Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spatial form and electronic texts

I’ll say this for the Kindle. It is forcing me to rethink my deepest convictions about literary form.

Over at the New Republic, Rochelle Gurstein finds herself hanging back from the celebration of the new electronic media. While the congnitive scientist Steven Pinker (Mr Rebecca Goldstein) plugs Twitter, e-mail, PowerPoint, and Google (“Far from making us stupid,” he bubbles, “these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart”), Gurstein observes that the champions of progress “have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as “keeping us smart’)—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two.”

What could possibly be lost in the wholesale adoption of the new electronic media? Quoting a friend, she says that “the world we have on our computer screens lacks physical, tangible materiality” and is “changing the feel of our lives in unpredictable ways.” Gurstein is not especially persuasive on the “physical, tangible materiality” that is being lost among the Kindles and iPads, saying only that we writers want the “the fruits of our labor to exist between hard or even soft covers in our own time and after us” (which is just another way of saying that “we” cling to a romantic conception of literature against the terror of oblivion). Moreover, the “presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them,” consoling us with an image (or illusion) of the continuity of self.

This is the sort of vague language, expressing a musty nostalgia for a golden age, that makes techno-revolutionaries reach for their guns. But I don’t want to be too hard on Gurstein. She is right that something is lost in reading texts on the Kindle and iPad, and she is right that it has something to do with the “physical, tangible materiality” of books. I wasn’t much clearer when I tried to define the loss last Friday.

Since then I have gone back to an essay that I learned in graduate school to abuse as a particularly noxious outbreak of the New Criticism—namely, Joseph Frank’s famous essay on “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” which first appeared in the Sewanee Review, then edited by Allen Tate, in 1945. (In an irony that probably refutes my case, I downloaded a copy of The Idea of Spatial Form, a collection of Frank’s six essays on the subject, to my Kindle.)

Frank’s basic point is that a “good deal of modern literature makes no sense if read only as a sequence”—as an experience confined to time, occupying no space. The view of literature as exclusively temporal—even if, as J. V. Cunningham pointed out, reading may occur at different times and the times may be compared—might be called the triumph of the scroll. The literary experience unrolls in advancing time, and the reader is constantly urged forward.

The scroll is a notoriously cumbersome format in which to handle texts, as anyone who has ever watched the baal korei struggling to find his place in the weekly reading can attest. But even the rabbis, who were familiar and comfortable with scrolls, held a spatial conception of the biblical text. Not only did it move forward, in a narrative line, but it also invited connections across time, at different physical places in the text. In the second century, Yishmael ben Elisha codified the principle as g’zerah shavah, teaching that similar words and expressions in different contexts can be studied and cited to elucidate one another.

In the twelfth century, Maimonides carried the principle a step further, arguing in his commentary on the Mishnah that the manner in which the Bible was given, which can only metaphorically be described as “speaking,” is of far lesser moment than the fact that it was given by God. As such it constitutes an unbreakable unity, and thus “there is no difference between verses like ‘And the sons of Ham were Cush and Egypt’ [Gen 10.6] . . . and verses like ‘I am the LORD your God’ [Exod 20.2].” Legally and even philologically, there is no chronological development within the Bible; there is no earlier and later; the words of the text are treated as a simultaneity.

There is nothing very remarkable in any of this. It is merely to say that texts form patterns that are distinct from, sometimes even opposed to, their narrative or argumentative development. Because it exists in space as well as in time, the codex, the print-and-binding book, provides a convenient form for such extra-temporal patterning. Obviously, the patterns continue to populate a text even when it is reduced to electronic form. But the forward push that electronic form encourages, its scroll-like unrolling, discourages the spatial recognition of patterns, if only by making the text more difficult to conceive—to hold in the hand as well as the mind—as a whole.

