Archive for the Books Category

What we lost when we lost David Foster Wallace

Posted in Books on September 15, 2008 by rkunzig

Over the weekend, newspapers, wire services, book reviews and top-shelf blogs have all mourned David Foster Wallace, author of the sprawling Infinite Jest, several volumes of short stories, and a manic, unstoppable social critic.  They say we lost a genius, a stylist, a grammarian, a prophet.

I say we lost one hell of a journalist.

Of course “journalism” seems too dusty a label for what Foster Wallace did, and out of respect for both the writer and the profession, I’m going allow that he was less of a journalist than an essayist, or a correspondent, a postmodern Sam Johnson.  But journalism was exactly what he did, covering drug rehab, cruise ships, the porn industry and John McCain’s 2000 campaign for magazines like Esquire, Harper’s and Rolling Stone.  His journalism looked unlike anybody else’s, smirking and recoiling and swooning and holding hands with pages and pages of footnotes, which were in turn footnoted, which were bracketed with interpolations, which were themselves footnoted.  If Gonzo ditched the drugs, had a college degree and didn’t suck, it might come close to what DFW did for the form.

In my more manic moments, reading “Consider the Lobster,” I’m tempted to describe his nonfiction as the only way for an American to look at his/her culture and not throw themselves into traffic.  There’s a moral rigor in his work, a refusal to flinch or look away from the neon lights and the prostitutes and the televised wars and the made-to-order entertainment that is softened by a dry, disarming self-consciousness and an erudite yet informal style. And there’s the hope, too, that one can stand in the middle of the mess and still find the heart to jest.

And he was unsparing.  In “Consider the Lobster,” the title piece of his last book of essays, Foster Wallace explores the moral hazards of a most seemingly benign indulgence: a lobster dinner.  What if, he asks, there’s nothing benign about throwing a creature into a pot of boiling water, and cranking up the volume on the tube so you can’t hear the frantic, pleading tapping of its claws against the pot? I came out of the essay feeling like a war criminal. After more than two years, I haven’t eaten a lobster (though probably twenty bushels of crabs).

He covered McCain’s 2000 bid for president in “Up, Simba,” written for Rolling Stone.  McCain himself lurks in the background, appearing for moments as an impossibly energetic, extremely affable older dude who dishes out shit good-naturedly to the press corps, including the “Twelve Monkeys,” Foster Wallace’s totemic nickname for the pressed-and-starched correspondents from the national news agencies.  Instead of pretending to portray the man, Foster Wallace chronicles life on the two tour busses, “Bullshit 1” and “Bullshit 2” that follow McCain from rally to rally.  Eye for detail doesn’t even begin to cover it – Foster Wallace feels humanity like we smell sewage, and he embraces it, throws it onto the page like primal matter where it glows with truth.

I know I’ve fallen into the trap of maudlin and unconditional praise, like all the other mourners – even the icy Michiko Kakutani bowed her head and acknowledged the void in literature that wasn’t there a few days ago. I urge those rushing to pick up a copy of “Infinite Jest” to please, instead, consider the lobster. Foster’s enduring legacy may indeed be in fiction, but for this writer at least, he will be remembered as Yr. Corresp., smirkingly scoring his marks upon the page.

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Fahrenheit 1200

Posted in Books, Robots Scare Me on July 27, 2008 by rkunzig

As the Kindle prepares for its second iteration, Luddite bibliophiles are perhaps stoking their blowtorches to a toasty 1200 degrees Fahrenehit–the temperature at which plastic burns.  Take that, Montag.

Seriously, though, hardly a day passes without an, ahem, conflagration on the interwebs over the “death of print media” at the hands of e-book readers like Amazon’s wildly popular Kindle.  These discussions inevitably lead to the general decline in American literacy; a notable example is a recent press conference held by Steve Jobs, who doubted the Kindle would succeed because Americans don’t read anymore.  “The whole conception is flawed at the top,” says Jobs, “because people don’t read anymore.”

Jobs’s very recognition of the Kindle was enough to set speculators and gossipers a-tittering.  With a pronouncement from the father of iCulture, the question no longer became whether or not Apple would produce an e-reader, but whether Steve Jobs could save American literacy.

In the Guardian Book Review, voices sound off on the iLiad (for shame!): Peter Conrad against, Naomi Alderman for.

