Category Archives: Ken Kalfus

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.

Teaching and Learning the 9/11 Novel

James Mulholland, an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, recently finished teaching a class called “Literature and Culture After 9/11.” Many of the books he taught were some of the best-known works of fiction addressing the attacks. On the list of required texts:

Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Poetry after 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
David Simpson, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration

Music was also a part of the mix, including Bruce Springsteen‘s The Rising and John AdamsOn the Transmigration of Souls, as well as documentaries, news stories, essays, magazine pieces, memorial Web sites, and more. The full list of materials on the syllabus alone is a retort to the idea that we don’t yet have enough material to start talking about a “9/11 literature.”

After reading the syllabus, I sent a handful of questions about the course to Mulholland. He not only answered them, he presented them to his class and made them a part of the discussion. (“I think they were intrigued by the idea of an outside audience for what we were doing in class,” Mulholland wrote me.) Below are my questions, along with responses, sent via e-mail, from both him and his students.

I imagine that many of the students in your course were barely teenagers on Sept. 11, 2001. How engaged are they with the idea that 9/11 “changed everything,” if it’s always been part of their cultural consciousness?

Mulholland:

They were barely teenagers; most of them were in middle school during the attacks. This is what surprised me most when I began teaching the course. On the first day of class, I asked them each to compose a single-paged response that described to me where they were on September 11th, 2001. I thought of this exercise as a way for them to position themselves in the course from the outset. I also rather smugly thought of it as a way to get through what I perceived as their inevitable desire to emote about the events of 9/11. Two things surprised me. First, their stories were all extremely similar. Nearly every student (out of 35) reported that they were in school, saw the worried look on teachers faces and heard them mumbling to each other. Many claimed they saw the attacks reported on television after teachers wheeled televisions into class. Many said they were not truly worried until they saw the faces of their parents when they came to pick them up. I was unprepared for how uniform their experiences had been, since I fully expected it to be like my friends who had a variety of close and proximate encounters with 9/11 and a variety of emotionally complex responses. (I was a graduate student at Rutgers University in NJ in 2001 and had a number of friends who lived in NY.)

The second and perhaps most surprising element of their personal experiences was how articulate they could be about them. Claims of this generation as the most narcissistic, which often circulate through academia, seemed completely eradicated by the poise and intelligence of their emotional responses. Some of this I think you see in their responses. In particular, I had a number of students from NY (two of whom were in school near WTC) and others who had friends or family friends affected by the event. Questions about the proximity to the event, who has ownership of it, who is affected most became some of the most contentious, difficult, and rewarding—they told me—discussions of the entire class. They showed an enormous personal sophistication about their place, and their generation’s role, in defining the memory of 9/11. I offered to them the idea that they were the inheritors of 9/11 memories and they took that up.

Students:

It is not the event that changed everything, but people who changed everything. We have made things symbolic that might not have been otherwise.

Even if I hadn’t taken this class, I would still feel this: September 11th increased a national sense of paranoia. With the shift in presidents, that paranoia is put at ease, as though Bush’s strong association with the event (as president at the time) affects the way we feel about 9/11 itself. The change in office allows for a new space for thinking ahead, to the future, instead of back to a point when political figures became a representation of larger national concerns and fears.

Instead, now we are relying on this literature [of 9/11] to shape how we feel about the event. We were at the “coming of age” period of our lives. We were absorbing information, but without the means to make our own opinions about it. We had little sense of what we thought about it, except for what people told us.

Some of us were thinking about how it affected us, but others were wondering about it’s affect on the larger populace. Many of us were concerned for ourselves, for our own confusion, and how uncomfortable 9/11 made us feel. We were not concerned with 9/11 “changing everything,” except for how it changed our own surroundings.

Nonetheless, many things did change, but those changes didn’t necessarily affect us. Some of us were profoundly affected by these events. Others felt like there was a continuation of American habits after 9/11 that made no distinction about before and after the event. It’s obviously different for everyone.

