Friday, September 28, 2007

Brooklyn Books of Wonder

There's a new essay by Melvin Jules Bukiet in The American Scholar examining a wave of what Bukiet calls "Brooklyn Books of Wonder." For him, these are books that while with few exceptions more well-written than the majority of "genre fiction," don't do anything with life except embrace its potential healing qualities.

All right, I'm simplifying there, but his problem is essentially this: these writers (Eggers, Sebold, Kidd, Chabon, Foer, Kraus) propogate a world in which "History and tragedy foster personal growth" through novels that leave readers with a "surge of sentimental warmth," allowing them to "pretend that they, too, have confronted evil or sorrow and made it through to the other side."

Worse, he says, is the notion that humans can find "growth" in tragedy. "The only thing suffering teaches us," Bukiet writes, "is that we are capable of suffering."


Except not right.

At least, not in the manner in which he writes it. Not in the way that he reaches for some sort of "Reader's Manifesto" for 2007 and succeeds only in flaccid trashing of The Secret Life of Bees and The Lovely Bones. Easy targets: novels that fail in their artistic and narrative ambitions. Novels that pretend to reveal reality but succeed only in affirming shallow fantasy.

But he tries to equate them with the likes of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with Everything Is Illuminated. That's a problem.

And, like Myers in "A Reader's Manifesto," Burkiet strips his salient passages of every conceivable context they might have in order to paint their writers as shallow, egocentric, naive and their novels as wide-eyed, innocent pablum.

But it doesn't work.

Nor does forcing Mark Helprin into that company, ostensibly for his conservative, nostalgic politics.

Nor does opening with allusions to The Brothers Karamazov. He does this, I guess, to demonstrate the difference between what he might consider the potentially shattering realism of TBK and something like AHWOSG. None of that "depressing Father Zosima's corpse smells stuff" in these new novels, Burkiet writes. But, of course, the corruption of Zosima's corpse is what forces Alyosha out of the monastery, into confrontation with his family and with himself, into confrontation with further pain, and, of course, to redemption. To redemption. To something that he learns through suffering.

Heck, when does Dostoyevsky not argue the redemptive possibilities of suffering?

Why else is Dmitri forced through a ridiculous trial, through an unjust jail sentence, if not to present the possibility that he "find growth in tragedy." What to make of Alyosha's insistence that a single good memory from childhood might be enough to "save" the basest of men? What to make of Dostoyevsky's portrayal of Ivan, the only one of the legitimate brothers to insist, constantly, on seeing reality for what it is, seeing suffering for what it is -- merely reality and merely suffering?

What to make of Helprin's insistence in A Soldier of the Great War that suffering is inexplicable, widespread, and random and that the "value" of any life, in the end, is based not on whether or not a person has "grown" (again, to use Burkiet's language) through tragedy but whether or not a person has embraced a life at all, whether or not a person has lived, loved, and remembered?

There's an intriguing thought or two in the essay (as there were in "A Reader's Manifesto"), and there are some salient comments on Jonathan Lethem and one or two insights into Chabon's work, but, like Myers' piece, it ultimately sustains neither its thesis nor the disparity between its chosen "evidence" and what is left unconsidered or unsaid.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It's September

But here's a picture from the summer. Because no one -- no one -- can deny this kid.

And that's my dad with him. Those of you who know him know that he is, as far as I can tell, one of the greatest people on the planet.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Two fun things I learned today from David Foster Wallace's essay, "Authority and American Usage" (from Consider the Lobster):

1. The whole "never end a sentence with a preposition" rule dates from the 18th century, when a British preacher (one Father Lowth), um, decided that it should be so. Huh. More fodder for Sam Harris, I suppose.

2. Meanwhile, our prohibition against split infinitives is, essentially, a holdover from our language's shared start in and obsession with Latin. Latin infinitives (as if I would know) are, as single words, impossible to split. You can see how an early belief in the literate supremacy (and primacy) of Latin would lead folks to conclude that English infinitives (consisting of two words) should not be split. From cannot be split to should not be split.

I like Wallace much more as an essayist than a novelist. Those same discursive tendencies that bug me in his fiction amuse me in his essays. Go figure.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Bill Fox

And, speaking of The Believer, and thanks to a former student and that magazine, I heard a great song, maybe the best song I've heard in a year that I hadn't heard before: "My Baby Crying," by Bill Fox.

The title sounds awful, but the song is unbelievable.

But his albums are out of print.

And, apparently, Mr. Fox now works as a telemarketer and won't discuss music anymore.

I'm not going to link to the song, but I'll email it to you, if you want.

The Road

Labor Day be gone and school be in session again.

As Omar says, "Indeed."

85 summer reading papers on my desk, but two different versions of James Brown's "Live at the Apollo" lined up on my CD player, so all can't be not well.


And I re-read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and No Country for Old Men last week in preparation of teaching one (The Road) and offering the other as a choice book. Plus, the Coen's film of No Country comes out in a couple of months.

I liked No Country for the second time, saw it more as a rumination on how terrifying it might be if god actually walked the earth (to say nothing of existed) than as a bitchy complaint of how things are so much worse than they used to be.

That said, as far as I can tell, it takes place in the early '80s, which sets it up well for the Coen's line from Raising Arizona: "I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House."

The Road, meanwhile, is deadly. Shattering. One of the best books I've read in a long time, but one of those that I can't honestly recommend to other people. At least not without reservation.

Why am I teaching it, then?

Its material matters, I think.

It's entirely engrossing.

It asks fundamental questions.

It fits in perfectly with The Stranger and Beloved, not because they treat similar material in a similar fashion, but because each takes its own perfect, unique look at hope, death, memory, and -- at least in the case of Beloved and The Road -- love.

It is harrowing, and I did feel a bit odd sitting in my empty classroom last week crying as I finished it, but what it does, I think, is apart from anything else I've read in a long, long time.

Nick Hornby, in the new issue of The Believer, remarks that the book is about suffering. Period. And while the suffering is impressive and affective and effective, he doesn't find (or doesn't seem to find, given how he ends his remarks) much more than that. That, while miserable, it isn't complicated. I disagree. I think there's something incredibly complicated in exploring the possibility that it means as much (if not more) to live with love than with hope.

Plus, there's the matter of memory, of legacy, of movement, of the moment when he finds the sextant on the boat, the can of Coke, of how "He could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own."