Kirsten Reach, the progressive bibliophile, pipes up from the back with a few suggestions.  She has, of course, baked cookies for the occasion.

I’m withholding an opinion on e-readers until I can get my hands on one.  The sheer implications of its success make my head spin.  Oprah put Marquez on the bestseller list and made Faulkner summer reading–could a mainstream predilection for expensive, shiny things give reading a jump start in America?

Where Fiction Dares, a New Novel of Modern Americana

Posted in Books, The Real World on December 6, 2007 by rkunzig

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I’m a seafood snob. I don’t order fish unless I’m close enough to the sea to smell the salt, or unless I’m near a reliable freshwater source. I go to school in Ohio.  Suffice to say, I skip the “Cajun-spiced Scrod” at the dining hall.

My holidays, however, are filled with Ahi tuna, seared, sesame-encrusted and settled on a bed of oriental noodles; little neck clams in a white wine sauce; blue crabs, fresh from the Chesapeake; Oysters on the half shell. Going to a Red Lobster on the Delaware shore would be like going to an Olive Garden in Italy.

And yet I’m intrigued by Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Last Night at the Lobster. According to a NYTBR article, O’Nan was inspired to write the novel by a newspaper article about a couple who went for some deep-frozen seafood at a Red Lobster in Connecticut and found the branch restaurant closed.

“That little article made me think it was this loss of a little world and I just started daydreaming about it,” said O’Nan in the NYTBR article.

The novel follows General Manager Manny DeLeon, as he sees his branch through its last day, from the mid-morning food prep to the emptying of the register. DeLeon tries to maintain some sense of dignity, even though a new Red Lobster is doubtlessly being built in a new strip mall in a new suburb somewhere, anywhere he isn’t. There are, according to NYTBR, “nuanced portraits” of tensions between workers, and a lament on DeLeon’s part for a spent affair with a waitress.

True Americana is something that authors constantly grasp at, and some, like Updike and Ford, achieve it spectacularly. I’m shocked that it took someone this long to recognize the loamy, fertile literary peat in places like Red Lobster, or Applebee’s, or any similar fast-food-plus restaurant. I worked at an Applebee’s in Ocean, New Jersey for a summer, and everything about the restaurant, from its customers to its employees, was beyond ridiculous. One of the servers had inch-long fake nails, purple weave and a shrill voice that summoned us hosts across the restaurant to report on any number of things: why we double-sat her, why we didn’t bus her table, if Alonzo’s (her boyfriend’s) baby’s momma had called. On her twenty-first birthday she got drunk off a single Long Island Iced Tea, fell of her bar stool and walked out the door to pick up her daughter from the babysitter’s.

One of the managers was a stalwart drunk and an indiscriminate leerer. He sulked around the dining room, asking how-is-your-meal-tonight with all the enthusiasm of a U.S. Census taker.

The “smoke area” in the back actually functioned as a make-out den for two of our guy servers.

Places like Applebee’s have eluded literature because they’re caricatures of themselves, completely devoid of sincerity or meaning. Even the most creative Post-Modernism couldn’t ennoble the Ocean branch.

In any event, I’m looking forward to seeing how O’Nan’s DeLeon handles his last day as general manager, seeing his ship to the bottom of Red Lobster’s hypothetical ocean, as the corporate goons offer cheery waves and a middling termination bonus. Meanwhile, all the servers chuck their aprons over their shoulders and walk next door to the Olive Garden.

At least they won’t have to fold napkins for the next day.

Richard Ford, the Coolest Old Guy Ever

Posted in Books on December 3, 2007 by rkunzig

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What a nice time to be Richard Ford.

Having wrapped up his Frank Bascombe trilogy last year with the superb The Lay of the Land, he appears this holiday season as the guru behind The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. This is not, however, your daddy’s Best American ________: the selection of Ford, the choice of now, is crucially important.

In 1982, Granta published its famous “Dirty Realism” issue, in which Ford appeared alongside Raymond Carver and Tobais Wolf, laying claim to a new canon like conquering frat boys, laconically swirling bourbon in lowball glasses.

