Big, in England

Clearly the Brits are still enchanted by big-name American literary authors—no fewer than three sizable pieces on them populate their Sunday papers. The Times has features on John Irving and Philip Roth, with the Irving piece serving as both a good backgrounder on his career and a fun read as well (he describes his dog’s near-miss with his catheter after he had surgery for prostate cancer). Like the other pieces, it’s marked by its length–few, if any, American newspapers dedicate so much real estate to writers, even known quantities like Irving. And like the others, it also seems framed around the idea that the main job of the American novelist is to sum up America, much in the same way Americans want foreign-born authors to be spokespersons for their native countries. Irving is afforded space to expound on his frustrations with his homeland:

“I am not at all at peace, or even comfortable, living in the United States,” he writes. “Both as an artist and as a liberal, I would not choose to live in the United States, but I am from here, and I have ties here. Yet I would say that the absence of any reconciliation between myself and my own country indicates a much deeper rift than any that exists between my mother and me; this lack of reconciliation, my sense of being deeply alienated from my own country, is one I find very difficult to live with. I am often embarrassed by, sickened by, my own country; I detest bully patriotism; yet I am an American, and I’m not going anywhere.”

While Roth is queried about his opinions on the new president:

“You know, if McCain were President, there would be no health bill to debate; there would be no policy in Afghanistan to reconsider; no economic stimulus package; there would be a deep Depression. So whatever happens is the best that can happen, given the circumstances, you know. So I am still rather high on [Obama]. He’s done remarkably, really. He’s fighting an entrenched army of ignoramuses. He’s not a magician.”

(Me, I’d be curious if he feels validated in his assertion that “if anybody can lose 50 states for the Democrats, I think [Hillary Clinton] can.”)

Roth’s American-ness is the larger theme of the feature—it dwells surprisingly little on Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, ostensibly the reason he consented to an interview in the first place. Indeed, the piece spends more time on the binge of classic American authors Roth went on shortly after returning to the United States from England in 1989, and how it fed into the creative resurgence that started with Sabbath’s Theater:

“When I got back here I had a great rush of enthusiasm, and a great sense that I was at home. I tell you, I was driving over to New Jersey to see my father, about a week after I got back. I must have been daydreaming in the car, and I cut somebody off. And the guy rolled down his window, and said, ‘You f***in’ asshole, you f***in’ son of a bitch!’ — and I said, pour it on! I can’t get enough. I was back in the American stuff. I got re-interested in this place. And then quite consciously I read about 20 American novels, books I’d read in the past. I reread Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, lesser-known writers, too, just to get my American juices flowing again. Then I began writing Sabbath’s Theater. And though it doesn’t seem perhaps like an American book, it is. Very much so.”

Julian Barnesappreciation of John Updike‘s Rabbit novels in the Guardian reveals more about how those expectations of American authors are conceived outside the U.S. Barnes writes of first plowing through the books while touring the country in 1991, and rereading them now in advance of his next U.S. book tour—as if they were Fodor’s guides, just with more sex scenes and Toyota dealerships. A little condescendingly, he writes that conking out in front of the hotel television on that first tour, he felt just like know-nothing Rabbit Angstrom; when I watch the football game this afternoon, I suppose I’ll congratulate myself for feeling a little like Julian Barnes.

Still, Barnes’ heart is in the right place, and his essay reveals some of the pleasures that come out of rereading a writer you thought you already knew well:

Whereas in my first reading I was overwhelmed by Updike’s joy of description, his passionate attentiveness to such things as “the clunky suck of the refrigerator door opening and shutting” – by what he called, in the preface to his The Early Stories, “giving the mundane its beautiful due” – in my second I was increasingly aware of this underlying sense of things being already over, of the tug of dying and death. Thus the whole trajectory of Janice’s life is an attempt to expiate the sin of having accidentally, drunkenly, drowned her baby. And while Harry imagines himself a genial and harmless life-enhancer, others see him quite differently. “Boy, you really have the touch of death, don’t you?” his sort-of-whore girlfriend Ruth says at the end of Rabbit, Run. “Hold still. Just sit there. I see you very clear all of a sudden. You’re Mr Death himself.”

