The New Yorker Fiction Issue

June 12, 2011

Not long ago, while talking to my wife and brother about The New Yorker, I said “I never read the fiction.”  They gave me identical looks of surprise, confusion, and horror, almost like Jack Torrence’s wife stumbling upon her husband’s typewriter.  This look inspired me to pick up some back issues (starting with the previous two fiction issues) and read the fiction.  Shockingly, I discovered that the fiction in The New Yorker is excellent (who knew?).  The fiction issues are particularly great, featuring prominent, superb writers.  I now believe that if you want to follow contemporary literature, at least enough to understand the conversations people have about it, you really just need to do two things: keep up with the reviews in The New York Times and read the fiction in The New Yorker.

It would be hard for this year’s fiction issue to live up to the last couple: the 2009 issue featured stories by Tea Obreht, Edna O’Brien, and Jonathan Franzen, and last year’s “20 under 40” issue featured a lot of great writing.

George Saunders’ “Home” immediately puts the reader into discomfort.  The narrator enters a familiar but terribly messy room, and he gets surprised by an eccentric stranger whose conversation is difficult.  The prose itself doesn’t allow the reader to relax: it is dialogue, back and forth, including the “__ said,” so that the reader can’t get comfortable in long stretches of prose, but rather tries to follow the sense of what people are saying.  Slowly the situation the narrator finds himself in is revealed to the reader, in ways both very funny and very sad.

You may think it a bit much to say that I read literature for the salvation of my immortal soul (and it probably is).  Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Asleep in the Lord” is a concretely grounded story about the complexities and real world difficulties of a religious search and a religious desire to do good and live well.  It has an almost dialogical, polyphonic feel, as a breadth of characters, some appearing very briefly, embody or express different angles of human and religious efforts and failings.

Lauren Groff’s “Above and Below” starts out with unpromising cliche, but that doesn’t last.  In cold, direct prose, Groff tells the story of a former graduate student/college professor who becomes homeless.  The detached narration makes the story all the more devastating: the unemotional prose puts the detailed focus on the concrete, physical, material life of a destitute woman.  That she roams around a college town, remembering her previous life with books and grammar (her few abstract thoughts focus on the new meaninglessness of those past concerns) is inspired: the grim life of the homeless, focused on food, shelter, and little else, contrasts against the complacent comforts of university life, a life the protagonist knows well.  It’s hard to read the story and not realize that this very act of reading a short story in The New Yorker is, in fact, pointless, a luxurious comfort that has nothing to do with hunger and cold.

The New Yorker fiction issue always makes it worth your while to put down whatever else you’ve been currently reading for a short bit.

The Corrections, Part Two: I can do this again and again!

June 6, 2011

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

I greatly admired and enjoyed The Corrections.  In that book, Franzen fully brings a reader into his characters: their personal and social histories, their internal lives, and the day-to-day material conditions of their external lives.  It is a funny work and a maximalist work: structured, but full and overflowing and darting in unexpected directions.  But it is very much personal, about the individuals of the Lambert family.

While reading Freedom, I found myself reading another drama of the personal and interpersonal, finding the references to politics and social ideas subordinate to that: as context, as the things people talk about, as background for this drama of individuals.  As the book goes on, however, it becomes impossible to see it that way: the book is too much about politics (politicians, political events, political maneuvering, political ideas), so it comes to seem that Freedom is the sort of book Jonathan Franzen writes when he sets out to write about 21st century American democracy.  It is not a political statement (if it were it would be a poor one, for there isn’t much terribly original in it as political observation), so much as exploration of the political through the personal (and vice versa).  How people live, what people believe, what motivates people: these are questions that are personal and political.  Indeed, what the book shows is how much the personal and political are meshed and get meshed up in individuals, how it is from the personal that the political springs from.  Ideas about personal motives that are not new–children developing selves as reactions against their parents (yet also becoming like their parents, repeating them, often unwittingly), competition in personal relationships–in Freedom are the source of one’s politics.

