Friday, April 29, 2005


Irina, Irina, plus William James

Novelist, unfrocked ad-man, and all-around Gallic bad boy Frédéric Beigbeder has won The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Windows on the World. I haven't yet read this 9/11 narrative, which Boyd Tonkin calls "the first serious work of fiction to grapple with the horrors of that day and their emotional and cultural impact." (Tonkin adds that the author "takes aim, above all, at the mindless hedonism of his own generation, a hedonism that collapsed with the towers." Sigh. I'm afraid hedonism is sturdier than that.)

Anyway, what really interested me was that the judges named a runner-up: Irina Denezhkina's Give Me (Songs for Lovers). The 24-year-old author first published her stories in an obscure Russian webzine, where they caught the attention of a small publisher. Next came the coveted (I assume) National Bestseller Prize--Russia's rather commerce-minded equivalent of the Booker. Now her collection has appeared in several languages, including a fine English translation by Andrew Bromfield, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I admired the poetic snap and sizzle of her prose, along with her post-Soviet version of Dirty Realism. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, vodka, cucumbers, nipple rings: she does it all. She also leans too heavily on Boy Meets Girl as a plot device, which is what you might expect from such a youthful author. For that reason alone her runner-up status strikes me as premature. Yet I'm not complaining--better to recognize raw talent than the customary, pan-blackened competence.

I've never managed to read The Varieties of Religious Experience cover to cover: I limit myself to tiny, homeopathic doses. But The Selected Letters of William James is another matter. I was trawling through it this morning and came across this bit, which I couldn't resist sharing. It's July 24, 1896, and James is writing his wife from Chautauqua, where he's been besieged by guys with beards and foxy ladies in hoop skirts. He says:
I've been meeting minds so earnest and helpless that it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to its immediately adjacent next neighbor, and that with infinite creaking and groaning. And when they've got to the next idea, they lie down on it with their whole weight and can get no farther, like a cow on a door-mat, so that you can get neither in nor out with them. Still, glibness is not all. Weight is something, even cow-weight.
To which my response was: moo.

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Oprah redux

A couple of days ago, I cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the Word of Mouth petition to Oprah Winfrey. Now Chekhov's Mistress fires right back at me, citing a Detroit News piece by Patti Thorn about the Oprah Phenomenon in general--and about Kathleen Rooney's Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America in particular. According to the article, 75% of the customers who came to Barnes & Noble to buy the latest Oprah pick exited the store with at least one additional title. Doesn't this make mincemeat of my claim that relatively few club members went on to buy more books by the same authors? Uh, no. Granted, my evidence is anecdotal. It's based on my experiences during the five years I worked at Amazon, when each post-Oprah title by a previous anointee was issued with bated breath and a gargantuan print run. In most (if not all) cases, the results were disappointing. Not piddling, not shameful: once Oprah has raised your profile, you're unlikely to slink straight back into the authorial shadows. But what sold all those books the first time around was her imprimatur, and it's foolish to pretend otherwise. After all, even Rooney, who diligently read all 43 selections as part of her research, concedes that 10 of them--nearly a quarter!--range from "plain awful" to "unreadable." Yet they flew off the shelves no less quickly than the quality merch by Toni Morrison, Bernhard Schlink, or Jonathan Franzen. If that's not the cult of personality in action, I don't know what is.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not weeping and wailing because the gates of High Culture have been breached. Oprah put millions of novels into the hands of often reluctant readers, and for that she deserves our gratitude--perhaps even a laurel and hearty handshake. But that petition sounded like it was addressed to the Wizard of Oz, if not to Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. (You want fulsome? You got it: "Your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear." How they appeared before Oprah stirred her quick-rising yeast into the mix is anybody's guess.) I can only reiterate that Oprah is not a magician, and it's not her duty to restore the fluttery pulse of literary fiction in America. That's up to the writers--and, needless to say, the readers.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