A very small and trivial example. Yesterday I was reading Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame on my Kindle. (I bought the book precisely because an Amazon reviewer complained that it is old. It was first published in 1995.) In typical fashion, James tries to devise statistical standards for admission to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The entire second chapter of the book, “76 Trombones,” is made up of quotations from a variety of sources, asserting that Lefty O’Doul or Phil Rizzuto or Dick Allen or Doc Cramer—some player not currently enshrined—deserves induction in the Hall. After a page or two, the chapter bored me: I grasped its principle and was eager to turn to James’s argument. It was unclear, though, whether James had simply compiled several pages of epigraphs, which would be followed by his own prose, or whether the entire chapter (as turned out to be the case) was taken up by the quotations.

In a print-and-binding copy, I could have quickly thumbed the chapter and flipped to the next. Unable to see the whole in an instant, though, I was reduced to paging [click] through [click] the [click] chapter [click], page [click] by [click] page. The codex mirrors the literary text’s spatial structure by permitting the eye, as if roaming over a building, to take in the whole at a glance. But the spatial dimension is just what electronic texts lack.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Kindle won’t replace the codex

In the June issue of The American, the economists Richard Swedberg and Thorbjørn Knudsen develop and extend the theories of Joseph A. Schumpeter on entrepreneurship.

In The Theory of Economic Development (1911), Schumpeter argues that there are five basic types of innovation: “a new good,” “a new method of production,” “a new market,” “a new source of supply of raw materials,” and “the carrying out of a new organization of any industry.” Thus he challenges the ordinary conception of an innovation as simply a novelty item, a new product or technology.

But Swedberg and Knudsen are struck by the fact that Schumpeter’s five types of innovation, taken as a whole, describe the entire economic process. What if, they suggest, innovation is conceived as the whole process of innovation from brainstorm to profit? To succeed at introducing an innovation, they point out, “you not only have to come up with the idea of the iPod, but also to produce it, market it, and make a profit.”

And this explains why innovation is so difficult and rare: the person who comes up with the idea for a new item is unlikely to be the same person who produces it, who differs from the person who finds buyers for it. The problem, as Swedberg and Knudsen lay it out, is one of vertical integration, coordinating the stages of the entire process.

Although I am no economist, the provocative article helped to give voice to my initial reaction to the Kindle, which I received as a gift for Father’s Day. After downloading a small library of free texts from Project Gutenberg, I finally purchased my first etext—Jonathan Sarna’s history of American Judaism. Now, I realize that the book, already six years old, is even older than the Kindle, which will be three years old in November. American Judaism is not hypertexted. The footnotes are merely superscript numbers on the screen.

Even if they were not useless, though, the footnotes would be unwieldy. Here’s why. You navigate around the Kindle’s screen with a “five-way controller,” which means that you must click down the page a line at a time. The cursor is also a little stodgy, leaving ghosts of itself and lagging behind your clicking. Clicking other than a [click] line [click] at [click] a [click] time may leave you at the wrong spot. Instead of the four directional arrows on my Apple IIe, I now have a single “five-way controller,” but its use is the same as on an Apple IIe. The technology is not cool enough to transfer any feeling of coolness to you if you master it.

When I read a book in the ancient form of a codex, I often have my fingers at different places, and flip back and forth, checking, comparing, making notes. This is impossible on the Kindle. And once I understood this, I understood something else. While the codex is a physical text—the book exists in space—the Kindle’s files are linear texts. Perhaps split screens, touch screens, and windows would make the Kindle less awkward to use, but they wouldn’t solve the basic problem. Namely: the Kindle is designed for texts that are intended to be read straight through in linear fashion. But few except for the most superficial texts are intended to be read in this fashion.

In short, the Kindle is a novelty item of surprisingly limited use, and despite the confidence of Michael Yoshikami that there is room for both in the market, it will probably be squeezed out by Apple’s iPad and other tablet computers.

Even so, the iPad appeals primarily to geeks and hipsters. The coolness of the technology, in other words, transfers easily to the user. But the problem that bedevils the Kindle remains. The physical qualities of the text must be reconceived—the text must not be left out of the chain of innovation—if any kind of electronic reading device is to replace the codex as the principal human means for storing and accessing knowledge.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stealing Home

Sports build character, Joseph C. Phillips writes in a column ahead of Father’s Day, but character is not built merely by picking up a ball. “Character must be taught,” he says. “And to whom does the duty fall? The youth coach.”

