Category Archives: Adam Langer

An Old Chicago Story

My review of Peter Orner‘s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, is in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The surfaces of the novel are surprising—the chapters are brief and impressionistic, and I can’t recall the last contemporary “literary” novel I’ve read that included spot illustrations (it’d be nice if they made a comeback). But its themes are old-fashioned and familiar: It’s a Chicago novel, which means it’s largely about patronage, politics, and knowing your place. The novel opens in 1984 as the book’s hero, Alexander Popper, receives a lecture about how the city works from a federal judge:

Some call it patronage, I call it friendship. Nobody is his own man. Everybody needs somebody else…. This is how we build our buildings tallest of the tall. Our highways, fourteen lanes across. Sears, Roebuck, Marshall Field’s, Wiebolt’s [sic], Goldblatt’s, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott, Hart Schaffner Marx, Polk Brothers! Back scratchers all. Do you think we could have reversed the flow of the Chicago River, this kind of engineering marvel, if not for the scratch, scratch, scratching of one another’s back?

There’s a lot of nostalgia going on here, not just for old retailers and old political operators, but for old Chicago writing too—I hear something Bellovian in that exclamatory, rhythmic speech, which recurs whenever a politician talks in the book. But the book isn’t an attempt to mimic Bellow, and much of the appeal of the book is Orner’s willingness to tinker with multiple tones. Popper, an aspiring writer for a time, mentions Algren and Carver, and Orner is trying to hybridize their styles into one that’s streetwise and straightforward.

When it works (as in a brief chapter about former mayor Jane Byrne), it works beautifully, though Orner can succumb to melodramatic flourishes when it comes to making broad statements about Chicago. (“They tore Comiskey down. In this city we tear everything down eventually.”) It’s a fine novel about Chicago, though it makes me wonder if the “Chicago novel” today is an artful snapshot of a place that no longer exists. Among the very good novels about the city in recent years—Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, Adam Langer‘s Crossing California and The Washington Story, and now Orner’s—none spend much time looking at the city past the 90s. Crime novelists do these days, I know, and Dan Sinker has tweeted an entertainingly profane novel-ish story about the current mayor’s rise to power. But if a novelist were attempting an ambitious novel about Chicago today, would it be obligated to circle around the same themes of political patronage and ethnic enclaves? Or is there a different story to be told about the city now?

Links: Running Numbers

Aimee Bender: “I think a lot of writers do think mathematically, actually, because fiction, a made-up world, requires a lot of working through of logic. So it’s a kind of math, on the page, using words. A word problem, of sorts.”

The legal squabbling over Katherine Anne Porter‘s estate drags on.

Olga Grushin on The Line: This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere—say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”—but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people.

What is Southern lit? I don’t know. You get knocked down. Black holes burnt into a map. There is moss and gonorrhea. You scramble back up but don’t know your mind. What you were was it worth reaching fer? You can’t tell your Bad Faith actions from your authentic mind. It’s all a low fog, over soybean fields and the jawbone of a deer.” (This riff reminded me of George Singleton‘s comic short story “Which Rocks We Choose” [PDF excerpt], which sends up some of Southern culture’s best-loved cliches.)

In a Daily Rumpus email, Stephen Elliott talks about Frederick Exley‘s A Fan’s Notes with Tobias Wolff: “‘It was a writer’s book,’ Tobias said. We decided that it was better than a book that makes a big splash. Better to write a book that people are still reading 40 years later. He said Exley’s other books weren’t quite as good. Some of them were very good, but not quite to the level of A Fan’s Notes. It’s a hard well to return to. How does one write another book like that?”

Jonathan Franzen on putting current events in Freedom: “I had to cut the noise down by 99 percent, and just let that one percent trickle in.” A necessary literary strategy if you’re writing for posterity, or just evasive?