The memory of 9/11 will affect us more than anything else, but we are the last of that generation. People younger than us probably will get more out of information and representations than experiencing the actual event itself.

The generations “after us” will not have a memory of the event, so how are they even going to know if 9/11 changed anything or not? They’ll have no reference point, no experience from direct memory. (Yet the event seems so prevalent in art and culture that we seem to be “holding onto” the event, without judgment of how we do so.) Why are we associating this event with enormous changes in symbolic and cultural change? This is one of the questions we’re trying to address in this class. There is always going to be some amount of change, and yet 9/11 has seemed to be a moment of enormous change and this class in part acknowledges and investigates that. 9/11 is a significant change but not the only one.

Ultimately, however, we are concerned that we are being grouped together, which makes personal meaning difficult to create and removes the possibility of specific judgments. We are very conscious now that we cannot generalize; we are reluctant to speak for our age group about responding to 9/11.

The graphic-novel adaptation of 9/11 attracted criticism from some for diminishing the importance of the event. Have your students responded to that book (and Spiegelman’s “No Towers”) in a way that’s any different from the novels you’ve included?

Mulholland:

They responded remarkably differently. Our discussion of the graphic adaptation focused a great deal on what the formal and generic transformation meant for the information in the report. They were extremely suspicious of the idea that the adaptation was meant to make the Commission’s findings more accessible. (This surprised me since it was a gesture that I thought would meet with their acclaim.) They also were uncertain about the graphic quality of the drawing in the Commission Report adaptation. Many felt like it was exploitative and utilized too many of the features of action cartoons. Others argued that visual drawings, rather than printed text, put us in the position to imagine that which we did not want to imagine—to visualize the final moments on the plane for example.

For Speigelman, they struggled less with the politics (another surprise) than the formal complexity of the work. The layering of panels and the multiple time periods of In the Shadow of No Towers made discussing this work slow and laborious. Spiegelman so expertly draws the chaotic paranoia of 9/11 and I believe they experienced it again.

Both of these responses lead me to think that they were more comfortable with the novel as a genre, which means that novels of 9/11 were correspondingly more understandable to them. Nonetheless, elements of the novels we read for class troubled all of the students.

Students:

There was, we think, a conflict between the intent and the perception. In general, we tend to be skeptical of the translation and of the spirit to use the visual form to popularize the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report.

Our discussion of the novel allows for a satirical effect that creates a rare emotional space. One of the distinguishing features of the graphic narratives is that they make few attempts at photorealism and so viewers need to work a bit harder to place themselves into the experience of seeing the graphic narrative. In this way it is similar to reading printed text, but through a different lens.

This different experience is difficult to determine. What about the graphic diminishes the experience of the event? Is it that it slips into memory, that it is being forgotten? What seems so uncomfortable about the graphic novel is that doesn’t fit a clear genre, so that it diminishes the experience of 9/11 only to the degree that a viewer lets it be diminished. Some of us feel like the use of comics makes the event seem cartoonish and fictional, which feels distressing. Comics were supposed to be an escape. Others, however, felt like visual modes were used to describe historical events all the time and so they felt that the use of comics didn’t change the experience by trivializing it. Others felt like 9/11 was an enormously visual event, and so assimilating it to the techniques of the graphic novel made it feel too similar.

The novels you included employ very diverse styles and tones—Kalfus is irreverent, DeLillo is coldly philosophical about the event while O’Neill is more warmly so. In teaching these novels, are you looking for commonalities between the books or discussing the different perspectives they have on the event?

Mulholland:

As I mentioned above, there were elements of each novel that troubled my students. Some were surprising, others were not. Kalfus’s irreverence charmed them, but there were limits, such as the public sex scene at the end. I could not get them to come to solid conclusion/positions about what technique was being employed there. Foer’s characterization of Oskar Schell engaged and repelled students equally, though the end of the work was utterly heart-breaking, as Foer no doubt intended, for nearly everyone in the class. Oskar became a very personal character, and my students responded to him as if he was a living human being. My students readily adapted to the experimental form of Foer’s work, and dwelled less on it than on Oskar (again, a surprise to me). Netherland enthralled them, and we had a phone interview in class with O’Neill (one of my students happened to know him) that only intensified that reaction.