Put me down as skeptical. After coaching my sons’ Little League team this spring, I have concluded that sports do not build character so much as reveal it. Besides, a coach is too busy with his real job—teaching the fundamentals of a very hard game—to have any time to spare for moral lessons. Far more significant is that, according to Phillips, eight-five percent of the forty to fifty million kids who participate in youth sports every year are coached by the father of a player on their team. Maybe coaching is simply another way of being a father.

The only novel about the subject, as far as I know, is Stealing Home by the late Philip F. O’Connor. This time last year I pronounced it one of the Five Books of baseball. But it is more than that. On Father’s Day a year ago I complained about the scarcity of novels from a father’s perspective. Stealing Home is one of the few. Originally published in 1979 when O’Connor was forty-seven, it’s easily the best novel ever written about Little League baseball. The main difference between it and the more recent and better-known book about Little League—Michael Chabon’s Summerland—is the presence of the coach and father.

O’Connor does not mythologize baseball either. Instead of a magical bat which is a splinter off the Tree of Life, there are equipment problems. Benjamin Dunne, the bookstore owner who coaches Gray’s Cleaners, must shell out for new balls, a catcher’s mask, shin guards, and batting helmets. Nor is Stealing Home set in a magical realm between the gods and winter, but in a small Ohio city south of Toledo. (O’Connor taught for nearly three decades at Bowling Green State University, twenty-five miles south of Toledo.)

And the problems are human problems. Benjamin’s son Bobo is embarrassed by his father and asks to be traded. The team’s pitcher wrenches his ankle on the first day of practice, and the best player quits, saying that he doesn’t want to play for Benjamin (his real reason is more disturbing). Meanwhile, Benjamin’s store and marriage are failing, and when the divorced mother of one of his players makes it clear that she is available and willing, Benjamin tumbles into an affair with her. But his personal problems interrupt the baseball rather than vice versa. The Gray’s lose their first game by 4 to 2 to last season’s champs. “They was supposed to be better this year,” the shortstop says after the game. “They ain’t better,” says the first baseman. “Maybe they are,” Bobo replies. “Maybe we’re just better than we thought.”

Although they were the “Pee Wee League version of the original New York Mets” a year earlier, the new Gray’s under Benjamin’s guidance are good enough to challenge for the league title. Stealing Home traces their progress while Benjamin juggles the players’ troubles and his own. The boys’ personalities, and what they face at home, affect their performance on the field just as much as their talent for playing ball. This is the side of youth coaching that no one tells you about in advance. And it may also be the biggest difference between amateur baseball and the professional sport. Toss in interfering or indifferent parents and opposing coaches who take themselves too seriously—Benjamin calls them the “dandies”—and the result is an unstable mix.

As the Gray’s begin to come together as a team, they begin to have more confidence in Benjamin. But he does not make the mistake of exaggerating his importance: “Except for Bobo, he doesn’t want to be a father to any of them,” he thinks. He confines himself to coaching hints: “Try to watch the ball hit your bat.” And he “kills off the temptation” to deliver speeches about courage and discipline, knowing that they would probably hurt more than help.

What really turns things around, though, is when Benjamin’s relationship with his own son starts to improve. Early in the season, Benjamin gets a look from Bobo as if his pants were around his ankles when he says something “embarrassing.” But when Bobo stands up for his father against the team’s best hitter, the Gray’s start winning.

Something similar happened earlier this spring to the Camp Young Judaea Tigers. In the first days of the season, my seven-year-old son Saul took a ball off the chest. For weeks thereafter, he was too frightened to “hang in” the batter’s box against pitches. Toward the end of the season, though, he was able to overcome his fear. When Saul started hitting line-drives, the Tigers began to put together three- and four-run rallies.