Yesterday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program to discuss the National Book Awards and the upset win of Jaimy Gordon‘s racetrack novel, Lord of Misrule. (More on that book soon.) Asked to suggest a couple of books the NBA judges might have considered short-listing, I put in for Yiyun Li‘s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and James HynesNext. National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum gently noted that Li wouldn’t have qualified because she’s an American resident but not a citizen. He also noted that the foundation is giving some thought to breaking up the awards’ nonfiction category into smaller ones such as memoir, history, etc. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens, though I can’t imagine they’ll go as hog-wild with multiple categories as they did in the early 80s.

Adam Langer: “You could probably view the history of invention in storytelling as having begun all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Eve said ‘Apple? What do you mean, apple? I didn’t eat any apple.’ But, in that case, if Eve was the first fake memoirist, then it might be useful to point out that the first literary critic was a snake.”

“The majority of [Mary] Gaitskill’s lecture focused on something that creative writing courses tend to shy away from, considering that it cannot really be taught: the question of unseeable content, the form under the plot, ‘the deeper quality, the unconscious soul,’ the ‘inner weaving of a story that you can’t read—you have to feel,’ as Gaitskill put it.”

Stephen O’Connor on how he came to write the brilliant, peculiar story “Ziggurat.”

On David Foster Wallace‘s ill-fated attempt to balance a serious pursuit of philosophy and writing The Broom of the System.

Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think in general, novels by men tend to be taken more seriously than novels by women. But I also think that novels being taken seriously is kind of a nebulous concept. I mean, what does that mean? Getting multiple reviews in the New York Times? Personally, I have never wished I were a male novelist.”

Gish Jen:

Paul Auster: “All my stories are about America, they’re impregnated with American history, American literature. But… people care little about books, there’s no book culture here.”

Ed Park reviews the Chicago Manual of Style as if it were a postmodern novel.

Guess that settles it: “It is questionable whether Franny and Zooey is even a classic at all considering Wikipedia does not list it as a notable Salinger work.”

Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)

A Sense of Where You Are

“For American novelists who have begun their careers since 1970, geographical variation appears to be a way of lending variety to their novels,” writes D.G. Myers, lamenting the death of regionalism in American fiction. Myers lays the blame for all that sprawl on writing workshops, though it could just as easily say something about how the explosion of information in the past two generations has broadened writers’ horizons; if nothing else, the research is now easier. I’d also figured that writers’ breadth of interests, geographic or otherwise, mainly reflected the fact that Americans in general have become much more mobile in the past 30 or 40 years. But that isn’t actually the case; a majority of Americans haven’t moved from the state in which they grew up, and a majority of those people—more than a third of the U.S. population—have never moved from their hometown.

Of course, writers are different from the rest of us, and many successful ones will likely have to at least consider leaving town and finding a perch in academia. If that means we have a generation of writers who are promiscuous about place, so be it—I’m not convinced Michael Chabon would be a better writer if he’d ditched his MFA program and decided to focus exclusively on writing about hometown of Columbia, Maryland. But Myers’ post does make me realize that regionalist writers in recent years are hard to come by, and even then they tend not to stick around long. Adam Langer, the last great hope for the great Chicago novelist (or at least the most recent great hope) wrote two sprawling novels about the city and then shifted his focus to New York; Stuart Dybek, the great Chicago hope who preceded him, is now in Michigan.

Being a regionalist writer today seems to mess with your productivity; time was, William Faulkner could write a steady stream of novels and stories about Yoknapatawpha County, but now Marilynne Robinson has a long career with only three novels to show for it. And Edward P. Jones—the name that springs quickest to mind when I think of great contemporary regionalist writers—takes his time as well. Perhaps it’s less stressful to be a polymath with an MFA than a writer interested in the details of a particular place.

Links: Go Tell It on the Mountain

At the Rumpus, Eric B. Martin writes, “if we think literature is still worth talking about, every book is part of that debate, which is why reviews of non-blockbuster books should do one of two things: either convincingly shout to the hilltops, “Read this book!” or, in explaining why there’s no shouting, try to find larger truths about literature in a book’s strengths and flaws.” Why can’t reviews of all books just do the second thing? When somebody shouts “Read this book!” from a hilltop, who finds that alone convincing?