The other day, after ruminating at some length about American Idol, I facetiously said I was going to read some Wordsworth--as a sort of cerebral palate cleanser. On that occasion, I didn't follow through. But last night, after watching a few dismal performances from the diminishing pool of contestants (goodbye, Scott Savol), I did actually curl up with some of Wordsworth's greatest hits. I always resisted the Romantics as a student, because they sounded too full of poetic vapor and I thought the elliptical modernists were more my speed. (Plus they didn't, you know, rhyme.) Now, however, my resistance is crumbling. When I was in London last summer, I stayed at a B&B in Hampstead, just a few blocks from Keats's house, and was oddly moved by my pilgrimage to that deserted suburban bungalow. On the lawn was a scrawny plum tree, whose meager foliage had supposedly shaded the poet while he wrote--now I've forgotten what. It turned out to be a replacement tree: the original had died. Still, I stood in front of that shrubby little growth for a long time, considering whether I should steal a piece of fruit and eat of the Keatsian tree. And there I was last night, rereading "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" and sharing the poet's monosyllabic melancholy: "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." For me childhood was a less visionary affair. Still, the poem has it all: wrenching loss and consolation, all in one package. I also read this peculiar recollection of Wordsworth's, about his life as a playground Platonist: "I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school I have grasped at a wall or a tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality." So that's why the other kids at P.S. 90 were always making fun of me!


Up-and-comers, JR, KJP

I've been overwhelmed all day with reviewing chores, which kept me from this (dismayingly addictive) blog. But I did want to respond to a comment by Dan Wickett, who asked who I would nominate as my top five up-and-coming fiction writers. The first name that sprang to mind was Tom Bissell, since he's already published two fiendishly accomplished books: Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. After that, in no particular order, I might add Adrienne Miller, Elizabeth McKenzie, Dean Bakopoulos, and Rattawut Lapcharoensap (although mainly on the strength of the title story in Sightseeing). If we use the Torday test, of course, we could throw in Cynthia Ozick, always a favorite of mine.

On other fronts: my eyes teared up as I read Judith Regan's tender encomium to her new home. "The pulse of New York is driven by money," we're told, whereas Los Angeles resembles one big group hug--its pulse sounds like "I Just Called To Say I Love You." Tell that to Bruce Wagner, or to Nathanael West. In any case, the departure of this relentless schlock peddler has put a strange spring in my step.

Finally: I've been wearing out my copy of Kelly Joe Phelps's Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind. I was one of those fans who called for a national day of mourning when the lap-slide wizard retired his steel bar and went on his fingerpicking way. But this live recording--mostly Phelps's own compositions, along with superb, smoky covers of Skip James ("Hard Time Killing Floor Blues") and Rev. Gary Davis ("I Am the Light of this World")--is a beauty.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Calvino: the meter is running

While eating some reheated brisket for lunch (much better than it was in its first, stringy, fresh-from-the-blast-furnace incarnation), I came across this excellent sentence from Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium: "...a story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it." No harrumphing about plot, character arc, the shotgun on the wall that must go off by the final page, etc. Just a quasi-mathematical formula. Except, of course, for the enchantment part.


Time's winged chariot, Hall and Oates

The other day I read (via Bookslut) Daniel Torday's piece from the Syracuse Post-Standard, in which the 27-year-old writer and former Esquire editor awarded the palm to his top five "up-and-coming fiction authors." I have no bone to pick with his choices (I haven't yet read Maile Meloy or Chris Jones, but I'll take his word for it). Still, most of these youngsters are a little long in the tooth. Aleksandar Hemon is 41. George Saunders will be 47 in December. And David Gates--who even Torday had to admit was "not quite young anymore"--is a spry, eternally youthful 58. Now, I yield to no one in my admiration for Gates's exquisite, hilarious, downward-spiraling narratives, and both Hemon and Saunders are real originals. I find it a little weird, however, that Torday couldn't locate any more up-and-comers from his own generation. If somebody had asked me for a similar list when I was his age, I sure as hell wouldn't have named James Gould Cozzens. On the other hand, I'm glad to know I'm still a potential up-and-comer myself. (FYI, I'm 146 years old.)