Throughout my teaching I was looking for thematic and formal continuities between the works. The one work that I personally disliked, DeLillo’s Falling Man, was a work that they made new for me. They made me find a number of interesting formal angles—such as the representation of dialogue—that had utterly eluded me. Our attention to different formal experiments in each novel was paralled by a discussion of feeling—of each novels attempts to engage with the emotions, affect, and sentimentality of its various characters in response to 9/11. I wanted them to be able to trace the ways that novelists offered formally different solutions to the same fundamental artistic problems: how do we represent 9/11 in literature? What is the meaning of the varied emotional reactions to 9/11?

Students:

One element that we consistently noticed during the class was the emphasis on relationships that were broken through terror. There is a strong connection between the private life and public events in these novels.

The novel as a form lends itself to multiple perspectives. Each novel seems to show a negative side of the aftermath of 9/11; the difficulties of people coping with the trauma and how that trauma affects others around them. Often there are children involved, so that each novel seems fascinated by the effect of 9/11 on kids. The games that these children are described to play become symbolic and highly disturbing. The novels themselves seem intent on imitating the events of 9/11.

All of these novels are structurally all over the place. There is a large amount of formal experimentation and they all have this in common. (“Mustache. No Mustache. Mustache.”) They also show that there is not a single response to 9/11. Each has a different sense of how 9/11 impacts culture. Novels are one place where you can experiment, more so than in poetry. They also show that life carried on after 9/11, that it didn’t change everything.

What inspired you to teach this course? When did you feel like there were enough works out there to start teaching “9/11 literature”?

Mulholland:

I think two things inspired me to teach this course. The first was the first time I read the 9/11 Commission Report. I can’t recall when this was—it was not immediately—but when I did I noticed that the opening paragraph reads like a novel. Since I study the origins of the English novel in my academic work, I found the Report’s harnessing of novelistic fictional techniques fascinating. It was trying to tell a story in a way that was familiar to its audience.

From here I had the idea of tracing the intersections of literature and 9/11. I started collecting materials, and soon after listened to a radio show called the “Rise of 9/11 Literature” on NPR. On this show, Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame, claimed that he thought it would be fifty years before there would be a great novel of 9/11. It was an axiom that everyone on the panel seemed to agree with; novelists, it seems, need time to sort through and assimilate the experience.

Which made me wonder why. Since I teach literature as a precise register of historical change, I wondered who had already written about 9/11. Who was writing now? What was their literature like? Was it inauthentic because it was an almost immediate response?

I knew of some of these writers already, say Jay McInerney, and the danger of using 9/11 as a sad addition to one’s book. It seemed to have brought nothing but spite from critics. Nonetheless, I thought I would collect everything I could.

But what ultimately motivated me to propose this class was the utter lack of other classes. When I began to search for syllabi of English classes on 9/11 literature, I found nothing. Not a single class. There were classes in history, sociology, political science. But not one English class. It seemed impossible to me that I couldn’t find anything, and the simple absence propelled me to create the course.

What have your students responded to most strongly? What provokes disagreement and debate?

Mulholland:

As I mentioned in question 1, some of the most difficult moments occurred when students decided to take possession of the experience by testifying to their proximity to the event. This is still ultimately inpenetrable in terms of its authenticity; to have been in NY or directly affected by 9/11 gives a credibility that exceeds any other that I can think of in the United States today.

These debates did not happen very often, no doubt because my students were very sophisticated in the ways they discuss the personal effect of 9/11. I would argue now that this results from the fact they have lived this condition for nearly their entire adult lives.