Ford, venerable by 1992, was invited by Granta to edit The Granta Book of the American Shorty Story. He underscored the 1982 issue with his selection: T.C. Boyle, Vonnegut, Cheever, Carver, Updike, Welty, Tan. The “American” short story was being discussed without Young Goodman Brown, or Bartleby; or, for that matter, diamonds big as the ritz, or white elephants.

The collection was criticized as being too white, too male, too fraternal, especially considering that two of the selected authors–Wolff and Carver–were also in the 1982 issue. Despite criticisms, the collection stood without faltering as evidence of a new force in American literature, one which understood the short story better than anyone since Hemingway; better, perhaps.

Without stretching too far for relevance, I think Granta’s new collection comes at a time when American literature needs such a statement: That, despite all the jargon, scare-slang and intellectual numbness of the Bush years, the American short story endures, and furthermore, triumphs. Ford chooses a new generation of writers to join the old ones: Alexi, Lahiri, Packer.

Of Lahiri, he chooses “A Temporary Matter,” the opener from Interpreter of Maladies. If any short story could possibly say This Is America Today, it’s “A Temporary Matter.” When you pick up The New Granta Book, make sure it’s the first one you read. It speaks to the importance of Ford’s new collection better than I could.

(Here’s a link to an article Ford wrote about the short story as a form.)

Margaret Atwood, Oracle

Posted in Books on November 18, 2007 by rkunzig

Margaret Atwood

November 10: Peacoat weather, and the Kenyon Review Literary Festival is underway in Gambier, bringing small-time editors, authors, poets and eccentrics to our freshly leafless Ohio village. The centerpiece, of course, is Margaret Atwood, recipient of this year’s Literary Achievement award. While sycophants in Cleveland, Cincinatti and Columbus top off their cars with antifreeze, Mags slips into CMH on the beefy arm of David H. Lynn, Editor and Pontificus Maxiums, fresh from the previous night’s $1,000-a-plate gala in NYC.

As a Student Associate of the Review, I was invited to a cozy Q&A seminar that afternoon. A circle of chairs was set up in Weaver Cottage, with a rather imperious leather armchair reserved for Ms. Atwood. I came late, and settled into the only chair left–the one next to hers. As the room buzzed with tea-parlor chat, I wondered, perhaps stupidly, what she would look like in person. Probably shorter.

In fact, she was; and older, too. My earnest days under the tutelage of Paul Watkins taught me that author photos are always 15-20 years younger than the author actually is, but Mags, at 68, looks far more wizened than the pixie on the back of Oryx and Crake. She settled into her chair, exhaled, and smiled. “So,” she said, “I understand that you all have questions.”

After the inevitable cold-feet silence, an impetuous Associate pitched her question: What does Mags read while writing?

“I read things by accident,” she explained. She easily falls into old favorites, or anything at a bookstore that grabs here interest, really. Or research. Obviously. Magazines, too, at airports.

“Seldom:” she said, “Hello, Allure. Often: Discovery, Scientific American. Sometimes,” she admitted, with a smile that I can only describe as naughty, “Gentleman’s Quarterly.”

She began to unpack her fascination with scientific journalism, as she has done in many prior interviews. Unlike Ian McEwan, whose defense of scientific writing imagines the form as a medium of clarity for muddled times, Mags likes neat things; like, say, dragonflies genetically mutated to serve as surveillance devices.

“Soon,” she said, “We could all be the proverbial fly on the wall.”

Sometimes, she said, she reads National Geographic, because “They’re very good at digging up bones.”

While she doesn’t watch TV, she does “Surf the ‘net.”

“If I could recommend a particularly amusing YouTube video,” she said, with that pursed smile, “It would be ‘Introducing the Book.”

Her stillness amazes me. I’ve never seen such economy of movement in a human being before. There’s no wasted gesture, and every smile, narrowing of eyes, or change in posture is made with surreal deliberation, as if each were the product of half an hour’s thought. With this awe I swallowed and posed my question. I imagine it went something like this:

“Uhm. So, in a few of your novels–Oryx and Crake, The Handmaiden’s Tale–there’s a sense of alarm, Orwellian future-shock, and, ah, social imperative. They, um, look out as much as they, well, look in. Do you feel like the writer should pay as much attention to social issues as they do issues of, mm, story, or aesthetics?” Deep breath. Re-cross knees, tilt head. Chew on finger? Don’t chew on finger.