Speaking of which: my off-the-cuff mention of Hall and Oates the other day has occasioned a bit of nostalgic fallout. Did "Maneater," that irresistible blend of Motown and misogyny, really come out in 1982? Then what happened? I have a vague memory of some minor hits, always with that pounding eight-to-the-bar piano and those terrible, sub-Hallmark lyrics. ("Adult Education"? Fooey. And that goes double for the basketball metaphor in "One on One," although Daryl Hall's seductive, register-hopping vocal saves the day.) My suspicion is that their appearance on American Idol is preparing the ground for a comeback. When this Mutt-and-Jeff duo--tall, golden-haired H. and small, dark, second-banana-like O.--is riding the charts once again, remember: you read it here first.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Logan's run, the perils of translation

Two quick notes. First: despite my jocular reference to William Logan in the previous post, he's one of the best and wittiest critics of contemporary poetry. Yes, he has a tendency to run roughshod over the stuff he despises. Reading him can be like watching an electronic bug zapper at work: no matter how much you loathe mosquitoes, you begin to feel a little sorry for them. But he's no less eloquent on behalf of the poets he loves, or likes, or reluctantly tolerates (including Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, Gertrude Schnackenberg). If I start quoting, I won't be able to stop. Just grab yourself a copy of Desperate Measures, Reputations of the Tongue, or All the Rage. More fun than a demolition derby!

Next: I just took a look at an online forum devoted to translation (sponsored by Words without Borders as part of the PEN World Voices Festival). The moderator, Lawrence Venuti, is not only a distinguished translator but a heavy-hitting theoretician--and to some extent, the discussion is about the yawning gap between theory and practice. Venuti writes: "The previous generation of translators, those who began in the 1950s, all very accomplished, brilliant in their own ways, have not advanced the thinking about translation in the US or elsewhere because to varying degrees they have had an antipathy toward theoretical reflection." At this point I found myself furtively muttering one mea culpa after another. As a translator of the next generation, or maybe even the one after that, I'm fascinated by theoretical reflection but tend to park it at the curb once I'm actually faced with an Italian text. But I also recognize that the domesticating impulse--the itch to make a foreign text more accessible to American readers--is full of pitfalls. An intriguing conversation in any case.

Thursday, April 21, 2005



Am I the only one to sense a certain pathos in this begging entreaty to Oprah Winfrey? I'll note that many of the signatories are writers I admire, and it pains me to make light of their efforts. But asking Oprah to save literary fiction by reinstating her book club is like asking the Beatles to promote world peace by doing a one-shot reunion--i.e., wishful thinking. Obviously La Winfrey gave the publishing industry an amazing boost: each pick immediately sold 600,000-1,200,000 copies. For that I salute her. Still, the fact that club members so seldom bought other books by the same writers (let alone different writers) says more about the power of branding than the soul-expanding capacity of great fiction.


C.K. Williams, Idol chatter

First: as reported in the Chicago Tribune, C.K. Williams has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (which gets you not only a handsome parchment or plaque but a check for $100,000.) My response: hooray! Ever since he hit his expansive, Whitmanian groove with Tar in 1983, Williams has been a tremendous poet. His deep feeling for American squalor has earned him a number of detractors--William Logan, the Doctor Guillotine of contemporary verse, has compared his work to "watching a dog eat its own vomit"--but it takes real perversity to overlook his tenderness, psychological acuity, bleak humor, and the gnarled, knobby, reflexive beauty of his language. The recent books, The Singing (National Book Award, 2003) and Repair (Pulitzer Prize, 2000), are less consistent than such mid-career firecrackers as Flesh and Blood. But a poem like "The Hearth," from The Singing, shows Williams at the top of his game, as anguished as ever but more resigned. And Repair does feature a poem about a fart--always a shortcut to the Pulitzer.

Second: American Idol is getting me down. Last night Anwar was kicked off, having failed to persuade millions of idiotic voters to pull the (figurative) lever for him. My 11-year-old son insists that Anwar's eyes bulged out in a funny way when he hit his big notes, and maybe that's the key to his downfall. But one glance at the rogue's gallery of remaining contenders is enough to make me wince. Anthony Federov? Horrible, tastless belter. Bo Bice? He's got a certain shit-kicking appeal, and I like the way he never drags God into his comments, but really, he belongs in a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band. Carrie Underwood? No way. (As my friend Dave keeps saying, "I want her to win, but for all the wrong reasons.") Scott Savol? He's got my sympathy, because he's non-telegenic and because he doesn't imitate whoever did the song in the first place (exception: "She's Gone," but after all, Hall and Oates were sitting right there in the front row, looking as if they'd been preserved in amber since 1982). Constantine (major narcissist, always a good thing in show business) or Vonzell (tall, cute, sounds like Whitney Houston) will probably triumph. It's alarming me that I'm going on at such length, since American Idol itself is a celebration of extruded-plastic mediocrity, but there you go. Who can resist a talent show? Even a depressing, ersatz, elaborately choreographed talent show, where the camera cuts to a Ford commercial after they give somebody the boot and the make-up people swarm the stage to swab away the loser's tears? Not me, apparently. Gee, I guess I'll go read some Wordsworth now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


