Category Archives: Colum McCann

Foreword and Onward

In a funny and thoughtful piece in the Millions, Bill Morris wonders who actually finds blurbs useful. Not booksellers: The one Morris speaks to is skeptical. Not readers: Colum McCann figures most people “see through the bullshit factor.” And certainly not the writers asked to do the blurbing: McCann despairs of being snowed under by all the blurb requests he receives, and the more profligate blurbers tend to get a bad reputation.

Like Morris, my introduction to the disingenuous world of blurbing was “Logrolling in Our Time,” a recurring feature in Spy magazine that exposed how incestuous the publishing industry could be.* That’s not to say that all the blurbing was insincere. Of course Graham Greene and Paul Theroux would say nice things about the other’s books; it’s no surprise that John Cheever and John Updike would high-five each other. But even if there were honest members of these mutual admiration societies, their blurbing could often be so fulsome and overheated—I’m looking at you, Philip Caputo—that the praise they delivered could easily be ignored.

So, a proposal: If blurbs have a “bullshit factor” problem but are necessary to keep the publishing industry functioning for lesser-known authors, perhaps authors should write fewer blurbs and more introductions for new books they truly admire. Forewords, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and other commentaries are usually reserved for literary museum pieces like reissues an anthologies. But they needn’t be exclusive to such works. Last year I came across a couple of books that I became a little more interested in precisely because a writer I respected took a moment to write not a dozen words but a couple hundred praising it. In a preface to Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen, Percival Everett writes: “I don’t like it when writers try to compensate for lack of story and ideas by ladling on adjectives and useless descriptions of things that need no description. I don’t like work that fails to address the complexities of language and the whole business of making meaning.” Hey, me neither—and you neither too, hopefully. And introducing Mark SaFranko‘s Hating Olivia, Dan Fante writes: “Here the scenes between Max and his lady love are open heart surgery done with an ax. If you’re a Henry Miller or Bukowski fan then Hating Olivia is fresh meat.”

Everett and Fante aren’t bringing any more intellectual heft to their praise than the average blurb does, it’s true—I had to go back to the books to recall what it is they had to say, which turned out to be not very much. But the fact that their praise ran longer than a sentence was meaningful to me—I likely wouldn’t have read Boggs’ book at all were it not for Everett’s benison. Requests that writers submit not just blurbs but two-page introductions might only make McCann’s life worse. But it might also be freeing: Instead of feeling obligated to say nice things about every young writer around, a writer can pick his or her spots, submit their praise only when it’s actually warranted, and avoid any accusation of being dishonest. After all, Morris’ article about the book he was asked to blurb is much more interesting—and made the book in question seem much more interesting—than the blurb he wound up writing.

* There’s a bit of irony in the fact that Kurt Andersen, a Spy cofounder, was once one of the most unavoidable blurbers around.

Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.

Links: Passing the Torch

Joyce Carol Oates: “Virtually all of my novels depict crimes—from a perspective of the tragic rites of sacrifice, redemption, and the passing of the old order—that is, an older generation—to the new order—the younger generation. It’s somewhat unusual that a novel of mine, like Blonde, is purely tragic, without any apparent hope of redemption.”

The voices in Shalom Auslander‘s head.

Grand Street editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the literary magazine in 1985 “to follow the model that the New Yorker once provided and fell away from—to be informative and insolent”—has died at 73.

Andrew Seal is beginning a series of posts on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. Trilogy—valuable for folks like me who only got through The 42nd Parallel in high school and who have since forgotten most of it.

The opening pages of William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice might serve as the great Brooklyn novel. (via)

This year’s William Faulkner conference at the University of Mississippi will focus on his screenplays and movies adapted from his work. (Apparently not on the docket for some reason: The Reivers, a 1969 Steve McQueen vehicle that scored two Oscar nominations.)

Meanwhile, an attempt to connect Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not buying it. (via)

How Prague’s literary culture started in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rick Moody on the difficulty of putting Walt Whitman‘s words to music: “The only challenge is, it’s freaking hard to set the lines because there’s no meter…. Why couldn’t they do a Dickinson event? Those could all be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’”

In connection with a Lush Life-themed exhibition taking place in Lower East Side galleries, Richard Price talks about the neighborhood and his perspective on the art world, putting in a plug for The Horse’s Mouth as “the Citizen Kane of artist movies.”

Was the food writing in American Psycho ahead of its time?

Colum McCann finally has time to make progress on a new novel.

Links: Post-Colonialism

About a year ago I posted about Michael Fauver, a novelist who was blogging about his experience at writers’ retreats. A few people in the comments to that post expressed their dislike for such places. Fauver has read those comments, and he responds in “In Defense of Colonies and Workshops.”

