Reading The Adventures of Augie March. Weirdly formless. A ramble on family matters, grandmothers, meals at supper tables, then short-armed attempts at low-level crime.  Suddenly Augie is abandoned in the Midwestern wilderness and has to boxcar his way back.

Bellow’s tremendous value is in his language, a boisterous, happily grubby and open and democratic tongue that revels in its Jewishness and not only in his grand-mere’s throes of Yiddish.  Mustards and rye bread and pickled fish.  In Humbolt’s Gift there’s the most delectable description of an attendant’s balls as he’s stoking the stones in a heated sauna.

Rich and corpulent, it’s been suggested this is the canny, second generation American Jew taking his place in this nation – here I am, he says, not just in idea, it sound, or scholarship, or rumor, or tapping you on the shoulder, but full-bodied.  “First to knock, first to enter,” insistently and bravely present. Thinking, too, of Philip Roth and his sexuality. Decidedly masculine. Who has suffered in attention these last several years…

 

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Last year there was an International Short Story Day and… I guess I missed it!

On one of the official website’s pages is a collection of writers recommending one ‘classic’ and one ‘modern’ short story. Some have online links.

No major thoughts, other than Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” and Lawrence’s “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” factor strongly. No complaints there! Though I should say the D.H. Lawrence story is badly titled. Or, at least, I often have to check a synopsis to make sure it’s the story I think it is.

Playing the same game, to an audience of one… This is tough. Rather, I know what my modern story is, but classic one… I should put up Bartleby, the Scrivener but I’ll pass that by out of random pique.

CLASSIC:
Leo Tolstoy, “The Three Hermits”. Short story as parable. Everyone knows the count’s titanic novels. Most everyone knows the massive novellas. Yet it’s actively hard to find a book of his short stories, though at least you’ll find “Alyosha the Pot” and “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” and “God Sees The Truth, But Waits” often in larger old fashioned anthologies. I don’t share his spirituality but admire it just the same, deeply.

MODERN:
James Graham Ballard, “The Drowned Giant”. The story that followed me from childhood until I discovered its writer was quite a guy. Much about this one has impacted me, lately the refusal to get into the rationale or history of the strange: it just is. And then we turn away, not able to keep caring.

Lately I’ve been trying to read a short story a day, which would be evening, but home after work, tired, watching an infant becoming more and more a toddler, by the time he hits the hay, wiped and wanting to keep up with novels and eek out something of my own. In any case…

“Rough Deeds,” Annie Proulx. Feels like part of a novel? Feels tightly researched, this story about timber mills in Canada and Maine decades before their countries were formed. Both tightly researched yet jumpy in terms of getting the narrative finished, about a years-long vendetta following violence in the wilderness.

“Still Life,” Don DeLillo. Did not know, once reading, but expected, that it was part of his novel Falling Man. Still believe Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is the only credible take on how things felt just after. Much of this piece feels wrong – no one is acting quite how people acted afterwards, but then Mr. DeLillo isn’t always great at characterization, more at brittle, confining ideas. I don’t think ‘suicide bomber’ was in conversational currency until later. I could be wrong. Felt as inert as, say, Cosmopolis was inert.

“Dimension,” Alice Munro. It is crushing to read about the deaths of children now that I have a young son. Primarily this read as the literary analog to Dear Zachary, the devastating documentary from a while back. Leaving it there, this would have been a dark, anguished stone of a story, yet Munro keeps going, bothering with Lloyd’s metaphysical hogwash that feels risible after such a pounding – risible, yet admittedly goofily, scarily plausible, coming from a lunatic. Already the story feels too long. Then she compounds it with what I assume was an internal desire to force a happy conclusion and suddenly a bathetic, sappy event pops up to brush aside the earlier impact.

“Black Box,” Jennifer Egan. Have only read A Visit From the Goon Squad but now I’m thinking she could be the brightest American writer right now, even if she hasn’t hit her marks. (The ‘linked short stories’ thing obscures that novel.) She is willing to go pretty far afield in this one – imagining a squicky bit of sex-dripped espionage. Mostly I’m impressed with the narrative strategies she employs. Here, the subjunctive tense combines with the second person to assert actions instead of suggest them. The story is marred by cutesy use of future-tech devices, which I think will be dated, a sweeping turn into supa-adventure James Bond territory, and a needlessly sentimental return to the character’s domestic memories and past. But she surprises with her observations and her strategies are great. Thinking of the first chapter of Goon Squad, with the adroit flash forwards/temporal shifts. Looking forward to more of her, but I fret about a constant turn toward – god help me – bourgeouis mawkishness / middle-brow crowd-pleasingness.