The baseball action in Stealing Home is surprisingly well-described. You don’t expect Little League baseball to be very exciting, but O’Connor makes it so. The best thing about the novel, however, is how O’Connor shows that the game makes demands upon players and coaches alike, which prevent them from brooding over their off-field problems or kicking or congratulating themselves too much. Perhaps a good father ought to be more like a good coach, and offer only the instructions, moral or otherwise, that he himself can demonstrate.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Three moves equal a burning

I first learned the old saying from Peter Taylor’s 1964 story “The Throughway,” originally published in the Sewanee Review and then collected thirteen years later in In the Miro District. Harry and Isabel, a couple in their late fifties, are forced to give up the house they have lived in since they had first married to make way for a new throughway.

Harry succeeds in forcing a public hearing on the issue, “reveal[ing] himself to all the world as nothing more than a local crank.” His wife does not understand his stubborness, saying that it is “not natural for a man to care so much about a house. . . .” When the day comes to vacate, Harry phones the moving company and cancels the vans. Isabel is appalled; she cannot believe her husband has done something so stupid. And after a little more narrative business, it comes to pass that both Harry and Isabel realize that “all decisions, from that moment, were over for them.” They will be seen over, watched over, the important questions decided for them, as if they were “foolish old people.”

It is appropriate that only the old saying would stick with me from the story, which strikes me as strained and unlikely upon rereading. But the old saying is much in my mind as I prepare to pack up my books and belongings and move out of the house my wife and I had assumed that we would live in for the rest of our lives. We designed our own library in it, and for the first time in our lives we had a real library. In the middle is a massive desk that we had built for us; we could work there quietly in the evenings, facing each other across an expanse of papers and reference works. It is difficult to imagine, in fact, who might buy our house. For who else would this library be so perfect?

And now, instead of enjoying my last days in the wood-paneled sanctum, I must obtain bids from moving companies, arrange to shut off utilities, change addresses on magazine subscriptions, and plot a 1,200-mile route to a new city, a new house, a new array of shelves for my books. I can’t write about them as much as I would like for sorting through them, consigning as many as possible to the yard-sale pile, and recording the remainder for insurance purposes. Moving some of them again, I might as well burn them. But I can’t. I just can’t.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Identifying with their class

Dorothy Rabinowitz advances an interesting (if highly contentious) proposition in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Namely: the growing disenchantment with President Obama—in the Gallup Daily poll, more Americans now disapprove of his performance in office than approve of it—has its source in his failure to identify with “the nation and to all that binds its people together in pride and allegiance”:

A great part of America now understands that this president’s sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs. He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class.Whether Rabinowitz explains the President’s upside-down poll numbers is a question that I am not qualified to answer. If you swap the word intellectual for ideological it may explain the condescension toward President Bush and Sarah Palin. But I am less concerned with politics than literature.

And it strikes me that Rabinowitz’s explanation fits the decline of the “serious novel” or “literary fiction” (two terms that make my feet itch) like a missing piece of the puzzle. It is a better explanation, because more comprehensive, that my own claim that a “nationalized bureaucracy of writers [that] stretches from coast to coast” accounts for American fiction’s loss of interest in American places.

It is hard to imagine a living American novelist writing a passage like the last four paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, summoning up the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” American novelists by and large do not identify with ordinary Americans any longer, nor with the American dream (“the last and greatest of all human dreams”), but with their intellectual class—the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world. The American continent no longer compels them into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.

Thus all their characters sound like literary intellectuals. Thus they cannot even imagine what their own non-writing spouses, nor anyone else for that matter, do every day at work. Thus the world outside literature and academe is a vague blur, if not entirely invisible. Thus human decency is identified with the correct (and partisan) political opinions. Thus fiction becomes little more than an occasion for ventilating anti-American grievances.