The Fitzgerald Affair Part Deux, etc.

On the heels of my earlier post about the Fitzgerald Affair of 1998, I heard from two other members of that particular NBCC jury. They had one minor quibble with my version of events--they both recalled that Roth had faded early in the balloting, leaving DeLillo and Fitzgerald to duke it out for the prize--but agreed that The Blue Flower had been a real contender from the start, not just an exasperated compromise. So I'll stick by what I said earlier.

Meanwhile, I heard from Margo Hammond as well. Was she misquoted? I asked. No, she said, and added: "The 'now that she's dead' comment was meant to say that I wouldn't want a writer who is alive to hear all the gory details about the award she got--not because she was unworthy of the award, just because I would imagine any author would like to believe (however improbable that it is) that her/his award had unanimous support." Tact is a fine thing, of course. But I doubt that Penelope Fitzgerald--not exactly a naif about human veniality--would have been too disturbed to learn that a handful of NBCC board members were lukewarm about her novel. (She celebrated the prize, as I recall, by taking a day off from ironing.) And Margo's original comment still strikes me as slur on a great novelist, even if she didn't mean it that way.

On other fronts: I couldn't get to sleep until 4:00 AM last night, so I decided to follow up Nabokov's correspondence with Volume Two of Brian Boyd's fabulous biography (The American Years). It's an astonishing, intimidating work, which includes the most cogent defense I've ever seen of VN's crotchety Eugene Onegin translation. It also softens, or in fact banishes, the image of Nabokov as an imperious curmudgeon, running his hapless characters thorough the bastinado and flicking off Freud, Doestoyevsky, Sartre, Mann, Henry James, and Saul Bellow like so many pieces of lint.

He despised Bellow, I would assume, because he mistook him for a Novelist of Ideas (ideas here being code for sociological pieties.) But Nabokov got that one wrong. Has anyone ever written prose more maniacally, magnetically attuned to the nuts and bolts of physical reality? There's a great piece in the current New Yorker--which (sigh) I also read last night--an abortive interview that Philip Roth did with Bellow during the late 1990s. When Bellow discusses his Augie March breakthrough, he makes the connection between the physical and metaphysical wonderfully explicit: "Language, thought, belief were connected somehow with noses, eyes, brows, mouths, hair--legs, hands, feet had their counterpart in language. The voice--the voices--were not invented. And whether they knew it or not all human creatures had voices and ears and vocabularies--sometimes parsimonious, sometimes limitless and overflowing. In this way the words and the phenomena were interrelated. And this was what it meant to be a writer."

Towards the end of the night, by which time I had one of those behind-the-right-eyeball headaches, I picked up the Dorling-Kindersley pocket guide to insects. Not a good move. The color photos of mating damselflies and praying mantises were enough to give me nightmares. Luckily I don't remember my dreams.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Regarding Rattawut

For the past few months I've been writing the "First Fiction" column for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Very fun, very enlightening, sometimes a little dangerous, like driving on a highway where everybody else has a learner's permit. Anyway, there have been a couple of occasions when scheduling snafus prevented me from writing about books I really liked. One example: Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Another: Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing. In the latter case, I had already written my shrimpy, ecstatic paragraphs before finding out that another reviewer at the paper had beaten me to the punch. But hey, why not post them here instead? Bombs away:

Almost anybody can tell a story. Beginning, middle, and end: these are the alphabet blocks whose architecture even a toddler soon learns to manipulate. What separates good fiction from the ocean of anecdote is voice--in Philip Roth's famous formulation, something that "begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." And the good news about Sightseeing is that the 26-year-old author already has this sort of linguistic voodoo at his beck and call. Doubters need only consult the first story, "Farangs." The word means foreigners in Thai, and neatly encapsulates the Lapcharoensap's bifurcated angle of attack: he was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, then educated back in the United States. What leaps off the page, however, is the zingy idiom of the young Thai narrator.