“That in Aleppo Once…”, Vladimir Nabokov. Often mentioned as one of the great butterfly hunter’s key short stories, I don’t get it. Character not sound or convincing enough to care whether his memories of a wife are true or not. His language as marvelous as ever, yet, unmodulated, it does what it usually does in his writing: plates up any humanity behind sheaves of armor and ratchets up the gamesmanship. By setting this as a letter we deal with yet another Nabokovian unreliable narrator and here it’s tiresome. A whiff of the bat on this one for me.

I’ve left plenty of books behind. Trying to do it less than before, a matter of concentration, but there are books you realize you don’t have the time for (books, unlike one’s hours, are infinite). One shouldn’t feel an obligation to finish everything cracked open.

There are books that bear fruit but seem so awash in… something… that the idea of finishing makes me miserable. Well, the big example is Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. In the winter I got mired in the interminable middle section, one first hand account of two aging poets coursing over the globe after another, put it aside, picked it up again two months ago, made this second section less interminable, and put it down again. The damn thing is 656 pages, this middle part something like half that number and… I think I get the point: these once energetic Wunderkinder were just blowhards and nothing came of them. I got this as soon as I met them.

So I don’t count that in the below.

There are three novels so far that I felt were completed before the end. I got to a certain point in each one and felt, “Welp, there’s the novel: there’s no need to go on.” This is a minor risk, it seems — that your tremendous novel may reach a point of emotional or intellectual closure such that continuing on requires revving up a new set of engines. Or, indeed, feel like a new novel is beginning. Or such.

Anyway. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Pynchon’s V. Stephan Zweig’s Post Office Girl.

The Woman in White is great fun. Funny, headlong, suspenseful in that harmless way; when Count Fosco, et al, make their circle complete around our heroes, it feels they have done such a villainous job that they’ve won. When it was clear they would gain their comeuppance by way of that olde Victorian-era coincidence I couldn’t move on. To me the bad guys won, full stop.

V. This novel troubles me – so oblique, so pleaselessly chaotic, its central symbol (the woman V.) obscured by structure, it is nevertheless self-evidently great. But once we move through nose jobs and sewer-priests to the rats and to the German atrocities in Southwestern Africa, the whole enterprise stops cold. It’s such an absorbing, brutal portion that… well, there’s the old term ‘show stopper’. Normally that meant an aria or dance sequence so good it stopped the show’s pacing with applause, but here, I just couldn’t imagine going back to the random counterculture Whole Sick Crew rigamarole. I get it: the 20th Century was filled with atrocity. You did a great job.

The Post Office Girl. Have I read anything this delightful, this absorbant with detail, so infected with burgeoning life, so well- and closely-observed? This novel, the first half of it at least, is immensely impressive. Quiet and domestic, it examines the point of view of a young woman plucked by gentle fate from a thankless bureaucratic job to spend time with a very wealthy aunt and uncle in an expensive hotel in Switzerland, dateline between the wars. Can I say how remarkably described this is, from shuffing her frumpy dress to the attentions of an old English general? And then she hasn’t seen the jealousy of the other young women and it ends for her and in the dead of predawn she mounts a train home, head a whirl. I haven’t started the second half and may never: this is the novel, isn’t it? A perfect capsule of a life lead, of rustic petit-poverty raised for a moment to effervescent greatness, that effervescent greatness shown momentarily for the lie it is, and then snuff the whole thing out in her return? By accounts the second half is quite different, but I should trust in Zweig’s powers, shouldn’t I? But do I need to?

“Well, they are very frightening for me because their stupidity is so flat. You look into the eyes of a chicken and you lose yourself in a completely flat, frightening stupidity. They are like a great metaphor for me… I kind of love chicken, but they frighten me more than any other animal.”
– Werner Herzog

For a short time only, The New Yorker has made its archives available back to the arbitrary year of 2007. Several sites have popped up with suggestions on what to read, some with fiction recs, e.g. Buzzfeed, containing ridiculously large portraits of each author. (It is Buzzfeed, after all.)

I’ve collected a mess of them and will slowly get through them. Thoughts on the first few…

Grace Paley, “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” — I like the easy relationship between father and daughter based dialogue-only, how this is about family and time, memory and forgetting, yet with no profound pressures to do so. This must be remedied: only having read a few of her stories. It’s right there, on my shelves, her Collected!

Junot Diaz, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” — More Yunior, diminishing returns. Once again in a confessional-to-self second person. Every Dominican man in the world is a savage and won’t stop fucking women or talking about it. There’s a prissy virginal smart girl who won’t give it up. Once again, a shoe-horned outer concern (not sex), which before was nuclear annihilation, here is random Bostonians yelling racist epithets, neither of which feel like the story cares about. Will this guy ever write about anything else?