And thus the American novel, once a lively voice in the national debate to specify the American idea, has devolved into the voice of a homogeneous intellectual class. It is just another means, like similar work, training, and lifestyle, for promoting class solidarity.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Markson dead at 82

David Markson, who is ritually identified as a “postmodern novelist,” died in his Greenwich Village apartment last Friday. He was eighty-two.

Like Levi Asher, I have never been able to read Markson, but it is obvious that he was dear to many of his peers in the fiction trade. After two “Harry Fannin detective novels,” he tasted success in 1965 with The Ballad of Dingus Magee. In the New York Times, Martin Levin described it succinctly: “camp meets the golden West.” It was filmed by MGM five years later with Frank Sinatra in the title role.

But with Going Down, his next novel, Markson undertook his project of “experimental writing.” Heavily influenced by Malcolm Lowry, the novel followed a menage à trois down to Mexico. Also like Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the prose style does most of the work in the novel, although critics complained that it stood at right angles to the plot and characterization. His subject, here and elsewhere, is what he said that Lowry’s subject was: “consciousness under stress.”

His admirers’ favorite was Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). “Get it?” Amy Hempel wrote in her review. “Wittgenstein . . . was homosexual.” The novel plays with language’s slippery referentiality and the possibility it refers to nothing at all except itself:

     Such things can happen. As in the case of Guy de Maupassant, who ate his lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower.
     Well, the point being that this was the only place in Paris from which he did not have to look at it.
     For the life of me I have no idea how I know that. Any more than I have any idea how I also happen to know that Guy de Maupassant liked to row.
     When I said that Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower, so that he did not have to look at it, I meant that it was the Eiffel Tower he did not wish to look at, naturally, and not his lunch.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is kept in print, along with two other novels and his Collected Poems, by the irreplaceable Dalkey Archive Press, which will take it upon itself, I hope, to reprint his 1978 critical study Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Chabon’s illusions

To a critic, it always comes as a shock to encounter novelists who are pleased with themselves for joining in a chant. The shock comes not because we have never before encountered any novelists whose thinking consists entirely of received ideas, but simply because from an early age we have been trained, implicitly and explicitly, to ignore them. A novelist who rewrites twaddle in a slow-paced Mandarin style is like a penny in your desk drawer; it becomes twisted with stray hairs, gumless Post-Its, and bent paperclips. Picking it out would be too much trouble, since it is practically worthless.

These are the reflections provoked by Michael Chabon’s op-ed last Friday in the New York Times. A Jewish ignoramus who trades on his Jewishness, Chabon begins by describing Israel’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara a week ago as an “unprecedented display of blockheadedness.” Of course, he provides neither argument nor evidence that it was, because the raid’s “arrant stupidity” is an article of faith among those who are desperate to make it appear that they are not singing along with “We Con the World” (although the chap who enters the video at 1:45 may be the novelist).

After leaping illogically from an account of his own prejudices about Jewish intelligence to the warning that those who praise “you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction,” Chabon gets down to his message. Somehow, he suggests, their reputation for being “on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people” becomes the Jews’ “foundational ambiguity”—namely, their chosenness. Chabon delivers the blow:

This is the ambiguity that proudly asserts the will and the obligation of Israel to be a light unto the nations, then points to the utterly evil, utterly bankrupt, utterly degraded, utterly stupid misdeeds of ship-sinking, sailor-massacring North Korea—North Korea!—in an attempt to give context to its own relatively less-evil, bankrupt, degraded and stupid behavior.Again, Chabon does not name or quote anyone who actually “points to” North Korea’s torpedoing of the Cheonan in late March to justify Israel’s taking over the Mavi Marmara. It is true that Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for the Senate in California, has observed that, according to Jennifer Rubin, “there has been more condemnation of Israel than there was of North Korea when it sank a South Korean ship.” But that is to compare and contrast the international reaction, not the naval actions.

No real Jew dwells in the “ambiguity” described by Chabon, then. (Funny: the same exact thing can be said about the Jews in his Yiddish Policeman’s Union.) The question is whether the “ambiguity” even exists.

