New Essay Online

Hey everyone, I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of books site (check it out here). This one takes a look at Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement

Longtime readers might remember I also took a look at Serge’s fiction a few years back. If you haven’t had a chance, you can read that essay here.

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Happy Bloomsday

In honor of Bloomsday, here’s James Joyce reading from Ulysses:

Follow-up: Pop Culture, Nostalgia, and the Novel

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I worry that both Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay might seem dated eventually because of the way they use pop culture. I wanted to clarify that a bit.

It’s not that I don’t think novelists should engage with pop culture–when done well, pop culture can be a really useful tool for situating characters in society. And lots of truly great novels use pop culture to great effect. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald references the 1919 World Series, the rise of Broadway, and jazz culture. All of these touches help create the world of the novel. What those references don’t do, however, is help carry the emotional weight of the story. Instead, they exist as part of the world the characters inhabit–they are part of the setting, and only part of the setting.

My concern for both Fortress and K&C, both of which I like a lot, is that the novels invoke not so much the “setting” of pop culture but readers’ nostalgia about the pop culture of their youth or adolescence. And then that nostalgia is asked to do some of the novels’ emotional work. For example, the ultimate uselessness of the magic ring in Fortress plays not only on the characters’ desire for a superpower that can “save” them, but for the reader’s nostalgia for that same desire. As the experience of actually reading comics continues to disappear (comic characters are bigger than ever, but fewer and fewer kids are reading comics themselves), the novel “changes”–in the sense that it can no longer rely on readers’ nostalgia to help underscore the “power” the ring holds in the characters’ imaginations. Perhaps the novel will hold up–I would like it to, to be honest–but I have a feeling it won’t. It may simply rely too much on its readers preexisting ideas and experiences. Basically, I suspect Lethem is working the room too much. And that when the room changes, the book will ring…if not false, then at least less true.

That’s the thing about books–over time, only the very strongest retain any kind of audience. A novel that relies too much on its readers preexisting ideas, prejudices, and nostalgia is setting itself up for a short lifetime. There’s no shame in that–sometimes a book is really great in its moment and then disappears. That doesn’t make it a failure–it makes it a product of its time. But I can’t help but admire books that push for more–that create an internal world so distinctive, so well-crafted, that it can exist even after its “moment” has passed away. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, and in the end Fortress and K&C will turn out be those kinds of books. But I suspect that they will end up closer to Armies of the Night–books that remain well-written, and interesting, but eventually come to seem like products of their particular moment.

A Few (Quick) Thoughts on Norman Mailer

I’m making my way through Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. I’ve never been a particular fan of Mailer (to put it generously), but I was curious about the book itself, which is a “nonfiction novel” about an anti-Vietnam-War protest he participated in.

1. Harold Bloom has a concept he uses called “period pieces”–a fancy way of describing a book that doesn’t age well. Though Armies won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, it seems like the very definition of a period piece. It isn’t a bad book–there’s some interesting observations about both the country and the era, and Mailer was unquestionably talented–but it does feel dated now, at least to me.

2. The book’s key point comes as an aside, about halfway through: “(Mailer’s habit of living–no matter how unsuccessfully–with his image, was so engrained by now, that like a dutiful spouse he was forever consulting his better half.)” (Parenthesis in he original.)

3. It’s no great observation to say that Mailer’s primary subject is himself…but it’s true. The style of the book in particular–Mailer’s use of the third person; the tension between irony, self-awareness, and self-glorification that inhabits almost every page; the way Mailer focuses over and over on how others perceive him (and how he perceives them perceiving him)–all read as a dialogue with Mailer’s persona. Mailer of course inhabited a very particular kind of literary fame common at the time: originally famous as a novelist, he became a kind of provocateur, to the point where the fact that he would be arrested at an antiwar protest was genuine news. The book’s style–the way it inflates and deflates Mailer’s persona–adroitly plays with his reputation, and this is by far the most compelling part of the book (seemingly intentionally so).

4. The problem, of course, is that Mailer’s persona is largely gone now. First, Mailer, while still read, hasn’t been a pop culture figure for quite a long time (he really stopped being a celebrity, as opposed to a “literary celebrity” during his own lifetime). Plus, Mailer’s persona–the macho, antagonistic strut he made famous–has been parodied so much (by Neal Pollack, etc al) that doesn’t read the same way as Mailer intends it to. To put it simply, it’s now obvious just how contrived Mailer’s persona is–which means the irony Mailer uses to describe himself now feels so necessary that the reader can’t give him credit for it.