There were localized moments when there were contentious discussions about specific pieces of literature, or theories (David Simpson’s 9/11: Culture of Commemoration divided the class, before ultimately uniting them in an attempt to develop of own theory of what commemorating 9/11 might mean.) But the politics of 9/11 was a point of consistent, if subdued, tension. I had a number of students who were politically radical. I had a number of students who deeply held strong feelings of American patriotism. I tried to make the class about art and literature rather than history and politics, knowing full well that these four categories always intersect. But there were evident moments when the class became quiet over a forceful political opinion—most often about the Bush administration and the aftermath of 9/11. (This became most apparent when a student did a class presentation on conspiracy theories about the “real” actors behind 9/11.) Interestingly, these discussions never became argumentative; I think that the weight and significance of discussing 9/11 always motivated my students to be responsible, think the best of other people, and look for points of contact while civilly disagreeing. I did not expect this when I began the class, fully imagining how I would negotiate the contentious politics and emotional exhaustion that came from discussing 9/11 for thirteen straight weeks. This moment never came; I happily can say that the students were sad when the classes ended because the material interested them. Rather than exhausted they were energized by the material.

Students:

The notion of aesthetics comes up a great deal, along with the tension between artistic aesthetics and sentimentality.

There have repeatedly been issues of ownership: do we own this topic now? Does expertise or experience matter for ownership of this class? We have managed to put this material in the realm of theory, to conceptualize it, so now we have managed to get past this tension? Or do we switch from the sense that 9/11 is too violent to discuss to another way of avoiding responsibility by conceptualizing it.

As the class has progressed we have developed different media have taken us away from the visceral response to more conceptual questions.

The syllabus itself feels like a narrative. We begin with personal stories and then return to cultural and emotional materials. We have wondered throughout if 9/11 is an event in our conscious lives—that we feel?—or a historical event that has already been archived. We have been following a trend from how we witness to how we cope. We begin to collect a sense of what the terrain is.

We wondered as well if the art we study in this class is an act of documenting history or exploiting it. Is it dehumanizing 9/11 to talk about its art and literature? This becomes most apparent in the graphic moments when we explored the idea of “falling” people or photographs of limbs at Ground Zero.

The discussion of the 9/11 Commission Report and its graphic adaptation was especially emotional and contentious. We asked whether this adaptation was appropriate: did it make the event seem trivial? Was it too violent? What is the reliability of a report that is written like fiction or presented as a cartoon?

We also debated what David Simpson has called the “culture of commemoration.” Who’s to say who the heroes of 9/11 were? Are the victims and firefighters and terrorists heroes? What are the international ramifications and response to 9/11? What is the connection between 9/11 for the rest of the world beyond the United States?

Most of our debates thus far concerned the ability of art to capture the emotions and impact of the event, and the philosophical meaning of trying to do so. How does the culture of 9/11 make us feel?

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?

Saturday Miscellany

Financial Times reviews the eerie cover of Don DeLillo‘s Underworld.

The Washington Post‘s book blog, Short Stack, attempts to come up with a master list of post-9/11 fiction. Here’s another vote for Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country, but I call shenanigans on that “deliberately” in the blurb on DeLillo’s Falling Man.

In the UK, the Guardian bemoans the death of the love story, while in the U.S. there’s some speculation that the Kindle isn’t the world-beating success that Amazon claims it is. (Valleywag asks the pertinent question: Have you actually seen somebody in public using one of these things?) I don’t mean to force a connection here, but is Amazon doing enough to push the Kindle into the hand of romance-novel readers? In some ways it seems like a perfect match: At the risk of generalizing, romance readers don’t especially committed to hanging on to copies of their books (why else would used book stores explicitly refuse to accept them?), and the Kindle embraces the disposability of books (a few weeks back I argued that I need more convincing that I can actually own a Kindle book). Also, those patterned slip-on book covers you see on the subway don’t exist for nothing–they’re meant to cloak the gaudiness of the romance novel you’re reading, and a big beige reading device does the job just fine. A device that’s anonymous and allows you to have a bunch of books handy and handily disposable might be a winner with romance readers. (Sony seemed willing to give the idea a whirl, though perhaps the hot-pink color scheme doesn’t provide the anonymity a reader might hope for.)