Rebecca Curtis, “The Christmas Miracle” — A bit off-putting in the ‘this happened, then this other thing happened, then this thing also happened!’ fashion of a hyperactive child. But I like the feel of the family interaction. I like the attempt to conceal the story’s cold concern (pedophilia/incest) behind its goofiness and goofy voice, but the three strands of natural remedies and sickness, cats getting ko’d by coyotes, and the creepy uncle, do not mesh. In an interview she mentions workshopping this with friends. They need to be stouter.

Sam Lipsyte, “The Dungeon Master” — I had read this before. Fitting into this nerdish subculture back when, he catches the feel of it, the way the game amplified desperate personality quarks. If anything I wish it were longer or did something besides be a snapshot, but it’s a minor classic.

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Hopefully the above is legible. I believe if you click it, the image will expand.

After looking forward a great deal to Kushner’s novel, I’ve felt stymied getting into it, primarily for what seems a major error in delivering Reno, the protagonist, in a 1st person voice rather than a 3rd, which she constantly reads to me. There is a gap in the characterization, a vacancy in presence or persona, that would work in 3rd but feels like we don’t quite have her in 1st. She is also given to poetic observations about the world that do not feel like they should come from her and as if a novelist is effectively feeding her lines. Which of course is the case. Kushner should have stepped back in narrative distance, kept Reno at a close 3rd. This would have permitted the poetry while letting us focus on the character as object and enactor rather than someone we’re supposed to understand (and are failing to).

A stronger editor feels necessary throughout. These poetic flights deserve to be reined in left and right – detail makes us pause and wonder why it is there rather than paint a narrative picture.

In the snapshot page: one character (the non-1st person historical personage Valera) sees a woman he likes disappear with another man on a motorcycle.

Second whole paragraph, it is not clear until a god distance in that ‘He was abandoned to his own sudden urge’ refers to his need to masturbate.

What does ‘He felt like a baby snake with too much venom’ mean? In retrospect, that he needs to toss one off, but even so, it’s a bad image to create. What is a baby snake like, with too much venom? What does that mean?

‘defiling melons’ – Why ‘smuggled’? Is it a mystery who might be taking them? Does he do this often? The suggestion seems to be often, which is hilarious. If so, won’t we be better discussing what a strange practice it is, sticking one’s dick into a honeydew? How did he discover this? How messy must that be? A suggestion Kushner does not have a dick: I imagine this to be very sticky and cold, not very pleasant, but then I remember Henry Miller discussing fucking cored apples, so what do I know.

‘superstitious Egyptians’ — a weird reference that we don’t get enough information to parse. How do blue handprints ward off the evil eye? Why blue? Does this superstition mean anything to him, in his turgid state?

‘erection’ – finally we figure out he has a hard-on, although the melon business suggested it. Don’t dance around the naughty topic.

‘with the calm thrill of entering a woman, he entered the ocean’ – walking into an ocean is in no way, shape or form, like sticking your dick into a woman. No, just… no.

‘pumped his legs in the water and composed’ – the transition between blue balls and poetry-writing is pretty swift, here, and not at all what it feels like to plunge into the ocean instead of getting one’s rocks off. There is a missing transition here. Anger, frustration, shame. Something.

‘His body disappeared at the waterline and he felt bifurcated. Two halves, above the water and below it.’ – Is that really what bifurcated means? Thanks for addressing the confusion.

‘water balloon breasts’ – Marie is given water balloon breasts earlier and here it’s repeated; it’s repeated again, later. One can only hope her tush is made of latex and filled with rubber cement.

———-

These are editing mistakes. The page reads like a good first or second draft. Hell, even a third. But there’s no way this should have gone past another set of good eyes, or she should have caught them herself. I’m still wanting more about the melons – there’s a tart melony smell, a shame he’s had growing up, a sign to himself that he’s becoming a new fellow, unwilling to do what he’s done so many times as a teeth-rattlingly oversexed youth, when he passes the pantry by. Instead she just kind of mentions it while failing to generate any human eccentricity from it. And the bifurcated/two halves thing should have gone a long time before. It’s redundant. Also, it’s redundant. Leaving aside the entire passage is both overwritten — let’s cut it all in half, shall we? — and underwritten — the acute sense of hearing, how might this be related to his sexual arousal?

I’m afraid the book is full of this stuff. She can clearly sling a sentence together, is far more interesting to read than most writers, but where was the editor? And who could have told her to change the POV?