5. But most importantly, the book speaks to a particular audience in a particular moment (middle-aged literary intellectuals in the 1960s). And it doesn’t really challenge that audience. Throughout, it’s impossible not to get the sense that, with his snappy portraits of fellow lit stars Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell, or his carping on his (then ongoing) feud with Paul Goodman, Mailer is working the room. But the room has changed. And now it feels like…well, shtick.

6. For some reason, the book made me wonder about contemporary novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Fortress of Solitude, which engage with pop culture. Mainly, I wonder if Chabon and Lethem are working the room in their engagement with comics or pop music. That they know the educated, middle-class audience they write for also grew up with the same comics and pop music, and that they will immediately identify not only with that world, but with how Chabon and Lethem use that world. To put it another way, I wonder if engagement with pop culture (at least in a straightforward way that takes a particular set of pop culture markers for granted) risks tying a novel to a particular audience at a particular time. I also wonder if that approach makes things to easy for that audience.

7. In the end, I feel like Armies of the Night doesn’t push its readers hard enough. There are some decent political observations–“Just as the truth of his material was revealed to a good writer by the cutting edge of his style…so a revolutionary began to uncover the nature of his true situation by trying to ride the beast of his revolution.”–but the reader is never threatened by them. Mailer’s own style doesn’t so much reveal the truth of his material as tame it, make it something a reader can look at from a distance. As a result, at no point does the reader feel like this revolution is going to ask anything of the reader himself.

8. It’s not that the book should be more “political”–it should just be…stranger. Really good writing doesn’t work the room–it opens a new one. That’s why a book’s longevity is (though imperfect) such a good measure of it’s quality. A book that does something genuinely new, that doesn’t cater to its audience’s prexisting ideas/tastes/interests stands a better chance with future audiences, if only because they will come to it on more or less the same (unfamiliar) terms as the book’s original audience.

Thoughts on Renata Adler’s Fragmentary Fictions

A few months back I had the opportunity to interview Renata Adler for Bookslut. While I really enjoyed our conversation–and am really happy with how the piece turned out–I didn’t really get much chance to write about her novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark. So I figured I’d post a few words here.

1. As time goes on, I find myself more and more drawn to fragmentary writing—writing that works through the accumulation of images. The finest example of the style is probably Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat. Nominally the story of a journalist named Jen Fain, it appears as a sequence of short anecdotes, snatches of conversations, journalistic observations, and nuanced details of city life. A man steals his downstairs neighbor’s New York Times and is never heard from again. A narrator—maybe Jen Fain, maybe not—confides that she is a poor interviewer, someone—again, maybe Fain, maybe not—moves the story from narrative to critical essay, observing that “I recognize every literary style at once, and I detest them all.” It’s not always clear who is speaking, or what order things are happening in.

2. I enjoy this style of writing. But it does fight against a natural desire to see a story unfold more or less sequentially. As Adler herself put it in our interview, “one doesn’t want to be brought up short all the time.” Reading a work that is constantly doing this—even one as deftly arranged as Speedboat—requires care and attention. At the very least, the reader has to take her time and think. But there’s a real value in that—in really paying attention to what you are reading and how the text is creating meaning. Sometimes, I find myself drawn to texts that push me even harder. Fragmentary writing feels natural to me on some level, despite the attention it demands.

3. Speedboat in particular also appeals to me because I see it as a truly great New York novel (though not all of its action takes place there). Some of that is Ader’s eye for detail, some of that is the particular quality of some of the book’s characters (I’ll mention the newspaper thief again, if only because I’ve also seen that sort of thing happen), but a lot of it is that Adler’s fragmentary style really lends itself to describing city life.

4. My favorite quote about the city comes from The Great Gatsby: “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.” I like it largely because it’s that restlessness–common to all big cities, but particularly evident in New York (in part because its so much denser than other American cities)–that I most admire about the city. Adler’s fragmentary style captures that restlessness, that unsettledness, better than almost any other narrative technique.

5. To be sure, that technique is not specific to her writing about New York. Most of Pitch Dark, which is also quite fragmentary, takes place outside the city–it’s too most memorable scenes (an encounter with a trapped raccoon and a long, winding road trip–take place in Connecticut and the Irish countryside, respectively. And both books encompass a lot more than just insights on city life. But I still think of them, both of them, as truly great New York novels.

I have more to say, but that seems like enough for now. You can check out my interview with Adler here.