The uncomfortable truth is that it is Chabon, not the Jews described in his op-ed, who wants it both ways. On the one hand, he craves the Jews’ reputation for moral passion; on the other hand, he does not want to be held to account for his own moral cowardice in separating himself from the Jews whenever it suits his self-image to do so. And let’s be honest. It’s a lot easier to engage in such special pleading when, as James Poulous notes, you are willing to refer only obliquely to God. For then you are free to scourge the State of Israel for not being a light to the nations while also accepting none of the obligations that might begin to qualify you, an Israelite, to serve as such a light.

What does Chabon want? That Jews like me who love the State of Israel “shed our illusions.” Israel, we must learn, is not uniquely smart or uniquely righteous or uniquely successful. But what Chabon fails to understand is that the illusions belong only to him and his natural allies on the anti-Israel Left. Only its enemies and detractors treat Israel as anything other than a legitimate state with a legitimate right of self-defense. Only they hold it to an impossible standard, including the standard of never disappointing or embarrassing Michael Chabon.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Yeshiva

This morning’s featured article at Jewish Ideas Daily is on Chaim Grade, the great Yiddish novelist whose centennial is celebrated this year. He is back in the news because his widow Inna died three weeks ago, and now Grade’s many followers hope the unpublished manuscripts that she fiercely guarded may yield a previously unknown masterpiece.

Even if that hope is disapppointed, Grade’s readers will always have The Yeshiva, the unequaled eight-hundred-page saga of religious education and religious doubt in Eastern Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. The first Yiddish volume was published (in Los Angeles!) in 1967, but the second volume appeared only in Curt Leviant’s English translation of the whole novel published by Bobbs-Merrill a decade later. Apologizing for not discussing it in The Modern Jewish Canon, Ruth R. Wisse says that The Yeshiva “delivers not only the social history of a lost community but the substance and emotional force of its ethical-intellectual debates.”

Grade declares his theme on the first page:

During the First World War the yeshiva [originally located in Navaredok] moved from Lithuania into the depths of Russia. Tsemakh Atlas went through the towns and villages of the Ukraine and White Russia establishing new yeshivas. Not even the post-Revolutionary persecutions by the atheists frightened him away from persuading students at secular high schools to become Torah scholars. Yet at the same time he himself was racked with doubts about the existence of God.Atlas is the central figure (and central consciousness) in The Yeshiva; indeed, the novel’s Yiddish title is Tsemakh Atlas. His first name means “growth, sprout, offshoot,” and when used figuratively, its most famous usage is Jeremiah’s phrase for Judah’s future rulers, who will be (in the words of the KJV) a “righteous Branch” of David (David tsemakh tsadeykh [23.5]), a phrase which was incorporated into the central prayer of the Jewish worship service. Grade’s hero is not a righteous Branch of David, however, but a tormented Branch of the Titan who “upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms.”

What torments Tsemakh Atlas is the evil impulse, the yetser hara, which in his case displays itself as sexual temptation. Grade powerfully captures both sides of Tsemakh’s inner struggle, the sexual and the religious. And in fact, Tsemakh installs his own self-division at the heart of his religious instruction, teaching that a “great man can have only great flaws, not small ones, and that his greatness is apparent even in his flaws.” Like Jeroboam, who refused to repent when God told him that David and not he would lead a procession through the Garden of Eden (b. Sanhedrin 102a), Tsemakh “preferred damnation in hell to being second in the world to come. . . .”

