late 1980’s, what carried it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for eight straight weeks, knocking Stephen King from his perch, was its information. If you read it you could learn how bonds are traded on Wall Street, what happens behind the scenes in court, how New York million­aires dress themselves and spend their days and furnish their apartments, what it feels like to be lost at night on the mean streets of the South Bronx.

As the late Jacques Barzun once said, the first question to ask of any book is whether we know anything afterward that we did not know before. Novels are no different from any other kind of book in this respect—or at least they didn’t used to be. In addition to being a great novel (though not an intensely realistic one), Melville’s Moby-Dick was also an encyclopaedia of whaling in narrative form. Among Wolfe’s contemporaries, only Philip Roth had much interest in learning about any productive labor besides fiction—hotel management, glove-making, kosher butchering—and even he imparted the background information largely to render the foreground more believable. Wolfe, by contrast, grounded his fiction in firsthand reporting or what newspapermen like to call legwork. From his first book in 1965 (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby with its title essay on the men who customize cars), Wolfe has been amazed, not only at how other people live and interact, but at what they find to do.

His next two novels, A Man in Full (1998) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), were written on assignment, so to speak, in the Atlanta real-estate market and the undergraduate culture of an elite pri­vate university strangely resembling Duke. For their readers, the novels were like audio tours to unfamil­iar settings, which they might otherwise never visit. Wolfe described his working methods: “leaving the study, going out into the world, documenting society, linking individual psychology to its social con­text.” When the critics complained that his characters were “big, vivid blots of typology” with the “emo­tional depth of newsprint,” they failed to grasp that Wolfe was up to something fundamentally different from the “literary” novelists they were accustomed to praising. For him, the most basic human emo­tions—the ones that motivate human behavior—are aroused by social circumstances, especially a sensi­tivity over one’s social standing. Introspection and the self-examination of motives are a lot rarer than literary intellectuals may think. Status and the surface details that mark status, on Wolfe’s showing, are the ways in which ordinary men and women avoid personality. The status sphere to which they belong, the status system that makes sense of their actions, are the heart of their mystery. To get those right is to get the people right. With each new title, Wolfe’s satire softened and his characters became more and more sympathetic, but they remained “cartoonish” because they remained locked in status competitions that prevented them from becoming anything more.

In Back to Blood, his new novel about the ethnic rivalries in Miami, Wolfe has created his most sympathetic character yet—perhaps the first of Wolfe’s characters to escape the prison of status com­petition altogether. Nestor Camacho is a 25-year-old policeman, the son of refugees from Castro’s Cuba, living with his parents in Hialeah, a “city of 220,000 souls, and close to 200,000 must be Cubans.” Miami’s official Little Havana is a stretch “along Calle Ocho, where the tourists all stopped at Café Versailles and had a cup of terribly sweet Cuban coffee,” pleased to have soaked up the “authentic, picturesque, folk­lórica atmósfera.” The real Little Havana is Hialeah, where the Cubans, “by nature ambitious,” have moved to get away from the old neighborhood, now a slum populated by Nicaraguans “and God knew who else.”

At the novel’s beginning, Nestor is a four-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, recently promoted to the Marine Patrol, an elite unit keeping watch on Biscayne Bay. Ordered to the scene of a disturbance near the Rickenbacker Causeway, Nestor climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner—using only his arms to climb faster—and either saves the life of a Cuban refugee or arrests him, depending on the perspective. Within the police department he becomes an overnight hero, but he is a traidor to the Cuban community. His own family turns against him. His beautiful Cuban girlfriend dumps him. The Cuban mayor instructs the police chief to demote Nestor to a beat cop. The chief won’t hear of it:

Everybody knows he risked his life to save a man. The whole city saw it. His fellow cops all admire him, no matter who they are. They all think of him as really brave, except they’d never say it—that’s taboo.So Nestor is reassigned to the Crime Suppression Unit. But then one day, on surveillance at a crack house, he singlehandedly takes down a drug dealer—a giant of a man, six-five and 275 pounds—who is strangling his sergeant. Nestor, all of five-seven and 160 pounds, seizes the giant in a full nelson and rides him to the floor. Again, he finds himself a hero to his fellow cops. And again, to the mayor, he is a political headache instead—a “one-man race riot.” Someone at the scene filmed the arrest on a cell phone and posted the video to YouTube, where Nestor can be seen (in the mayor’s words) “abusing a citizen of our African American community.” Again, the mayor instructs the police chief to get rid of Nestor. “He’s a damned good cop,” the chief objects. Threatened with his own job, the chief relieves Nestor of duty.

Ethnicity is what Wolfe calls elsewhere a “fiction-absolute,” a principle of value which is central to the self-conception of the ethnic group’s members. The ethnic rivalries in Miami—Cubans versus blacks versus whites versus Russians, even involving the recently arrived Haitians—are status competitions, a jockeying for position in the city’s pecking order. With its dislocations and anonymities, the modern city pushes everybody “back to blood,” a phrase Wolfe first introduced in The Bonfire of the Vanities and repeats here to announce his theme:Everybody . . . all of them . . . it’s back to blood! Religion is dying . . . but everybody still has to believe in something. It would be intolerable—you couldn’t stand it—to finally have to say to yourself, “Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.” But believing in by definition means blindly, irrationally, doesn’t it. So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us.Nestor Camacho, however, is expelled from his ethnic group, cutting him off from his “Cuban heritage,” and is stripped of his occupation, leaving him without a clear picture of himself. A man without any status at all, he wonders whether he exists. And yet, when he learns of an injustice at a Miami high school where a teacher has been falsely accused of striking a student in class, he undertakes an investigation, all on his own, without directive or supervision, and exposes evidence of a plot to frame the teacher. Why? He wasn’t angling to get his job back or clear his name, the police chief comes to understand: “He was just being a cop.”

Like Wolfe’s first three novels, Back to Blood is intricately laid out, crisscrossed by no less than three different storylines, only tangentially related to one another, which hurtle toward a collision in the closing pages. One subplot involves a Russian “oligarch,” a gangster really, who has purchased local status for himself by donating “seventy millions dollars’ worth of paintings by big-name Russian Modernists” to the New Miami Art Museum, which is renamed in his honor. A reporter for the Miami Herald suspects they are forgeries. Another subplot involves a celebrity psychiatrist who treats porno­graphy addicts (laughing at them behind their backs), and his nurse and lover, Nestor’s ex-girlfriend, who tries to sleep her way to higher status. Wolfe has studied Miami thoroughly, and he puts his research on engrossing informative display. I learned many things I never knew before, including some I’d rather forget—especially about the pornographic turn in contemporary art.

But Nestor Camacho’s story is what you read the novel for. Whether Wolfe has succeeded, after four novels, in restoring the novel to its position as the number one genre is uncertain. What is clear is that, on his fourth try, he has written a superb novel, perhaps even a great novel—and not because he has included lots of information and big slices of contemporary American life (although he has done that too). Back to Blood is so good because Nestor’s story is so good, and because Tom Wolfe has learned that the best novels are based, not on reporting, but on people and their moral choices. It can’t be accidental that Back to Blood is about a good policeman, who shares a quirk of temperament with good reporters: not the hunger for status, but rather the stubborn insistence upon getting to the bottom of something, no matter how small, no matter who knows, whether a classroom assault or the truth about a man’s life.

Note: This review was originally scheduled to run in the December 2012 issue of Commentary, but even though it was written and set in type and prepared for publication before John Podhoretz fired me, it was killed because . . . because . . . well, I don’t know why it was killed. Perhaps, to use Podhoretz’s own term, once the critic was no longer “acceptable,” his criticism also became unacceptable—after the fact.