Monday, December 29, 2008

Recalibrating the best American fiction

Patrick Kurp links to my list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, and then gets out his chisel and his trowel. He urges the removal of “Dick, Doctorow, Sorrentino, Toole, Auster, Carver and Johnson,” and makes several recommendations for inclusion.

First the removals. Except for Charles Johnson, whose Middle Passage is the best work of African-American literature since Invisible Man, I am not particularly loyal to any of the writers ixnayed by Kurp. At least not as writers. I have a well-rehearsed personal loyalty to Raymond Carver of course, but my appreciation for his fiction is real, and has grown steadily over the years. He belongs on any list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, and for two reasons. First, he is representative of the “minimalist” school of American writing since the seventies. Richard Ford is perhaps the preferred example these days, but Ford is self-satisfied, self-indulgent, and dull. Even when his people are dull, Carver never is. To be honest, Carver is much better when his prose is not “minimalist”—when he is not writing under the influence or being edited by Gordon Lish. His instinct for a gratifying thickness of detail was checked and disabled by Lish. But this leads to the second reason for his inclusion. Carver is not to be enjoyed for his “minimalist” prose and plots, but for his concrete and perspicacious details. No one surpasses him at capturing a certain kind of man and a certain kind of life, confined to the here and now with little promise of transcendence or escape.

I am willing to be talked out of Sorrentino. In one of my last visits to his home in Sudbury, J. V. Cunningham told me that Sorrentino was “vulgar guck.” And in a post coming later today (I hope), I make a case for a better novelist whose fiction is “self-conscious.” Mulligan Stew avoids the longueurs of most specimens of the “parody novel,” however. It is self-conscious without being self-important. It is genuinely enjoyable. And with all his admitted vulgarity, Sorrentino writes a clear and brisk hand.

E. L. Doctorow is an overblown novelist whom I gave up on reading years ago and return to every now and again just to make sure he hasn’t improved. He hasn’t. The March (2005) is an anti-Iraq War novel in the guise of a Civil War novel. William Tecumseh Sherman makes an unlikely and singularly ineffective spokesman for Doctorow’s over-the-counter anti-war views. The best thing about the novel is that it leaves you wanting to reread Sherman’s Memoirs for a historical corrective (and a more manly prose). Despite his descent into bathos, Doctorow wrote a wonderful novel in The Book of Daniel. As an experiment in “self-conscious” fiction—the book might best be described as a disorganized drawer for Daniel Lewin’s notes and observations—it is surprisingly successful. Daniel is the only surviving son of American Communists who are executed for stealing atomic secrets and giving them to the Soviets. Of course the novel permits Doctorow to parade his leftism without fear of contradiction. The Rosenberg File would not be published for a decade, and even when it was no longer possible to deny that they had been traitors, the Left stood by them. In the novel this contentment is justified. It contributes to Daniel’s unreliability as a narrator, his limitations as a human being. Really a first-rate portrait of the Old and New Lefts from the inside.

Now for Kurp’s recommendations. Thomas Berger—yes. I like Neighbors (1980) better than Vital Parts and The Feud. Never has a novel raised more serious doubts about the wisdom or even the advisability of the Second Great Commandment. John Cheever? I have my doubts, but shall withhold judgment until publication of the two forthcoming Library of America volumes, which will give me occasion to reexamine him. Guy Davenport is a great critic; I have not read the stories in DaVinci’s Bicycle. Other writers on Kurp’s list I’ve yet to read: Thomas Rogers, Mark Smith, and Theodore Weesner. Peter Taylor is a wonderful storywriter (see especially “Dean of Men,” which opens the Collected Stories), but he is a minor writer who must be reserved for those who successfully wade through the major titles on the list. Same holds for Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. John Huston’s film is better than the novel. (Carver introduced me to the book, by the way. When it came to Gardners, he rightly preferred Leonard to John.)

Cynthia Ozick is the glaring omission from my list. Stupid of me. How could I forget her? Kurp suggests The Puttermusser Papers. I like The Cannibal Galaxy or even Heir to the Glimmering World, although I worry that non-Jews, or Jews without much of a Jewish education, won’t really get either book.

Only one other major writer, inadvertently left off my original list, deserves to be added. The name will be revealed shortly.


Robert Levy said...

I question the use of the term "ixnayed". I checked wikipedia and it is simply not there (therefore it does not exist).

D. G. Myers said...

Since the content on Wikipedia is user-generated, you need to correct that oversight, Robert.

From the OED:

ixnay, v. N. Amer. colloq.

“trans. To reject, decline, dismiss, or cancel; = NIX v. 1.

“In quot. 1937: (prob.) to contradict.

“1937 Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer 17 Aug. 3/7 If John gets violent, begins to ‘ixnay’ everyone in the house.., and won't get into the bathtub, he'll have to be kept in the dog-house. 1947 Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica) 29 Dec. 16/7(heading) ‘Ox’ ixnays ‘ix’. A newspaper columnist's claim that the Ix family..had the shortest name on record was challenged by Tom Ox, of Canning Town, London. 1952 B. MALAMUD Natural (2003) 108 Roy Hobbs, El Swatto, has been ixnayed on a pay raise. 1979 Washington Post 4 Oct. D14/1 It is all but impossible to get turned down with a comedy script.., which is why such witless wonders as ‘The Villain’, ‘Americathon’ and ‘Hot Stuff’ didn't get ix-nayed at the rough-draft stage. 2003 Toronto Sun (Nexis) 14 Mar. 65 One of the more intense discussions has revolved around our choice of a wedding song... I think I can..safely ixnay anything from the Black Sabbath catalogue.”

Ken Houghton said...

I might argue that playing "War Pigs" at Jenna Bush's wedding would probably get some people up and dancing. Especially if you leave off the last verse.

Dave Lull said...

Ixnay is the "Pig Latin" version of nix and "possibly the only Pig Latin phrase to enter common English besides amscray. Ixnay and amscray were used widely in 'The Three Stooges' shorts, possibly the main source of popularity for the words."