Category Archives: Martha McPhee

Links: No Place Like Home

You’d be surprised how interested people are in bathrooms,” the chief curator of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, tells the Hartford Courant. Actually, I’m not, having read Anne Trubek‘s A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a fine cross-country study of writers’ houses of all stripes, from the stately Mount to Jack London‘s burned-down Wolf House to a ramshackle Poe cottage in the Bronx. Wherever she winds up, Trubek finds either a curious fixation on “authentic” details—Dickinson’s chamber pot! Emerson’s hat!—or an enthusiasm for rewriting the past, as in the theme-parkification of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Trubek is a friend of mine, so my enthusiasm for the book only counts for so much. But even if I didn’t know her I believe I’d still admire her skill at blending elements of personal essay into a more rigorous study of literary reputation. Happily, though, she is a friend, so I get the opportunity to talk with her in public this weekend: If you’re in the D.C. area on Sunday, January 30, please come to Politics & Prose, where I’ll be doing a brief Q&A with her before her signing.

Patricia Chu, an English professor at George Washington University who specializes in Asian-American literature, delivers a three-part response to the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua‘s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chu argues that the excerpt plays into “model minority” stereotypes about Asian-American families, and looks at how “Asian Extreme Parenting” plays out in a handful of novels. “In many books, it seems that Asian Extreme Parenting is supremely successful,” Chu writes, “because the children work hard in order to get out of their parents’ house as soon as possible.”

Cynthia Haven reports from an onstage conversation at Stanford University earlier this week where Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien discussed the kitschification of Vietnam in fiction—the “ossified conventions” of the form, as Wolff put it.

Conveniently enough, proof of that very kitschification arrives in the form of Apocalypse Moby (PDF), a mashup of Apocalypse Now and Moby-Dick. (via)

And speaking of Herman Melville: the unusual path of his copy of Robert Burton‘s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Revisiting Elizabeth Hardwick‘s New York stories.

Barnaby Conrad lasted all of five months as Sinclair Lewis‘ assistant in 1947, after which Lewis stole his girlfriend and ran off to Paris. But Conrad has finally made good on his promise to Lewis to write a novel about John Wilkes Booth.

Do financial types read? The post’s author might’ve rung up Martha McPhee, whose 2010 novel, Dear Money, had plenty to say about how people who work in high finance relate to art. (Short answer: They care about it more than you’d think, though they care about how money moves in that world about as much as you’d expect.)

In a letter to his hometown paper, Alan Gribben immodestly defends his “gribbenization” of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “I have published 40 or 50 scholarly articles celebrating Mark Twain’s genius as a craftsman with words. No one has a better or lengthier record in print of admiring his prose style than I do.”

The final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, which was scheduled to come out last year, won’t appear until 2012 this fall (correction per the comment from chief editor Joan Houston Hall below). In the meantime, samples from it are appearing on its Twitter feed, @darewords.

Asked to consider the notion that Martha Gellhorn might have looked at Ernest Hemingway as her muse, Victoria Best has an angry retort: “Ernest Hemingway, who sucked the vitality out of every woman he married, who exploited them, ignored their emotional needs, insisted they serve his every whim? The Hemingway who argued and physically fought with Martha Gellhorn because she wouldn’t give up her work for him, and who bewildered him by her inability to ‘tag along and like it’, as other wives had done? This man is to be considered a muse?” (What follows isn’t so much about the Hemingway-Gellhorn relationship as it is about giving and receiving criticism, and it’s worth reading in its own right.)

Life in the Bubble

My review of Martha McPhee‘s new novel, Dear Money, is in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The element of the book I was most struck by, and one I wish I’d had more space to discuss, is McPhee’s skill at describing the push and pull between art and commerce, the way money both bolsters and corrodes India, her heroine. McPhee has India write exquisitely about what she gains when she becomes a successful mortgage trader, but also understands how her character’s success chips away at her. As I put it in the review, “McPhee’s prose has a subtle edge to it: She luxuriates in describing the things India obsesses over, and those deep descriptions are part of the novel’s charm. All the while, though, McPhee is signaling how fleeting it all is.”

India is a novelist who’s tired of scraping together enough money between her teaching, her well-received-but-weak-selling books, and her husband’s erratic art commissions to live well in New York City. It’s a tale of old-fashioned greed, but India’s greed has a more literary affect than most such stories. She keeps a tally of writers, past and present, who have done better than her, and that fixation starts to play havoc with the novelistic part of India’s brain, the one attuned to subtlety. Early on, just as her frustrations about money begin to overwhelm her, she teaches a passage from An American Tragedy in which poor Clyde Griffiths is browbeaten into buying an expensive coat for his girlfriend, Hortense. She winds up getting it, thanks to a mix of flirtation and threat, and those chapters are an essay on how willingly people degrade themselves for the sake of a bauble. But India sees it differently:

For twenty pages she schemes and manipulates and bribes, coming up with strategies until the coat is hers—twenty riveting pages that pursue a coat.