Thoughts on Werther and “A Lover’s Discourse”

One of the reasons I wanted to restart the blog is I missed having a place to sort through ideas about books that I read, without writing full-on essays about them. One thing I wanted to try is to put together skeletal, more fragmentary posts that record certain ideas and impressions, without necessarily exploring them as fully as possible–“blog as notepad.” This is a bit of an experiment on my part, an attempt to use the format of the blog to create a different kind of writing than I usually do. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

I recently got done reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse back-t0-back. The two are related–“love” sits at the center of both works, and much of Barthes’s book is given over to the discussion of Werther and his story. Since A Lover’s Discourse is a seminal “fragmentary” work, I figured this would be a good place to start my digital notebook…

1. Werther falls in love with a woman named Charlotte. She is engaged to (and eventually marries) someone else. Werther leaves for a time, but ultimately returns. Eventually he commits suicide. This is an inadequate summary–and the book encompasses much more than this–but ultimately, this is his story in its most basic sense.

2. Barthes quotes Andre Gide saying of Werther “I had forgotten how long it took him to die…He keeps going on and on until you want to give him a push, right into the grave.” Barthes calls this comment “silliness,” but in put in mind of the inevitability of Werther’s situation. Once he returns to Charlotte’s village, there is a certain inevitability to his ending. In effect, Wether’s decision to return is his decision to die. And so, in one sense, he does die slowly.

3. In Kafka’s The Trial there is a famous scene where Joseph K learns the parable “Before the Law.” In the parable, a man from the country tries to gain admission to the law. He waits before the door of the law, which is opened, but guarded. Over time he attempts to persuade the guard to let him in–eventually giving up all his worldly possessions in the process. The guard accepts these bribes only as a matter of course, telling the man “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” (Needless to say, the man never passes through the door.)

4. Werther, like that man, omits nothing. He returns to Charlotte, knowing she is already married. He visits her, even after she has expressly told him not too. His end is set as soon as he makes the decision to return. It is hard not to see him as someone who has decided to see things through to the end, though he already knows the end. I am tempted to say Werther dies as soon as he returns to the village, and the rest of his story is posthumous (in effect if not in fact), though that isn’t really true. He simply sees his story through to the end; no one can say that he didn’t see things through to the end.

5. What strikes me most is how much more I prefer A Lover’s Discourse to Werther; it’s not just that I enjoy the book more aesthetically–ultimately, Barthes discusses love in terms that veer closer to my own. I recognize a certain manner of thinking about love, the way the book both immerses itself in love and yet holds love at a certain distance.

6. Barthes also omits (almost) nothing. His book looks at every word or phrase associated with a lover’s discourse (“I love you,” “alone,” “compassion,” obscene,” etc.).

7. The difference between the two is the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Werther enacts the story of love–Werther’s discourse in some respects presents himself as love–where Barthes ruminates over love, or more precisely over the language of love.

8. I have traditionally preferred fiction to nonfiction for precisely this reason–it seems more visceral, more rooted in the emotionally “real” moment. The story. The essay (and ALD is an essay first and foremost) is more indirect. Rather than embody his subject, Barthes picks it up, looks at it, thinks it over. And yet, there is just as much feeling in ALD as there is in Werther. It just appears at different angles. Reading the two in succession, I find those angles more compelling, more realistic. I don’t know if they shed more light on “love” (as if that were the point), but they do offer more consolation for the anxieties, pains, and confusion that love often engenders.

9. Werther’s story is so much his own–his story so set–that there is little room for the reader to think differently. We watch Werther, we feel with Werther, but we don’t add much to Werther. Barthes’s angles leave the reader more space. They let the reader think. There is no spectacle in Barthes, pulling us out of ourselves.

10. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on fiction (far from it). Or that I don’t think Werther is compelling (it is). I’m only noting that by reading the two back to back, I realized that I’ve undervalued the essay as a form. Which is an odd realization–especially since for quite some time now, writing essays has been more interesting to me than writing fiction. But there it is.

New Site

Hello, everyone. As you can see, I finally put together a new version of the blog. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to move content from the old blog over to this site. For now, though, you can check out some of my work from around the web.

Here are some good places to start:

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age – my look at fragmentary writing (which will likely come up a lot on the blog).

My interview with Renata Adler (speaking of… Adler’s novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark are some of the best examples of fragmentary writing available).

A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics – my attempt to figure out just where the classics fit in today.

“More Real to Us”: The Art of Susan Sontag – I write a lot of criticism, so I figured it would make sense to add a link to my piece about my favorite critic.

I’ve got some ideas for the new site–at the very least I’ll be adding some more of my own content again. But this should be a decent place to start. I’ve also added separate pages with easily-accessible links to these pieces and many more. Just check out the tabs above.