Quiz answers

I saw this quiz on About Last Night, and was the person who guessed the quote’s subject to be Eudora Welty, rather than its author. The e-mail I wrote said:

My first hunch for the subject of your passage was Eudora Welty. I felt somewhat doubtful, especially given her work in short stories. Then I thought of Francine Prose, but I just finished Reading like a Writer and read A Changed Man not long ago, and the passage didn’t quite seem to fit her writing.

Strange how two women writers sprung first to mind, especially given what I found via “tricks of the trade.”

(Hyperlink added)

Laura wrote back:

Interesting! It’s Eudora W writing about Jane Austen, but I’m fascinated that you guessed it was *about* Welty. Doesn’t that just lend itself beautifully to some theory that no matter the subject, a writer is always in some sense writing about herself too? I love that.

I do like the theory, and I’d guess a lot of writers have a certain inspiring writer who they would like to emulate, or at least live up to. Perhaps it’s the flipside of the ideal reader.


“‘You are free to give to the story what application you will,’ Foe replied. ‘To me the moral of the story is that there comes a time when we must give reckoning of ourselves to the world, and then forever after be content to hold our peace.’

‘To me the moral is that he has the last word who disposes over the greatest force,’ [I said].”

—J.M. Coetzee, Foe 

Pruning the Shelves

I looked over my bookshelves recently and removed some duds—a bad translation of The Master and Margarita, The Lightning Keeper, and My Old Man. The last is a particularly odd purchase: I read a review of it somewhere that convinced me to buy it. The review didn’t explicitly say it was chick lit, although I guess I should’ve inferred it. As so often happens, I made a note to myself to buy it and then blithely did so much later, after I’d forgotten the original context.

The book’s cover startled me: a pastel, old-fashioned print of an ancient man and a young girl. Twenty pages in, I was still wondering what the hell the cover person was thinking when he (she? Who knows.) picked that. Still, a bad cover shouldn’t sabotage a good book. The paperback, happily, has new artwork.

The problem is that My Old Man didn’t give me enough to take my attention from the cover. The beginning wasn’t too bad, and I actually made it to the end, which made me wish I hadn’t; the last quarter of the book is filled Big Pronouncements about Life. The dialog had me cringing, as did the contrived situations. The narrative had the subtlety of a piano falling off a building.

Despite all this, the book has been with me for almost two years, like the phone number of a friend I’m not likely to call again. At some point it’s time to get rid of the stuff that I could never again conceivably want to read or recommend to anyone—the stuff I could cart around until the end and still never use. For me, that threshold is a fairly high: I like most of what I read, and many of the ones I don’t necessarily like that much still have some redeeming quality. That copy of Beowulf and one of Elmore Leonard’s weaker efforts get to stay, but at some point a book is just no longer worth keeping.

I feel slightly bad about selling the books I don’t like, as though in doing so betrays the author. It’s the same reason I hesitate to slam books, even though at times I do—not all books are worth reading, and it’s necessary to distinguish the worthwhile ones. Granted, criteria for what is worthwhile varies, and I try to keep my scope broad—but broad doesn’t mean indiscriminate. Keeping My Old Man would be indiscriminate and gratuitous, as well as a waste of space. The pang caused by ditching the books fades quickly because of the knowledge that I’m not quite as encumbered, both literally and figuratively.


“But [Chloe] should not have spoken. The next day, she discovered her words had spread all over camp, her foolishly honest declaration played back to her in a mockery of her vulnerability. She had experienced a betrayal at the hands of language, seen intimate words converted to a common currency, and therefore had come to trust the body instead, the movement rather than the phrase.”

—Alain de Botton, On Love

The Lightning Keeper

Starling Lawrence’s The Lightning Keeper didn’t make me want to keep reading. I think I learned of it through the NYTimes Book Review, which inspired me to buy, and it sat on my shelf for a while, where it should have been entombed.

The plot, reduced to its most basic form, is Romeo & Juliet sans beauty in language or any action: Boy and Girl can’t get together due to social circumstances, complications ensue, etc. I assume there’s no suicide at the end, but because I read about a fifth of the book I can’t make any promises. It’s so slow a book that I kept hoping M would call Toma and dispatch him behind the Iron Curtain, James Bond-style. Granted, the Iron Curtain hadn’t yet gone up, but then reality never bothered Ian Fleming much.

I went in without particularly high expectations, but The Lightning Keeper couldn’t even rise to meet them.


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior?… Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”

—Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind took 300 pages to win me over, but the last 200 made up for the beginning uncertainty. As with all translations, it’s hard to say how the book read in the original; many sentences felt wrong or mangled at first, though those seemed to decrease as the book went along—or I just stopped noticing because I wanted so badly to reach the end. The clunky aspects became part of the style.

The effect of nineteenth century English writers shows in The Shadow of the Wind, which is rich with Gothic and Romantic elements, although again it’s hard to say how much they directly influenced Zafon and how much comes from Spanish writers I’ve never heard of. Still, the novel does have a certain majesty and depth that most mysteries lack—yes, it is also a mystery—and if one can get past the first chapter or two (“Why the hell am I reading about a pen?”), the story offers rewards.