The first volume traces Tsemakh’s progress toward this goal. Near the end of it, though, Grade introduces the character of Avraham-Shaye Kosover, who was based on the author’s own teacher Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, better known as the Hazon Ish (“vision of man”), after his first and most famous book. When Grade himself left the yeshiva and broke with Lithuanian Judaism, the Hazon Ish is said to have pronounced a curse upon him:Chaim! You will go to Vilna and become a celebrated poet, a free man; beautiful women will be falling all over you; you will be wined and dined in Europe’s finest restaurants; the world will be yours. But remember what I decree upon you: May you never be able to enjoy any of it.The Yeshiva is Grade’s answer to his teacher, whom he continued to revere even after he had become thoroughly acquainted with women and wine. In the novel, Avraham-Shaye Kosover gradually wins Tsemakh over the his side. His teaching can be neatly summarized:The proper path for perfecting one’s character isn’t to tear the innate desires out of oneself, but to make them better and more beautiful. A rational man doesn’t have to undergo torments to uproot his passion for honor; he just doesn’t seek honor from the masses. Instead of the noisy seekers of honor and dispensers of honor, he wants to be recognized by men of culture, even by those who are no longer alive. He wants them—from the other world—to approve of his thoughts and decisions here in this world.While his fiction represents Grade’s own personal effort to make the yetser of heresy “better and more beautiful,” Tsemakh Atlas’s efforts occur within the bounds of Lithuanian Judaism. Not that he abandons the flesh. He just puts it to a use that would be recognized by a man of culture. On the last pages of the novel, he decides to become a father.

Joseph Epstein recently offered I. J. Singer’s Brothers Ashkenazi as the greatest Yiddish novel ever written. I think the title might go by rights to Grade’s Yeshiva. It is, at least, the greatest novel written in America that no one knows about. That it is out of print is a travesty.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The November Criminals

My generally positive review of Sam Munson’s first novel appears in the June issue of Commentary.

The November Criminals is a tale told by an adolescent, in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. Unlike Twain and Salinger, though, Munson is the same age as his nar­rator. And that worries me a little. I hope he does not turn out to be a one-book wonder. His prose is too good for that.

One of the best things about his style—and his book—is that the first-person narrative gives Munson the opportunity to write aphoris­tically. Too often a novel in the first person is merely (in a phrase I have used elsewhere) the voluble decanting of a self—a monologue sustained, if at all, by voice. Munson, though, has a story to tell, and a view of fiction that demands a story to tell. At a dangerous curve of the narrative, Munson’s narrator Addison Schacht says:

If I were writing a novel, all this would precede a scene of obvious reconciliation. Quiet and subtle: The road spread out ahead of them. Digger, without looking, let her hand brush Addison’s knee. Or with pyrotechnics, disgusting and overstated [hi there, Michael Chabon, hi!]. Maybe we end up fucking in my frigid car, or in a shady roadside motel, or whatever. After all, we’re just children, and that’s how things work in books, right? Nothing genuine is ever at stake.With that last sentence, Munson dismisses most of the novels published by the creative-writing generation.

To avoid the trap of first-person self-indulgence, Munson’s narrator keeps his observations pointed and brief. “Reliable mediocrity, I’ve decided, is the most important thing for the continuation of human existence,” he says. “We can’t get by on romantic disaster.” And the reason is that “at the small scale nobody behaves in accordance with all the high ideals they talk about; everyone acts like animals, domesticated animals maybe, but still animals.” Addison admits he is an “emotional hypocrite,” but so is everyone else in Washington, D.C., where he lives: “no one gives the slightest fuck about anyone else, except concerning that other person’s ability to help them advance in life.” Rather than mouthing an “offensive platitude” about how he and his generation are going to be different—rather than lying, that is—Addison gives some reason to hope by his very anger and honesty.

So does Munson, even if his first novel does contain a gratuitous assault upon Philip Roth’s Indignation, which is described unmistakably. Addison promises not to “abuse your trust and impose on your goodwill” like Nathan Levitan in Rage, a book picked up by his father in a bookstore on the way to visiting his son in the hospital. “D.C., like most fundamentally barbarous cities, contains a large number of bookstores,” Addison says resignedly. “As a kind of camouflage to deceive unwary visitors.”

Munson needed no such camouflage in his wonderful first book, and I hope he writes many more.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The “flotilla fiasco”

All you need to know about the so-called “flotilla fiasco” is here. Those who prefer words to pictures could do worse than to start with Mona Charen, Caroline Glick, or Melanie Phillips. Trust the women to get it right.