Samuel R. Delany‘s epic dystopian novel Dhalgren has been adapted for the stage as Bellona, Destroyer of Cities.

Walter Mosley: “Through my veins run 10,000 years of history that touches every continent, deity, and crime known to humanity.”

Lewis Lapham on how the recession might affect writers: “It might make them see more clearly what kind of society that they’re living in. A lot of the writing for the last 20-odd years has been very self-absorbed — the memoir instead of the portrait of the society. It might encourage writers to engage more with the society as a whole. It might force them to look more carefully at other people.”

The Web site of Canada’s National Post is hosting a roundtable on Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin.

American fiction about the Vietnam War doesn’t attract much interest in Vietnam.

Ray Bradbury figures the idea that new technologies distance us from ourselves isn’t anything new: “I grew up with radio, I saw what radio did to a people. I saw that it was beginning to disconnect us in society.”

Years of BASS uses Nicholson Baker‘s story “K. 590″ as an opportunity to discuss archiving techniques at newspapers.

A Smithsonian article on the early history of the paperback shares a great anecdote about a wounded soldier biding his time in a foxhole reading Willa Cather‘s Death Comes for the Archbishop: “He grabbed it the day before under the delusion that it was a murder mystery, but he discovered, to his amazement, that he liked it anyway.”

A few metalheads are disputing whether Metallica‘s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has anything to do with the Ernest Hemingway novel. Which is besides the point; as I’ve pointed out before, Cormac McCarthy is the truly metal American novelist.

The 9/11 Novel Now

The Panorama Book Review, part of Dave Eggers‘ effort to show what can be improved in the newspaper in general and the book review in particular*, includes an essay by Juliet Litman considering the evolution of the 9/11 novel. To perhaps overly reduce her thesis, novels like Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man used the image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers to evoke the pain of the day’s events—they are “artifacts of the aftershock.” By contrast, novels like Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 wirewalk between the tops of the Twin Towers as a thematic device, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland, suggest how much we’ve healed in the past few years. Litman writes:

Like Falling Man, [Let the Great World Spin] forces its readers to relive and rewatch the fall over and over again—but here, the man does not fall. With each vignette, we meet someone who is somehow wounded, a character who is destined for or has already experienced an untimely descent, and we feel their disquiet as they ponder the tightrope walker. Their falls have occurred all over New York, not necessarily at the site of the Twin Towers, and so much grief suffuses the story that reader can can hardly revel in Petit’s achievement. Thus, in one swift narrative, readers experience both the sadness of those already wounded and the safety of certain survival.

Positioning McCann’s book as a 9/11 novel requires a little fancy footwork; with the exception of the epilogue, all the action takes place well before the terrorist attacks. Of course, McCann knew what he was doing in writing a story that prominently featured the World Trade Center in this day and age—his passages on Petit’s walk focus on feelings of fear and helpless spectatorship among the folks on the ground. And Litman’s on to something: If the novel says something about the post-9/11 mood, it may be more about an eagerness to get past it—McCann overstuffs the narrative with character after character as if to reclaim New York as a place full of life. Netherland has a similar strategy—to focus on the living instead of the dead, and even to avoid the trauma of the day head-on. (For all its cricket chatter, the book could be considered a sports novel as easily as a 9/11 one.)

“The synecdochic falling man—the symbol for the larger, brutal aftershocks of the attacks—has given way to McCann’s metonymic, never-falling tightrope walker and to the open-to-everything eye of O’Neill,” Litman writes. In some ways that marks a reversal of critical expectations from the 9/11 novel—not so long ago Keith Gessen told NPR that he thought it would be 50 years before 9/11 was the subject of a great novel. Great or not, it may be that the project of writing novels about that day is wrapping up—moving from shock to healing in less than a decade.

* In that regard, it’s hit-and-miss. I like the idea of including original fiction in a book review, and George Saunders‘ “Fox 8″ is clever. The reviews themselves introduce two good ideas: a replication of the first page of the book under consideration, which gives you a sense of the writing as well as the look of the words of the page (that’s not entirely unimportant), and a sidebar listing data about the book’s author, which keeps the boilerplate biographical stuff from clotting the review proper. A feature on male cover models for romance novels seems in concept a nice way to integrate reported stories (haven’t read it); charticles on bookstore economics and commonly mispronounced author names have good information and can be processed quickly. But if the book review of the future has to include things like James Franco and Miranda July talking at each other about the pleasures and frustrations of being actors and writers at the same time, count me out. I happily let my subscription to Interview lapse a while back; at $18 for 12 issues, it counted among the dumbest things I’ve spent money on.

Links: Leftovers

What foreigners might read to better understand the “American character.”

An author gives up on writing criticism: “I know intimately that the worst novels ever written took more fearlessness, will and soul than the best book reviews ever written.”