I use the word “mystery” quite intentionally because it is one, but to pigeonhole The Shadow of the Wind in the amateur sleuth genre is no more fair than putting In the Name of the Rose in the same category. Europeans, perhaps not coincidentally, wrote both. Their protagonists explore and solve mysteries, but in doing so they manifest internal states through external journeys and thus bring about understanding of the self through conquest of the outer world. It is, after all, difficult if not impossible to present a unified whole against the outer world without first conquering what is within. So the mystery in The Shadow of the Wind is swathed in possibly supernatural darkness, against which books are the chief talismans, and the key to the mystery of an author. It’s another double-mystery like Possession—Byatt is yet another European writer—and it works, despite initial reservations.

Talk Talk

T.C. Boyle plays games in his novels. Reading Talk Talk is like watching chess, with the novice no doubt missing much of the subtly of a game between masters, while the expert sees things in the moves that many others do not. The care with language is obvious even when the plot veers toward the ridiculous.

Talk Talk isn’t at the same level of, say, Lolita, and it is an excellent story even if one doesn’t notice the finer points of its writing. But it still engages, and it talks to us, even if, like Dana, we only understand a fraction of what it says. She’s a clever device for discussing language itself, and her deafness is so obviously a device that Boyle takes care not to abuse it.

At times he isn’t perfect, though the flaws stand out more because they are so rare. “‘What now?’ [Dana] asked, and if she could have heard herself—if she were a character in a novel—she might have described her tone as forlorn.” Well, Dana is in a novel, as I don’t need to be reminded.

Then there’s the realism, which is like the best of Neal Stephenson; every page has a scene or description that makes me nod and say, “Yes, I know that.” The momentary leap into art or remembrance comes: “Of course [Bridger] might have been talking about Rashomon, the Kurosawa film, and for the tiniest sliver of a second she wondered just how the three of them—she, Bridger and the thief—fit into that scenario, with its shifting perspective and deconstructed narrative.” It’s sometimes hard to say where I fit into Boyle’s deconstructed narrative, but I know the déjà vu feeling that comes from life imitating art.

There is a lot of talking and communication, but there is even more miscommunication, both intentionally and not. Sounds like the challenge of social existence: understanding not what’s being said, but what’s not being said. And, if I may have my own meta-comment, what’s sometimes important in comment or criticism isn’t what’s being said, but what’s not being said.


“In certain moods we eat our lives away
In fast successive greed; we must have more
Although that more depletes our little stock
Of time and peace remaining. We are driven
By endings as by hunger…”

Possession deserves the numerous blurbs on its covers and in its front matter. Like Angels & Insects, two of Byatt’s novellas sandwiched between one cover, Possession pits relationships against the foibles and schemes designed to prevent or sever them (society being one such foible). R.H. Ash, a long-dead poet who seems based around the later Romantics, might note that government is one folly of man. I use “man” in its broad, Victorian sense. Yet its chief characters are hypermodern academics who would no doubt circle “man” in their students’ papers as an example of sexist language. They have their own potential love story, though as both would probably note, conventional narratives seldom play out in reality. Yet in their investigation they look vicariously for connections between the subjects of their own research.

In large part the academics are trying to overcome themselves—especially the barriers they erect to financial and emotional success This one-sentence description makes the novel sound dry, and yet it is lush with description and lyricism that never get in the way of a plot whose last hundred pages makes one turn them madly just to find out what happens, and in doing so it’s easy to miss the subtle beauty of the writing itself.

The story is superficially about academics, but it is not an academic novel; like Mating, which I’ll write about later, it uses academics as a focal point because of their highly developed analytical skill. The fact that some academics can be as conniving and cunning as mobsters or thieves helps, as does Byatt’s ability to keep the flow even during long epistolary poems. I wanted to know what happened between two dead poets almost as much as I wanted to know what would happen between two barely-alive academics—like whether they would come to life.

And—not to give it away—they do.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Blood Meridian is such a revision of the Hollywood westerns of the 40s and 50s that it’s an overcorrection. Gore permeates the book and might as well stain the pages red—the story is all chaos and blood. The writing stylistically ranges from depths scarcely more than primitive grunts to the abstract and noble heights of Shakespearean combat. For its unusually stark carnage and the sheer virtuosity of its language I suspect Blood Meridian will long resist and invite interpretation.

Attempting to explain a story like this is probably as futile as trying to fully explain America itself. It’s vastly too cynical to represent the America’s ideals because the country has always been fundamentally hopeful, which the western traditional represents; it can only represent the ugly excesses of America that, although I would like to deny their existence, are a part of the national character and past. We worship hope and freedom, but also, like all large cultures, war. Blood Meridian is a totem to the war idol, a severed head on a pike that is the standard we instinctively rally around. It is a reminder of what we don’t want to be and sometimes are.

This makes Blood Meridian a hard read in terms of content as well as style—as opposed to Faulkner, who is difficult solely through style. In the introduction to my edition, Harold Bloom calls McCarthy the heir of both Faulkner and Melville, making me wonder if that is just shorthand for inscrutable. I don’t want to work to read when it’s not absolutely necessary. McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation irritated me, even if I understand that he was trying to make the text flow like a red river. Every time I have to stop reading so I can understand what’s modifying what in a sentence I am tugged out of the world, which may be for the best, considering the visceral description of killing.

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