She arches an eyebrow, comma-shaped. Her eyes are a perfect, glacial blue, deep like pools of cold water.

“When you say ‘The Writer,'” she says, “Who do you mean?”

“Um.” I lunge for an answer. “You?”

She proceeded to dismantle my question: In addition, what did I mean by “should?” Should the writer do anything but what the writer does?

“Writing doesn’t start with a directive to yourself,” she said. “Nobody forces you to be a writer. And by the way,” she added with an almost imperceptible wink, “there’s no pension plan.”

Heuristic as her logic may have been, I couldn’t argue. I’m an English major, and empty phrases like “the writer” are pistols very close to my belt. What does she care about “the writer” as an empty, abstract concept?

I bow my head and smile. Humble pie.

“Are you all writing?” she asked the room, as if my question inspired some doubt as to whether or not we practiced the craft; or really, if we’d ever picked up a book at all. Nobody raised their hand. “Let me ask a different question: who here is not writing?”

Again, no hands. Plenty of polite smiles, though. I cringed still. She smiled sweetly, as if she had finally realized that this was not Kenyon College, but North Star Assisted Living, the old folks’ home up the road.

Next question, from a practically-minded English major: When she first started writing, how did she support herself financially? After some positing exposition, Mags eased into what is, more or less, the story of her career.

A small girl in Canada circa 1956, there were “no visible writers” in her vicinity.

“My idea of writers was that they lived in other places,” she said. “I had no idea that I would ever make any money out of it.”

Her first attempts at writing courted the ladies’ magazine market. That’s where the money was: cookie-cutter True Romance stories. Mags found them easy to write. They flew off the typewriter.

They were rejected to the last.

“As it turns out, I couldn’t use the vocabulary,” she said. “It seems to always build up to one sentence: And Then They Were One.”

Availed of this particular career path, she “decided to be a journalist.” It seemed proper. Her cousin agreed, telling her that she “would end up writing obituaries and ladies’ pages.”

University, then: she hated “logical positivism with a passion,” and perhaps in rebellion, determined to “to go France, live in a garret, get TB, and drink absinthe.” At work she ran her novel through her typewriter, unnoticed among the rows of other women seated at chattering typewriters, unaware that a bastard first novel was being born in their midst.

(Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor of The Kenyon Review, slouches in a chair behind the students, his eyes sliding back and forth beneath half-lids, lizard-like. I wonder if he’s falling asleep.)

After the first novel was not a first novel, the First Novel emerged, was published, and was optioned for a movie.

“It doesn’t matter if the movie ever gets made,” she said. “You still get the money.”

She was whisked away to France to write the script, but instead haunting a garret apartment and drinking absinthe, she found herself in a modest mansion, uncorking bottles from Bordeaux and the Cote d’Or. Her co-writer, Tony Richardson–after the “Hungarian scriptwriter” who had his own, incompatible artistic agenda whose thesis could be summed up as “alienation”–looked “like a parrot.”

They lived in the house with an assisting entourage of artist and film types, hammering out a script for The Edible Woman. Inevitably, perhaps, things fell apart. A pretty “assistant” was stolen. A swan dive into the shallow end of the pool ended in blood. Maybe it was an excess of wine, a collective overflow of grape-acid; whatever it was, the movie was never made.

My money is on the assistant.

Regardless, The Edible Woman established Atwood as a writer to watch. Her first novel made money, and the piqued expectations of the literary world gaurenteed her more.

“From that point on, I didn’t have to hold a regular job,” she said.

From there, the Q&A proceeded with courtly predictability, all the standard questions fielded with diligence: How did she see herself as Canadian writer? How much does she think of the reader when she wrote? What kind of music does she listen to? Bleakly, does she think the novel–the paper novel–will last?

“Yes, I do,” she said. “It’s a very tactile form.” A pause. A strange, quiet smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “The book is a violin,” she said, “and the reader is like the violin player. But you cannot know who that reader will be. You cannot try to manipulate the reader.”

Margaret Atwood is old, and in the shadow of the novel question must lurk a dozen other, ancillary questions: will her novels last? Will she last? Her answer doubles as a credo–thou shalt not manipulate the reader. Thou shalt not stretch too far for self-preservation. None of Roth’s embalming fluid. Just natural ingredients, and the lush, young jungle of Oryx and Crake.