But it is a novel about people, and a moving, engaging one at that.  And here lies Franzen’s greatest skill as a novelist.  There are certainly better writers of sentences.  But Franzen’s ability to draw fully developed characters, to emerge them into relationships with each other, and to develop their shared history with depth and nuance and detail, is masterful.  Patty, Walter, and Richard have a rich and well-drawn history together: the novel’s structure allows the reader to follow this history, and the narrative voice allows the reader to experience the different characters’ perspectives on it (in hindsight, the sections of the book focused on Patty and Walter’s son Joey, while necessary thematically, don’t quite fit well into the structure of the book).  By the end of the novel, little moments between these characters are full with context and theme.

There is something that touched me deeply and personally in this book as well.  I read for a wide variety of reasons, not least among these reasons my own edification, inspiration, and education how to to live a better life and be a better human being.  When Walter works for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, he feels morally compromised even in his sincere efforts to do good.  He feels hemmed in by the structural limitations.  And yet, ultimately, he doesn’t quietly acquiesce.  He doesn’t settle for doing little bits of good within a corrupted system.  He ultimately doesn’t even try to preserve his ideal within this compromised structure.  He breaks down, lashes out, and takes a stand.  He risks (and loses) his personal position in order to express his anger, to try and return to his ideal and shuck off the damaging compromises he’s had to make (again, the personal and the political mesh: he only does this after personal turmoil shakes his world).  Like Walter, I have strong ideals, and I share Walter’s anger and (moreso) his despair.  But I, too, have made compromises.  There is a great deal I’ve passively accepted, actions I’ve ducked for all sorts of reasons.  Can I have the courage to risk, or to knowingly sacrifice, for integrity, for righteousness?  Would I be willing to do what Walter did?  Will I be able to someday?  There’s something in my religion that demands I be able to do so, and makes me guilty when I am unable to do so.  Reading literature is, for me, a spiritual experience.  There’s something in Freedom that calls to me, telling me to live better.

How did I come to be reading this book?

I had read The Corrections, and I read Franzen’s short story “Good Neighbors” in The New Yorker (afterward learning it was the excerpted first chapter of Freedom, a book I knew I’d read eventually anyway).  But I wouldn’t have read the book now if my brother Jerod did anything other than read Franzen and rave about Franzen (he gave me the book for my birthday).

Reading Franzen, I’ve realized how much I’m drawn to literature about parent-child relationships (my own lit syllabus is drenched in the theme: Shakespeare’s King Lear, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lahiri’s The Namesake, and it goes on).  I suppose it is the closest thing to a universal theme as is possible to explore in literature (other than death, another subject filling my syllabus).

And I’m kidding about the title of this post.

All roads lead to Damascus

May 20, 2011

On changing one’s mind about literature

I used to eat meat: now I don’t and will not ever again.  I wasn’t always a pacifist.  I used to talk much of being an existentialist, until I realized my commitment to nonviolence (toward humans and animals) was a commitment to absolute moral principle that could hardly make me an existentialist.  Sometimes I’ve had conversion moments; sometimes I’ve gradually evolved my thinking.  I find myself rather embarrassed by my strong defense of some philosophical principles in the past, so much so that I now avoid strong stances in the knowledge that I’ll likely find myself proven wrong (an obvious exception is vegetarianism: I am convinced and committed).

Several years ago, as a pretentious young man I read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and complained about the lack of an objective correlative.  Here was a book about people incapable of dealing with loss, yet the losses they suffered were not outrageously atypical of the human experience.  But as I’ve had children (and worried and feared for them), and as I’ve witnessed and experienced more of life, I’ve come to see that the losses typical to human experience are terrible enough to suffer.  It requires nothing exceptional: the deaths and other losses we suffer, that all people suffer, cause enough pain and anguish.  So that when I read Roth’s Patrimony, a memoir about a father and a son experiencing the father’s declining health and looming death, the suffering in this nearly universal experience was enough.

