Most reviews of Jayne Anne Phillips‘ beautiful, curiously structured new novel, Lark & Termite, suggest a connection to William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury. It’s hard to avoid that impression—the novel is a Southern story, and Termite is a child who can’t walk and can only parrot back what others say. But it’d be a mistake to characterize Termite as a Benjy Compson-esque boy, and for her part Phillips is avoiding the comparison. She changes the subject in an interview with the Oregonian:
When Phillips is reminded of Faulkner’s inspiration for “The Sound and the Fury,” she has no direct reaction but talks about how “there was a lot of kismet around this book.” She once admired a sketch by her friend, artist Mary Sherman, who immediately tore it out of her sketchbook and gave it to Phillips. The sketch is the frontispiece to “Lark and Termite” and contains Sherman’s scribbled note with the word Termite, a gift of the character’s name and image.
And besides, though Faulkner tinkered often with structure, the arrangement of Lark & Termite, shuttling between nine years in West Virginia and Korea, is wholly her own. The central incident in the Korean sections, in fact, only came later:
Much later, after she knew that part of the book would be set in Korea, Phillips read the Associated Press story about the events at No Gun Ri, when South Korean civilians were killed by U.S. troops. Phillips can remember the day she read the story, “in 1999, Sept. 30, to be exact,” and what accompanied it.
“There was a big color photo of a tunnel, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that’s what happened to (one of her characters),” she said.
This year’s edition of the Oxford American‘s music issue is a monster, with features on artists from the Residents to Arthur Lee to Jerry Lee Lewis and on and on. There’s plenty I need to get to, but I immediately gravitated to the piece on Neko Case by Jack Pendarvis (who wrote one of my favorite novels of the year). Pendarvis hung out with Case and her band for a few days, and though there wasn’t much drama, they did get to hang out at William Faulkner‘s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Miss., where everybody got excited about Bill’s typewriter:
[Pedal steel guitarist Jon] Rauhouse ran over and started banging on the keys. Banging on them urgently! The hammers sounded like a machine gun. It was the one time I saw [Rowan Oak curator] Bill Griffith get ruffled. He made suffering gestures. He swallowed something. He stepped forward and in the nicest way imaginable, indeed with no discernable effort, sort of willed Rauhouse to stop.
“I should take your picture sitting at the typewriter,” said Neko. She meant me.
I sat down but couldn’t make myself touch the instrument. Everything about it seemed backwards: Neko Case taking my picture, me sitting there. I was having difficulty throwing myself into the experience. I felt like a rubber glove.
What works of American literature should be translated into Arabic? The government of Abu Dhabi is asking: Kalima, an initiative founded last year by the country’s Authority for Culture & Heritage, is soliciting suggestions for American novels, short stories, and poetry in conjunction with this year’s National Book Festival in D.C. Kalima’s first to-do list, announced last year, includes William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury, Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s Collected Stories, and Robert Heinlein‘s Stranger in a Strange Land. Kalima’s head, Dr. Ali bin Tamim, tells the United Arab Emirates Daily News: “It is noteworthy to mention that the complete works of great American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner—are inaccessible to Arab readers.”
At the Oxford University Press blog, Keith Gandal writes something of a, er, call to arms to academic critics to engage more deeply with the subject of literature and war. Gandal is a Northern Illinois University English professor who’s written The Pen and the Gun, which has a great thesis: “Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner were motivated, in their famous postwar novels, not by their experiences of the horrors of war but rather by their failure to have those experiences.”
Gandal figures he knows what’s created the dearth of war stories in academia:
We know why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor, and why most professors in English, as well as history, prefer to oppose war and criticize the military rather than to study them. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields in the last twenty years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war.
What struck me here is that thinking back to my high school and college days (late ’80s and early ’90s), I can recall that a great many novels about war were recommended to me, appearing on supplementary reading lists and the like, but I can’t think of an occasion when they were actually taught as part of the syllabus. I had to find Catch-22 and Going After Cacciato on my own; I never even heard of books like Dog Soldiers until I was out of college. This may speak more to the shortcomings of my schooling, but it’s interesting how rarely war literature made it to the discussion table.