The things about a writer is that want is part of the job description. Without want, a writer is nothing. A writer must want to sit alone at a desk for days on end. A writer must close out the world and wait. The reward is the chuckle, the quiet laugh that only the writer hears alone at her desk. She is laughing at her own work, her own imagination nailing a particular phrase because she knows, as one just knows some things, that the phrase, the scene, the story will make others laugh. Who among us, no matter her trade, has not made something bigger, at some point simply by virtue of sticking with it? She must want this even while know that few others will care.

That’s part of what I meant by the subtle edge in McPhee’s writing. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with India’s perspective on writing in the paragraph above. But it’s a perspective run through a prism of greed—it presents India as a writer who can talk artfully about craft but who identifies not with a novel’s protagonist, but with his predator.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, novels about high finance tend not to dwell on this stuff—they spend less time on how their Masters of the Universe got where they were than on the trappings of where they are. Think of Sherman McCoy’s $1,800 British suit and $48,000 Mercedes in The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the array of entrees, toiletries, and accessories that Patrick Bateman describes in absurd detail in American Psycho. The interesting thing about Dear Money is how well McPhee inhabits the process of becoming such a person, from the devious streak that India displays as a teenager to the way her focus shifts toward houses and clothes as she grows more talented as a trader. At her most craven, she turns fiction into something to trade on: She steals the plot of an obscure novel to give her background a little extra pathos during her first meeting with the trading firm’s chief. And the value of art soon shifts depending on her fortunes: At the her firm, it becomes reduced to things hung on walls, and she looks at her former competitiveness with other writers as an amusement. She was once consumed with jealousy when a banker friend passed along his manuscript of a well-written novel, but when the book is finally published, she’s rich, and all she can notice is the release party: “champagne and canapes and men in tuxedos with gloved hands serving with silver trays, a mixture of artists and bankers who blended well, having ascended to the same plateau.”

All of which is to say that McPhee has an eye for the way art diminishes in the face of cash—and how art regains its esteem when money means less. Dear Money ends just before the mortgage bubble burst, and it’s not giving too much away to say that India becomes, let’s say, more reflective about the value of art and its relationship with money in the final pages. But Dear Money isn’t a didactic morality tale about money-bad-art-good, but a story about what happens when either lays too much of a claim on one’s identity. In the final pages, India calls herself “the rough stone for another’s design and love.” That’s a pretty good way to making a living, apparently, but an unsustainable way to live.

Bubble Fiction

Martha McPhee‘s forthcoming novel, Dear Money, is about a novelist in her late 30s who starts working as a Wall Street trader in the mid-aughts, when the housing bubble was at its most expansive. I have a review of the book scheduled to run soon, so I’ll hold off on registering an opinion here. But McPhee’s essay for Bloomberg Businessweek on how she came to write the book is interesting reading: Like the main character in the book, McPhee’s a novelist who was told by a trader that he could train her to do his job in 18 months. (McPhee declined; her character doesn’t.)

I’ve written a couple of times about what the fiction writer’s “job” is, and it’s a question McPhee had to wrestle with as the markets collapsed and her novel stalled. “What happened on Wall Street has happened before; it will happen again,” she writes. “My story isn’t an attempt to make tidy sense of the global financial system. That, of course, is not the novelist’s job.” What is? Well:

Having more—a bigger house, more deals, greater profits—had become an American right, a belief. I’ve come to understand how staggeringly much we know about the world of finance, manipulating numbers, creating products—derivatives, CDOs, and so forth—yet how little we know. As with medicine and deep-water oil exploration, we know so much and not enough. In between the extremes is our own hubris, to which, it seems, we will always be vulnerable. Locating that hubris, however, is a novelist’s job.

McPhee’s essay has a sidebar on the best novels about banking culture—though I don’t recall American Psycho teaching me a whole lot about banking.

Links: Attendance and Participation

My post earlier this week about the college course on 9/11 literature was mentioned in a discussion thread on LibraryThing on the same topic. That thread is worth a read—the participants are working toward a comprehensive reading list of post-9/11 fiction.

One complaint on the thread is that there are no women on the main reading list. (The complete syllabus does include numerous essays by women, including excerpts from Susan Faludi‘s The Terror Dream.) I confess that without the LibraryThing list I would’ve been hard-pressed to think of an American female fiction writer who explicitly addressed Age of Terror themes, though I’d argue that Susan Choi‘s A Person of Interest would count, as would Martha McPhee‘s L’America. At any rate, whether all this reflects an inherent disrespect among critics for women writers is an open question, but Elaine Showalter sets the record straight.

Garrison Keillor is busy: four books of his come out this year, including two novels.

Construction begins next month on a replica of the cabin in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Andrew Seal on Giovanni’s Room: “One of the truly remarkable things about James Baldwin‘s writing is his ability to represent repression convincingly.”

Tayari Jones finds the connection between Yellow Tail wine and the intermingling of street lit with other fiction by black writers on bookstore shelves.

And an executive at Penguin Books UK is, to say the least, very excited to work on David Foster Wallace‘s final novel, The Pale King.