Parenthood has also changed the way I experience reading generational conflicts.  In a story about parent-child conflict, I find it much easier to sympathize with the parent than I think I used to.  This is not always the case, of course, as literature is often filled with pretty terrible, awful parents.  But when reading Lahiri’s The Namesake or even Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I find myself seeing the parents’ experience moreso than I think I might once have (King Lear, I’m not sure: I still so much see Lear as my grandpa, that awesome love and pride, that I’m not sure I can see Lear as me).

Literature–how one reads it and how one responds to particular works–can be a touchstone throughout one’s life, revealing to oneself one’s changing perspective and evolving self.  I turn again to Rainer Maria Rilke in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo:”

“For here there is no place that does not see you.”

All in all, I’d say it could have done with fewer fairies.

May 16, 2011

Reading William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This play is not something I am particularly drawn to and don’t particularly enjoy (though it is amusing seeing some of the characters go all  Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the players’ unintentionally hilarious play).  But there is something a bit stunning about considering plays like this within Shakespeare’s ouvre.  Consider what the modern day Shakespeare’s career as a television writer would be (and the modern day Shakespeare would be a television writer, grinding for money and trying to entertain broad audiences).   After an early career writing episodes of The Twilight Zone (things like Titus Andronicus), William get commissioned by the History Channel to write a series of docu-dramas glorifying American presidents.  From there, William creates a string of sitcoms that are critically beloved and/or massively popular with big audiences (think Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and Friends).  After basically declaring himself the king of television comedy, William moves on to write dramas that are universally recognized for their innovation, originality, and brilliance (think The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Mad Men).  It’s unfathomable.

But that is not to say it’s a mystery that the author of King Lear might also be extraordinarily funny.  No doubt there is a common well that makes Shakespeare a genius writer of tragedy, a genius poet, and a genius comedian.  I would call it his utterly unique ironic insight that is the source of all of these powers.

How did I come to be reading this play?

My wife is co-directing a high school production; as a lover of the Bard it’s rather a bizarre shame I had not gotten around to reading this yet, and thought I should know the material before I go to watch.  I am told that it’s a play that, while I may find it uneven and a bit dull in the reading, can be spectacularly funny in the performance (and I suspect it is so).

Wrestling my biases: Authorial Intent

May 5, 2011

As a teacher and a reader, I have pretty roundly rejected “Authorial Intent.”  For me it is always about the text, and I have trouble accepting that much else matters.  I do not concern myself much with a writer’s biography, and don’t teach author biography (snippets occasionally come up).  I am concerned with an author’s ideas, but only those ideas which are evident, or are being wrestled with, in the text itself.  I may read what an author says about writing or his/her own work, but I don’t much let that affect my reading of his/her fiction, drama, or poetry.

It is not that a writer’s biography, or a writer’s ideas about literature or writing or life or God or whatever, can’t provide insights to a text.  It is that if something in the text only makes sense if you know such extra-textual material, then there may be a failing on the author’s part.  If the author is attempting to convey something, it should be in the text.

Yet what is “extra-textual material”?  You have to know the language to understand a text.  Quite often knowledge of the setting (place and time) contributes to understanding a text.  Historical and social contexts, events, and trends provide understanding to a text.  Writers make allusions to real life figures and to other works of literature, allusions that only make sense with extra-textual knowledge.  We are bringing something to what we read as a necessity, always, and often specific knowledge contributes to a reading of the text.  One can read “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” without knowing a thing about Hawthorne, but some knowledge of the history of the United States revolutionary period (“history” encompassing what happened and how it is interpreted and given significance) will contribute to a reading of the story.  Furthermore, where a text fits in literary history–how it follows or expands on or diverges from the literary forms and themes that preceded it–contribute to a reading.

