Category Archives: Rudolph Wurlitzer

Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

Writing Up Absurd

In the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham pays tribute to Saul Bellow‘s 1964 novel, Herzog, which he thanks for helping him to dig out of a rough time. One attribute of the novel’s healing power, Gooderham suggests, is its clear, firm prose. “It is so precise, so carefully constructed, with not a badly chosen word or comma out of place, that it demands your full attention and focuses your mind so that you are forced to concentrate completely on the novel (one cannot speed-read Herzog. Or at least I cannot),” he writes.

I read Herzog last fall feeling just fine about myself, so I can’t speak to its curative powers*, but it’s true that the novel’s precision is one of its charms; after finishing it, I figured there was nothing I could say about the book that couldn’t be said better just by quoting it at length. But precision isn’t enough by itself to be inspiring—if it were, our hearts would sing more often reading the news. (Of course, there are times when a work of journalism can do that.) It may be more that in Herzog, Bellow openly faces the messiness of what it’s like to be in the midst of an identity crisis—Moses Herzog is one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging neurotics in fiction. Yet writing can be a little sloppy to get neurosis across too. Part of the appeal of a messy cult novel like Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 novel, Nog (reissued last year), is the way it turns confusion into an asset. Jumbling up genres, questioning what’s true and what’s imaginary, clouding up the identity of its main character, shifting perspectives—all of it reflects Wurlitzer’s anxiety about a society straining to order things. “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join,” he writes.

Both Herzog and Nog are 60s novels, and perhaps the following decades have made novels about mental illness a little less interesting. That’s a point Marco Roth made in his recent essay in n+1 magazine, “The Rise of the Neuronovel”—now that we’re better able to identify and treat what’s malfunctioning in our heads, obsessive letter-writing campaigns and genre mashups may seem too frivolous for a writer who’s now more prone to study up on diagnoses and treatments. That, or writers have just sublimated those old neuroses into fake memoirs and stunt memoirs. That’s a notion Daniel Mendelsohn recently floated in the New Yorker:

[T]he trauma-and-redemption memoir, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture…. In a way, not only the spate of memoir hoaxes but the recent proliferation of what [Memoir: A History author Ben] Yagoda calls “stuntlike” memoirs—narratives that result from highly improbable stimuli (“One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States”)—arise from a deeper confusion about where reality ends and where make-believe begins.

So, just like Herzog, James Frey worked through a breakdown by getting it all down on paper. And just like Bellow, he knew it would be more appealing if he made it up.

* When I was having a rough go of it a while back, the only book I felt mentally capable of processing was Sidney Sheldon‘s 2000 novel, The Sky Is Falling, which is horrible in every conceivable way. Either I had it worse than Gooderham, or he’s more ambitious about his reading during his funks.

Summer Reading: A Few Small Suggestions (and One 850-Page One)

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has a lengthy list of summer reading suggestions, built on what the book section’s contributors are most looking forward to reading. My pick:

Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just (July 7): No novelist is more sensitive to the different moods of different cities than Just — his 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season, is a modern classic set in Chicago — so I’m eager to see how Vietnam War-era D.C. comes across in Exiles.

I could have gone on, and not only about Just, who deserves to be on the short list of great living American writers but has somehow failed to become a household name among the folks who care about such things. (It may be that Just is perceived as a “writer’s writer,” smart but esoteric, but that’s a limiting, unfair assessment. He’s highly readable, and even his Washington novels aren’t sunk in wonkishness.) There are plenty of books I’m either excited about reading or finishing, or which I’ve eagerly recommended to people in recent months. Among the 2009 books I’d suggest for the beach bag are Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, an entertainingly sinister tale of a love triangle in the Wisconsin wilderness; Gary Indiana‘s The Shanghai Gesture, a riff on old-fashioned Fu Manchu stories whose satire cloaks some genuinely felt concern about current-day helplessness in the face of globalization; George PelecanosThe Way Home, another morality tale about a neglected corner of D.C. life, this time the products of juvenile correctional institutions, that’s bolstered by its precise characterizations and Pelecanos’ increasingly stripped-down style; Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, a collection of elegant, ghostly, yet never melodramatic love stories set in Stockholm, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and other far-flung settings; Charlie HaasThe Enthusiast, an easygoing comic novel about an editor in the curious world of niche magazines; and Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life, a magnificent sprawling memoir from the manga pioneer that explores the nature of creation, the business of art, and the frustrating path to self-awareness. (At 850-plus pages, that last one probably won’t work well for the beach bag, which probably speaks to my lack of knowledge about what works well for the beach. I’ve never been much for the outdoors.)