To buy the time work on a play or another book, Richard Price is working on a screenplay for Lush Life.

Raymond Carver biographer Carol Sklenicka: “It boggles the mind how someone who is said to be gentle can hit his wife over the head with a wine bottle and sever her artery.” I have a review of Sklenicka’s book in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Is To Kill a Mockingbird keeping Southern writers from addressing race?

Colum McCann
‘s win at the National Book Awards somewhat redeems Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Rick Moody starts tweeting a story tomorrow at @BlackClockmag.

A visit to the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. And the guy who played Coach on Cheers.

The publication of Vladimir Nabokov‘s The Original of Laura is an opportunity to dump on living authors: “Richard Powers drones on in high, wooden prose about love, Philip Roth engages in bottomless carnal rumination, Foerian pornographers of tragedy eagerly show us their wares—and Nabokov’s fragments … reveal how hollow so much serious (a synonym, these days, for self-serious) contemporary literature is.”

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity for Roger Ebert to write about the film version of Lolita for Playboy. [NSFW]

The publication of The Original of Laura is an opportunity to come up with some new covers for Nabokov’s backlist.

Jonathan Yardley likes Ben Yagoda‘s book on memoirs, though he’s not much for the recent spate of memoirs themselves.

Jonathan Lethem on the Kindle: “I like old, crapped-out books. For me, it’s an unapologetic fetish, and my house is loaded with them and I’ll always be in love with these things. I worked in used bookstores for a long time. But again, in the cause of not being the cranky old man, even though I can feel all kinds of intense sensory resistance to this thing I choose not to believe it’s the enemy. I’m just going to decide that the world has enough room for this innocuous little guy, too. Why not?”

Bad Awards

Last week the Literary Review announced its nominees for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which seems to have prompted some ritualistic mea culpas. John Banville, who’s been on the shortlist before, smirkingly suggested he ought never write about sex again; writing in the Telegraph, previous nominee Iain Hollingshead is candid about his own experience being on the list. “Writing about sex is generally more technical, and certainly a lot less fun, than having it,” he writes. “Either you descend into flowery metaphor or you indulge in the ‘naming of parts.’”

But that’s a concern with any kind of writing, no? Writers, especially fiction writers, constantly run the risk of either looking like they’re showing off or making their writing feel dead on the page. I’ve read only two of the books on the shortlist, Philip Roth‘s The Humbling and Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, enjoyed both, and didn’t feel either was a lesser work because of some howlingly bad sex scene. This may mean only that I have a tin ear for that sort of thing, but I’m comfortable figuring that the scenes worked just fine within their contexts. The Humbling is about an aging man in the midst of an unusual sexual reawakening—of course any sex scene is going to convey a feeling of awkwardness.

Among the problems with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is its implication that that sex is the worst thing a fiction writer could screw up. The ways a writer can screw up are legion; as I read, I tend to note badly written passages by scribbling the word “ugh.” Below, a few passages that made my heart sink from 2009 books:

Bad Attempt at Monologue Jokes by Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Award:

So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited…. It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread

Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

Bad Small Talk Award

“You know, ” Isabelle commented by way of introduction, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.”

Erica Bauermeister, The School of Essential Ingredients

Bad Union Caricature Award:

“I can get you all fixed up and install a proper system, but I can’t fix that old gal. I can even give you some heat while I’m doing it. It’ll take a little longer that way but I don’t charge union wages. And I don’t do union work neither—I do the job right.”

“How much?” Mrs. D asked.

“About sixteen grand. that’s for as sweet a boiler you ever seen included, and all the fittings. And all I charge is ten percent over cost for the materials. I don’t have my hand down everyone’s pockets, not like them union bosses with their diamond pinkie rings and their shivery smiles, all teeth.”

Marjorie Kernan, The Ballad of West Tenth Street

Bad Strategy to Build Dramatic Energy by Listing All the Ways One Might Die Award:

Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet would, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka, death by poison arrow, death by pipe bomb, death by piranha, death by food poisoning, death by Kalashnikov, death by RPG, death by best friend, death by syphilis, death by sorrow, death by hypothermia, death by quicksand, death by tracer, death by thrombosis, death by water torture, death by trip wire, death by pool cure, death by Russian roulette, death by punji trap, death by opiate….

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

Bad Journalist Award:

Sarah looked into his eyes. He was a congressman. He was a source. But not that much of a source anymore. She had already gotten into trouble twice for sleeping with the wrong men. But he felt just right, at least for now.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Rules of the Game

—–

My review of Paul Auster‘s new novel, Invisible, is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It starts this way:

Relatively early in Paul Auster’s new novel, one of its narrators says that “any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.” True enough, Invisible (Henry Holt, $25) is a book whose value is a function of its riskiness.