Adam Langer, whose next book is about the publishing industry, on the strangest thing about publishing: “That sometimes it’s easier to lie and get away with it, than to get away with telling the truth.”

Southern Methodist University Press is at risk of closing due to budgetary concerns. Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell (the press’ closing would be “a body blow to American literature”), Richard Russo, and others have registered their displeasure.

Richard Price on what to do when Hollywood comes calling about adapting your work for the screen: “Take the money and run.”

“I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them.”

Shalom Auslander works a stomach-churning but not inaccurate metaphor to describe the experience of writing.

Current events have a way of leading back to The Grapes of Wrath.

Percival Everett‘s entertaining comic novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, picks up the annual Believer Book Award.

D.G. Myers, bullish on litblogging: “For the first time—I mean the first time in literary history—critics have the means at their disposal to concern themselves ‘fre­quently and at length with contemporary work.’”

The case for slow reading.

Philip Roth and Judy Blume are inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

In related news, Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah: “I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down.”

Thomas Mallon takes the helm of the creative writing program at the George Washington University, just a couple of months after the school announced that Edward P. Jones has joined the English department faculty.

On Saturday, Al “Red Dog” Weber, who is 84, will impersonate Ernest Hemingway at a book festival in Laguna Hills, California. How will you be channeling Papa, Mr. Weber? “A lot of rum, honey. I’m going to be bombed out of my gourd and in perfect character.”

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.

Let’s Make a Canon

At the Reading Experience, Dan Green is hoping to launch a regular feature dedicated to critical appreciations of American fiction since 1980. This excites me for all the obvious reasons—it could supplant the generally fine but intermittent “In Retrospect” series dedicated to older works, and might even prompt me to start doing more long-form criticism, now that newspaper reviewing doesn’t offer much in the way of that. (When I started doing it a few years back, the standard word count was still around 1,200 words; these days it’s closer to 400.)

I think you and I can both agree on the usual suspects that such a new canon might include—Green’s first choice, Russell BanksAffliction, being one of them. (Wouldn’t Continental Drift be better, though? Anyway.) The list of ten books below is a hasty attempt to propose a few ideas that go beyond the typical choices. In general, they’re all books of relatively recent vintage that I admire but haven’t seen much sustained critical thought about; I’ve clanged a bell for most of them before, here or elsewhere, and I’d be excited to see a smart, precocious critic tackle any one of them.

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue
Ward Just, Echo House
Sue Miller, The World Below
Adam Langer, Crossing California
JT Leroy, Sarah
Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
Carter Scholz, Radiance
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Not a very diverse list at first glance, I confess. But as I mentioned, it goes without saying that, say, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones would be on any longlist. Who else?

News and Notes

I woke up this morning–just like in blues songs!–and discovered the blue screen of death on my creaky laptop. So we’ll make this quick, pointing to a few relevant notes from the feedreader:

* Beatrice points to the trailer for Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard.

* The Millions is excited at the prospect of a new David Foster Wallace novel.

* The Elegant Variation honcho Mark Sarvas is arranging a giveaway of an ARC of his upcoming debut novel, Harry, Revised.

More Previews

The Millions has a nice round-up of some of the most-anticipated books of 2008. (Anticipated by whom? Poster C. Max McGee, pretty much, though many of the books qualify as obvious consensus picks.) Among the ones on the list that caught my interest are Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard (Langer’s Crossing California, along with Ward Just‘s An Unfinished Season, was one of my favorite Chicago-set novels of recent years); Samantha Hunt‘s The Invention of Everything Else (currently on my to-be-read pile for an upcoming review); and Andrew Sean Greer‘s The Story of a Marriage (I’m a sucker for San Francisco novels).