Like a couple of my Sun-Times contributor colleagues, I’m looking forward to Thomas Pynchon‘s Inherent Vice (though there’s plenty of Pynchon I’d like to get to before that one), but I’m just as interested in Colum McCann‘s portrait of New York City in the early 70s, Let the Great World Spin, Lisa See‘s Shanghai Girls, Glen David Gold‘s Sunnyside, Kevin Canty‘s story collection Where the Money Went, the re-publication of Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 cult novel, Nog, and Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement. That last one doesn’t come out until October, but that’s the funny thing about book reviewers—one of the best things about summer is looking forward to the books that come out in fall.

Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

Best Westerns

The Charlotte Observer ponders the legacy of William Saroyan, who was born 100 years ago in Fresno, California. Donald Munro writes: “Who can say why Saroyan doesn’t have the name recognition today of, say, his contemporary John Steinbeck?”

Funny you should ask! In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley joins Robert Gottlieb as a member of the Salinas Handwringers Society—a small but apparently growing group of critics who take whacks at Steinbeck’s works yet still find themselves enchanted by them. “Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan…is almost completely forgotten?” Yardley asks, then proposes an answer:

The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Yardley isn’t being cute or glib here—his assessment is couched in a wise reading of Cannery Row, and the whole essay is worth your time.

Staying in the West a little longer: I’m a little out of practice in long-form reviewing, but I wanted a little more room than usual to discuss Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder and Willy Vlautin‘s Northline. My review of both novels is in this week’s City Paper.

So What Else Is New?

Yesterday the National Book Critics Circle announced its latest Good Reads list—a selection of recently published books recommended by its members. Here’s the fiction list (links and formatting direct from the announcement post on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass):

1. Richard Price, LUSH LIFE, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2. Jhumpa Lahiri, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Knopf
3. Steven Millhauser, DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Knopf
*4. Charles Baxter, THE SOUL THIEF, Pantheon
*4. Peter Carey, HIS ILLEGAL SELF, Knopf
*4. J. M. Coetzee, DIARY OF A BAD YEAR, Viking
*4. James Collins, BEGINNNER’S GREEK, Little, Brown
*4. Brian Hall, FALL OF FROST, Viking
*4. Roxana Robinson, COST, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
*4. Owen Sheers, RESISTANCE, Nan A. Talese: Doubleday

You won’t have to look far to find somebody argue that this list is stuffed with the usual suspects. That’s a somewhat odd complaint to me, as somebody who spent a couple of years contributing to pop-music polls. I mean, of course these lists are filled with known names—they’re consensus-building exercises. Surprises, practically by definition, aren’t going to rise to the top. And I’m skeptical about consensus-building exercises in the age of the long tail. But something to keep in mind: When I attended a gathering at Politics & Prose a few months back to discuss the last batch of selections, many of the folks who attended found all this stuff surprising, and you don’t show up at Politics & Prose on a balmy Saturday afternoon to listen to book critics natter on unless you care about reading.

This time around, I suspect that most folks with even a casual interest in contemporary literature have heard plenty about Price and Lahiri, and anybody who makes writing about books part of their daily business is thoroughly sick of the pair of ‘em by now. That’s not to say that a list of books that a preponderance of critics cared about is valueless, though—if only for folks who might be curious about what critics care about, and transparency is always a good thing.

All that said, I’m an NBCC member, and I was mindful this time around about not being one more person boosting Lush Life—much as I love it, it doesn’t need any more help. My pick was Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder, about which more soon.