"This is how we count the days," he tells us. "June: the Germans come to the Island--football cleats, big T-shirts, thick tongues--speaking like spitting. July: the Italians, the French, the British, the Americans. The Italians like pad thai, its affinity with spaghetti. They like light fabrics, sunglasses, leather sandals. The French like plump girls, rambutans, disco music, baring their breasts."

This comical taxonomy goes on for some time before the meat of the story materializes: an unhappy menage a trois between a visiting American girl, the narrator, and his pet pig, whose name is Clint Eastwood. Now, Lapcharoensap is hardly the first writer to draw a bead on the collision of cultures, or on the steamrolling assault of Westernization. But it's the narrator's voice--eager, elliptical, and oddly poignant--that provides the real fireworks here. "Farangs" is one of the freshest pieces of storytelling I've read in a long time. Elsewhere, Lapcharoensap tends to be more sedate. Yet both the title story (which puts an affecting spin on the very notion of tourism) and "Don't Let Me Die in This Place" are nearly as impressive as "Farangs," and there's not a weak piece in the entire book--no small accomplishment for a first-timer. Attention, literary travelers: Sightseeing is not to be missed.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Introduction from the podium, etc

James Marcus here. Last year I wrote an essay for the Washington Post Book World about online criticism. Initially I meant to focus on customer reviewing--the kind of critical mosh pit pioneered by my old employer, the piece did expand to include some commentary on blogging. An admission: until then, I hadn't spent much time in the mad, mad, mad world of the blogosphere. My remarks in the piece were fairly cursory (which didn't stop some British blogger from throwing a hissy fit, declaring me a miserable elitist, etc etc). But I was intrigued. Since then I've paid regular visits to a number of literary blogs, and felt a terrible...temptation. Now I'm giving in. So sue me.

First: what I'm reading. Last night I plowed through about half of Vladimir Nabokov's Selected Letters. There was one I couldn't resist sharing, from 1948, when VN was still new to the United States and in rather tottery financial shape. That didn't stop him from (figuratively) pistol-whipping Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who had dared to suggest that VN was hoarding his best stuff for the New Yorker. "I have received your letter of September 30 and can only excuse its contents by assuming you were in your cups when you wrote it," he begins, and concludes by sending back $800 the magazine had already paid him. They don't make them like that anymore.

Second: I read an article by Marina Krakovsky in the Washington Post Book World today about the strange, conflicted process of judging literary awards. Having served on quite a few of these juries myself--I spent six years on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and have also judged various things for PEN--I was curious. But I came across something that really bugged me. Toward the end of the piece, the author quoted Margo Hammond, book critic of the St. Petersburg Times, to the effect that Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Blue Flower in 1998, didn't really deserve the prize. "We can say it, now that she's died," Hammond confides. "It wasn't the book that people felt passionate about."

Now, I served on the jury that year along with Margo (who I know very slightly). It's true that The Blue Flower was a dark horse, especially in the year of Don DeLillo's Underworld and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. To make my own preferences clear at the outset, I admire The Blue Flower more than DeLillo's loose-and-baggy monster, and would certainly put it on par with the Roth (which alternates sublime passages with particle-board contrivance). But I'm not bitching because everybody doesn't agree with me. What offended me was the suggestion that we threw some old bag the prize because we were rent asunder by Phil and Don. As I recall it (and here comes the Rashomon moment), many board members felt almost obligated to genuflect at the DeLillian altar: it was a big fat book by a major (the epithet is mine) author, he hadn't gotten his share of prizes, etc etc. But once it became clear that Underworld was not a given, the jurors started bolting. Some voted for Roth, some for Fitzgerald. Some may have felt that The Blue Flower was a merely acceptable compromise. If so, they voted for the right book for the wrong reasons. It's a masterpiece, and deserved the prize as richly as any novel in the organization's history.

Okay, the steam has now stopped coming out of my ears. I will resume a civil tone. And Margo, if you're reading this, it's nothing personal.

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