You cannot read without bringing extra-textual knowledge to a text, and often it is very specific, necessary material which gives text meaning.  Sometimes this extra-textual knowledge is called upon explicitly by a text, and often it is implicitly called for.  So am I justified in ignoring authorial intent and reading like a New Critic?

I think so.  Reading with focus intently, closely, and “mostly” exclusively on the text is, I feel, a good thing.  Concern with the author can distract or distort from that.  But knowing that extra-textual knowledge is necessary and directly and indirectly called for whenever reading, it also seems wrong to dismiss somebody else’s reading that relies on authorial intent (wherever knowledge of that intent may come from).  It’s not how I will read, but I’ll acknowledge the insights another reader, who reads differently than me, can bring to and from the text.

On letting people enjoy their pleasures

May 5, 2011

This is my one rule for talking about what we read.

How Nick Carraway gives Gatsby his glow

May 2, 2011

Reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

When I read this book, I am stunned, and I have no trouble accepting its greatness.  Where I struggle is in articulating why, or how, it is great. It is the most perfect aesthetic expression of the pure, floating Dream/Idea/Hope/Memory and its corruption in its relationship to reality.  To try and articulate this theme in any other way than what the novel is would be to cheapen it.

It is also a novel of stunning prose: it is understated yet alive with color and light.   Breezes blow, characters sweat and feel.  Nick Carraway’s voice evokes mood and feeling with color, with lighting, with flowers and plants, with weather and space (a not atypical line: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home”).  It is prose you’d like to get lost in, though Fitzgerald won’t quite let you lose yourself. When I set this book down, the scenes and settings lingered with me.  I feel like I know the rooms where these characters exist, that I can feel the moonlight and sunlight that shines on these places.   Fitzgerald fills his novel with feet on gravel, with breezes blowing curtains, with heat, color, light, and feel.  There is not wasted lengthy description: Fitzgerald uses just the right evocative details to bring the scene together.  And in some ways, it is the moods of the characters and their interactions that really creates the rooms.

Nick Carraway stands out for me more than Gatsby or any of the rest.  His distinct voice and power of both observation and reflection (frequently a power of speculation that encompasses both) carry the novel.  In some ways this is a story about what things (Daisy, money, places, a green light) mean for Gatsby.  But moreso, it is a story of what Gatsby means to Carraway, for all we know of Gatsby’s inner life is given to us through Nick, and not just what Nick says Gatsby told him.  Nick goes further, speculating and dreaming of what Gatsby must have thought and felt, so Gatsby comes to mean and represent something distinct to Nick.  What “Gatsby” means is not Nick’s creation in the same way that what “Daisy” means is a creation of Gatsby’s–but it is in the same realm.  Nick imbues Gatsby with his significance.  If Gatsby now has the stature of a mythic, iconic figure, it is because Nick saw something grand and angelic in Gatsby and his rise and fall, and Nick gave him the stature of a myth and an icon (yet without diminishing his stature as a real human being).

How did I come to be reading this book?

Mostly, I’m reading this book because my kids love watching me play The Great Gatsby video game.  My eldest enjoys it with particular relish, and now has a bit twisted understanding of the plot; my youngest recognizes the book that’s been sitting around the living room while I’ve been reading it.

Also, I discovered Slate’s podcasts, and enjoyed listening to the audio book club discussion of books I have read, including this one.  Furthermore, one of my favorite directors, Baz Luhrmann, is making his own version of The Great Gatsby (and it must be brilliant.  I need this.  The Minnesota Vikings may never win a Super Bowl.  I need Baz Luhrmann to create the most spectacular Gatsby visually imaginable).  I take this as enough: God or chance pushed me to read The Great Gatsby.

Of course I’m also reading this book because of “the canon” and academia and culture and all the things that pass this book down and prop it up (rightly) as a masterpiece.

I read the book on my own in high school, and then again for class my freshman year of college: years before I understood that the lyrical beauty of a novel’s prose could be an end-in-itself pleasure.

After this reading, I’ve decided to teach it next fall.