Auster’s readers will be familiar with some of the chances he takes, like the deliberately confused identities and stories within stories, and here they’re so smoothly deployed they feel more like pulp-fiction reveals than metafictional gimmicks. But Auster’s real daring in Invisible is in his study of morality, which covers a lot of ugly, unsettling territory: murder, psychological abuse, physical exploitation and, not least, incest.

Links: A Winning Style

The nominees for the National Book Award were announced earlier this week. I can recommend two of books in the fiction category: Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a carefully turned collection of stories that focus on class divisions in Pakistan, and Jayne Anne PhillipsLark and Termite, a novel about the intersection of the Korean War and a broken family back in America. It’s harder for me to recommend Colum McCann‘s ambitious Let the Great World Spin a novel that seemed to foreground its bigness at the expense of its characters. My review of the book in the Chicago Sun-Times wraps up this way: “There’s plenty to admire in Let the Great World Spin, especially for anybody predisposed to the widescreen style of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But the magic of Petit’s wirewalk was that it seemed so effortless, like walking on air. McCann too often lets the reader know just how difficult a balancing act he’s trying to pull off.” The rest of the nominees? Your guess is as good as mine.

The typewriter that Cormac McCarthy has used to write all his novels until now is going up for auction.

The pleasures of reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud.

Perhaps Lorrie Moore is trying too hard to be funny? (I haven’t gotten to A Gate at the Stairs, but the “jokes” in Self-Help do do a lot of the work. But they’re often anti-jokes, planted to show how sad or despairing or resentful a character is. She jokes a lot, but she’s not trying to get you to laugh.)

Cynthia Ozick on the Kindle: “A robot!” “A foreign object!”

Willa Cather‘s development as a novelist.

Junot Diaz in Oprah magazine: “[A] writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Will Ferrell will star in a film based on a Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”, I think).

Lastly, this from the Department of Condescending Media: When a football player reads books, it’s news.

Links: The Secret History

Joyce Carol Oates recalls the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s “unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour” at Chappaquiddick, and questions whether decades of good behavior as a senator atones for it. This is the “WORST THING I HAVE EVER READ” in the eyes of some, but hey, 26 comments.

The great Jack Pendarvis on how Woody Allen shaped his identity—until he discovered Roy Blount Jr.

Jonathan Lethem tells the Jewish Daily Forward that he’s working on a novel set in Queens during the 50s and 60s.

A brief guide to academic revenge novels.

News to me: Steve Albini writes short stories. He certainly knows how to write a strong opening to an article.

Kevin Canty explains why so many of his story titles are taken from songs. “Nothing mysterious about this,” he says. “I just stink at coming up with titles and somebody’s already done the work for you when they write the song. Why work when you can steal?

Colum McCann
is heading off on a European tour to promote his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, along with musician Joe Hurley, who’s written an EP of songs based on characters in the novel.

Nelson Algren‘s first meeting with Simone de Beauvoir.

Lastly, is your last name Portnoy? Do you have a complaint about something Dan Froomkin wrote? Hoo boy, does Froomkin have a comeback for you!

“No 9/11 shite”

Peter Murphy’s Blog of Revelations has an interview with Brooklyn author Colm Toibin, who delivers an admirable amount of straight talk about teaching Pride and Prejudice (“a three hour fuckin’ seminar”), his struggles as an Irish immigrant working with American writing students (“my job is to de-Ben-Marcus-ise this entire room!”), his lack of understanding of the find/replace tool in word processing programs, and more. I haven’t yet read Brooklyn (Claire Messud‘s review in the New York Review of Books, elitist lede and all, actually turned me off the book a little). But after finishing Colum McCann‘s somewhat disappointing Let the Great World Spin, in which the Twin Towers loom heavily over the story, I’m glad to see that reading Brooklyn wouldn’t mean processing two Meaningful Evocations of 9/11 from Irish-born authors in the same year:

You made a point of writing a novel set in New York without any slyly prophetic Twin Towers references.

“No 9/11 shite. No scene where she comes to that spot where the Twin Towers were going to be built and sees something for a second. I was acutely conscious of not going near that, not even a hint of it. I was going to tiptoe backwards from it right across the Brooklyn Bridge with my eyes shut. I think it’s probably the first book set in the region since 9/11 that hasn’t said something about it.”

Why the conscious avoidance?

“In those years after 9/11, everyone felt their task was to somehow make sense of this, dramatise it or deal with it. And it subsequently became an assault on the idea of the novel; that the novel somehow had to respond to 9/11, whereas I’m not sure quite what Moby Dick had to respond to. In other words, it was as though it was the novel’s job to do what the newspapers were failing to do. When I was growing up, no one told me what the novel was for, so I sort of resented that idea.”