Yesterday marked the debut of an off-Broadway staging of The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928 ), based on the first section of William Faulkner‘s novel. The New York Theater Workshop has a handy primer on the novel and its adaptation, complete with a Compson family tree. NYTW’s Web site also has an interview with the play’s director, John Collins. Excerpt: “[W]hen we read The Sound and the Fury out loud it seemed transformed. Looking at it on the page, with its typeface changes and broken sentences, you feel like you’re being challenged to solve some crazy puzzle. Hearing the words aloud brought the humor forward much more and allowed the movement of the narrative to make a kind of musical sense.”
Oscar Hijuelos cautions Junot Diaz not to let that Pulitzer go to his head. Hijuelos, currently teaching at Duke, has a new novel out in the fall, Dark Dude.
In the Jerusalem Post, John Freeman visits the Brooklyn home of literary couple Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, who has a new novel, The Sorrows of an American. Cohabitation isn’t always a boon for writers, we learn:
Watching Auster and Hustvedt interact intellectually, one can appreciate why artists and writers keep appearing in her work. You can also see why they don’t work in the same house. (Five years ago, I interviewed Hustvedt and stopped, when I thought I heard someone beating on a set of drums in the house: “That’s Paul typing,” Hustvedt explained with a wry smile.)
- Catching up with a lot of things after returning from NYC last night. It was a good year for books I actually read (and liked) at the National Book Critics Circle awards: Alex Ross‘ The Rest Is Noise won in criticism; Edwidge Danticat‘s Brother, I’m Dying won in autobiography; and Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won in fiction. The NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass, has a complete list of winners.
- George Saunders pokes a few holes in the notion of realist fiction.
- And discusses Lost, hard-ons, and other sundry matters with Etgar Keret.
- The Guardian has an extensive study of Carson McCullers‘ dark side(s).
- Absalom, Absalom: Still impressing college professors.
- “To be a significant American writer you need to be an engaged citizen of the world,” says poet Scott Cairns in an interesting piece on the growth of literary translation in the U.S.
A friend was recently enthusing to me about William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, and the discussion that ensued reminded me of a great bit buried at the end of the gag reel of the 2006 Will Ferrell vehicle, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Forward to 5:01 for an analysis of “The Bear” that’s probably jump-started a few college term papers:
Richard Krawiec responds to the foofaraw regarding Gordon Lish‘s editing of Raymond Carver, making the case for a strong-willed editor.
Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, like every popular novel that’s about adolescents and speaks to adolescents about the things that concern adolescents, is deemed unfit for adolescents.
The Millions compiles a list of favorite short-story collections. Good stuff, but: No Faulkner? No Hammett? This guy deserves a slot on the list too.
My brief review of Samantha Hunt‘s historical novel about the last days of Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, is online at the Chicago Sun-Times site. I had high hopes for the book, but…
Maybe it’s just that we’re sick of all the war stories we didn’t bother seeing in theaters anyway, and tired of paging through stacks of Iraq/al Qaeda/failures-of-the-Bush-administration tomes that have arrived in the past year. I know I’ll need one more example here to argue for a trend, but I have two books in hand collecting top-shelf literary writers on the topic of love. Last week I received a copy of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance, in which writers reimagine the love letter. Among the participants: David Bezmozgis, Leonard Cohen, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Audrey Niffenegger.
And today, Very Short List (a daily e-mail I’ve found very addictive, spot-on as it often is in its recommendations) is pushing My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, a collection of love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sez VSL:
This handsome new anthology contains 26 exhilarating and heartache-producing love stories written by familiar masters (Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov) as well as some new ones (Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, Eileen Chang). From the early-adolescent longing in Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” to the crushing choices made in Alice Munro‘s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (the basis for last year’s film Away From Her), each tale chips away at the mysteries of the human heart.
That’s some purple prose there. But the book is for a good cause: Proceeds benefit literacy nonprofit 826 Chicago.
Posted in Audrey Niffenegger, David Bezmozgis, Denis Johnson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem, Leonard Cohen, Lorrie Moore, Miranda July, Sam Lipsyte, Stuart Dybek, William Faulkner