Barnes also writes admiringly of the big questions that the Rabbit novels ask: “What is American power if it can be defeated by the Vietcong; what is American inventiveness if it can be out-invented by the Japanese; what is American wealth when national debt piles up?” Barnes is careful to stress that he doesn’t admire the Rabbit novels solely for their sociological value. But they’re fresh meat for anybody looking for a great summing-up of the country, and that’s a big reason why he picked them up in the first place.

—–

Dept. of Self-Promotion: I wonder what the Brits would make of Pete Dexter, who isn’t a major author of Roth or Updike’s rank, but who’s important all the same. My review of his new novel, Spooner, is in the Chicago Sun-Times. It starts out like this:

About midway through Pete Dexter’s sprawling, funny, deeply frustrating novel, Spooner (Grand Central, $26.99), things take an awful turn for the book’s hero. Warren Spooner, a Philadelphia newspaper columnist, visits a bar to meet a man who feels Spooner mischaracterized his dead brother in print. Up to this point the novel has been largely a comedy of errors, and the bum column is just one more. But the fun stops quick: “[T]en minutes later, he came out of the place with most of his upper teeth sheared off at the gum.”

That teeth-bashing has its basis in fact: Dexter suffered a similar beating in 1981, while working as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Scared off of newspapering, Spooner retreats to an island in Puget Sound to become a writer — much as Dexter has. But brutal truth is no guarantee of coherent fiction. Spooner never sorts out whether it’s a comedy about the writing life, a tender story about the relationship between a man and his stepfather, or a farce about newspapers. It’s equal parts John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, David Goodis and John Kennedy Toole, but little of the Dexter who wrote trim, tough-minded novels like Paris Trout and Brotherly Love.

8 responses to “Big, in England

  1. I’ve never seen a Pete Dexter novel on a shelf over here, and having checked the amazon site, only Paris Trout and this latest are available as new copies. As ever, restricted distribution is the major difficulty in accessing American authors who are not ‘great’ enough to make it across the Atlantic with ease. I’ll cheerfully review him (and about more than his relationship to America) if someone sends me a copy, but I doubt that will happen.

    • Actually, “Paris Trout” wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you haven’t read him already. This makes me wonder what other writers are well-regarded in the United States but can’t get their books on shelves overseas.

      • Your post brings up interesting questions about my own position as a British postgrad student of American lit. When you start your American Studies undergrad degree in the UK you’re asked, ‘Is America Exceptional?’. I guess the question I need to ask myself is, what am I looking for in American lit that is exceptional?

        In terms of missing out on authors big, in the States, I rely on places like this, Barnes & Noble’s ‘American fiction’ category lists, and the more gatekeeperish (couldn’t resist after your previous post) New York Review etc. More often than not I can get hold of things through Amazon marketplace. How am I to know, however, what I’m missing? Like cultural references, can I ever ‘know’ American lit like an American? Does it matter?

        Transatlanticism is the buzz-word of the moment, but I wonder how much is lost through the filter of who’s big where?

  2. My own novel couldn’t be more American in character, yet it was published by Pan Macmillan, in the UK, and my editor tells me it’s doing well there. (Though I wouldn’t presume to suggest a comparison with Irving or Roth.)

  3. That’s way cool (umm, should I call you “Amoebae” or “Fossils”?)!

    drw

  4. I wouldn’t place too much importance on the length of these articles in British Sunday papers. They’re pretty desperate enterprises these days. Yes, you can print 10,000 words on a writer’s prostate problems but you can’t guarantee people won’t skip it and go straight to the X Factor reviews and all the goss from Strictly Come Dancing (don’t ask).
    I like many US writers, but Irving and Updike and Roth, oh my. We have a phrase over here: “arse-aching.” I’d rather read Middlemarch again. And you’ll need a gun to make me do that.

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