“We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on.”

—Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

(This is one of the uncommon novels speaking from the first person plural point of view—”us,” “our,” and “we”—like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. Whether this technique is annoying or enchanting I’ve yet to decide. James Wood writes in How Fiction Works: “I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed.”)

Charles Bock in Seattle and Beautiful Children

Charles Bock was more fun to hear speak than to read; alas, I began Beautiful Children with anticipation that went unfulfilled. Problems manifested early: descriptions of video games modeled on Doom sounded vaguely off, and I’ve never seen “hard drives the size of mini-fridges.” Yet I could ignore linguistic problems when I find also find a perfect description of many would-be artists: “He had aspirations to nothing less than the creation of sensitive, artistic, emotionally honest pictures that, just maybe, would get him laid.” In another section, evocations of common ground seem strained, as when the father of lost boy Newell Ewing says that “He got […] trapped in another Politics of Marriage Conversation.” Status is everywhere in Beautiful Children, but more often stated than shown, or shown via consumption. But whenever I was about to stop reading, I’d find something like this:

Propped up against the base of the casino wall like an abandoned doll, the body was bulky in places, but still frail enough to look as if it might be carried along by a good wind. Electricity glossed over its mess of hair—kinked and matted strands of indistinct, artificial colors, clumped in all directions.

Er: it’s almost right, but “electricity” feels wrong because it’s not electricity but electric light that illuminates hair. This is a microcosm of Beautiful Children: it feels like it should be more right than it is. Clichés distract—someone “was bleeding like a stuck pig” and elsewhere a stripper named Cheri goes on “about character arcs and emotional journeys until the friggin’ cows came home.” Perhaps this is how the character would think, but the problem of how banal, uneducated characters think and speak versus the literary needs of the author is never really resolved*. If teenagers sound like teenagers they’re often boring or vapid; if they sound like adults, they don’t sound real. If there is a satisfactory solution to this problem, it is not obvious in Beautiful Children; in other novels it involves a “precocious” or abnormally literary narrator. Instead, Beautiful Children opts for long transcriptions of teenage argot that eventually had me flipping pages in a quest for substance. It was hard enough to find when a character thinks, “You cannot possibly fathom an end to your observations about the status of your physical decline, a final finality. Such things are beyond you, as they are beyond anyone; and yet the evidence permeates your days, unavoidably present, oozing from the southwestern decor of a master bedroom […]” I can’t see Robertson Davies going into such despair. Perhaps John Banville would, but much more artfully.

Banville and Davies, however, wrote many novels over the course of their careers, and, at least in Davies’ case, his early novels were not as masterful as his later ones. Beautiful Children is a first novel that Bock says took 11 years to write and, presumably, publish, and I can’t help but thinking he would’ve been better served to finish it or have otherwise built his skills elsewhere. Beautiful Children is not a bad novel and perhaps it is even good, but not 11 years good. It has an admirable range of cultural references, from Blake to The Outsiders (a “young adult” novel assigned to me in middle school) to visual media detritus. Like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, Beautiful Children heralds better things to come. Now that Price comes to mind, Lush Life covers ground not dissimilar from Beautiful Children and does it better. And he wrote it in four years. Bock said Beautiful Childrentook so long because it was an “ambitious book, and I just didn’t know what I was doing for a lot of it.” Many novels gestate for a long time, and he rattled some off: Catch-22 stayed with me, but there were many others. Alas, I don’t think Beautiful Children will have the lasting power of Catch-22 or Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, another superb first novel. And in those novels, I doubt anything is “unceremoniously rejected,” as something is at the beginning of 3.3 in Beautiful Children.

Bock seems to have better novels in him; in Seattle, he said, “[Beautiful Children is] a dark book, but I believe the darkness is there to illuminate some of the wonderful parts of humanity […] also, I think there’s some pretty good jokes in there too.” There are, and he was wonderfully candid when someone asked why the dialog seemed so good and, by implication, authentic: “I have no idea.” Although he elaborated, I suspect the real truth came first. Still, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question: sometimes the dialog clicked and sometimes not, like much of the rest of the novel.

In another answer, Bock said he used Ponyboy because he’s an “iconic young adult character” and that he intentionally “recycles—Vegas is a place where they fake the Eiffel Tower and the great monuments of the world and turn them into casinos.” There is “no end to the uses of pop culture,” though he tries not to name drop. The recycling theme is heavy in Beautiful Children and perhaps a topic for some future graduate student. Today, someone looking for pleasure and depth could do worse than Beautiful Children—but they could do better. In “Books Briefly Noted,” the New Yorker has its own take on the novel’s problems, starting with praise and then moving to: “Yet [Beautiful Children] doesn’t quite achieve its intended emotional resonance; there is too much shaky dialogue and improbable Vegas kitsch (breast implants with candle-wax-filled nipples, for a pyrotechnic striptease), and the boy at the center of the plot is thinly drawn and so obnoxious that his disappearance is not unwelcome.” I read “Books Briefly Noted” after writing the first draft of this post, and realized that I structure my commentary the same way the New Yorker did its.

* The best description of I’ve read of this issue comes from James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

Buy a Kindle if you want to rent rather than buy books

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

Modernism — Peter Gay

The great danger of a book as broad as Modernism is also its strength: breadth. In trying to cover a gigantic, multifaceted movement that lasted, by Peter Gay’s definition, from the 1840s into the 1960s, one risks a superficial treatment of so many topics as to make the entire book superfluous. But Gay avoids that fate in all subjects save film, which is the weakest section of a book that I otherwise would call “magisterial” were that term not so overused. He also uses his best tool in writing a history of all the branches of modernism well: adept comparisons abound, which show the parallel developments in visual art, books, music, and architecture and the interplay among them. Modernism ruled in some fields more than others; architecture, which, by its nature, is a rich person’s sport, sees much less modernism than, say, literature, which requires only inexpensive writing instruments. Music sat between architecture and literature, and it’s also hard to describe because it split in many directions—the rise of modernism occurred concomitantly with that of pop music. Technological developments helped cause classical music’s share in the average mind grow with the birth of radio and shrink as time progressed.

This is a small example of the idea that Gay reiterates well: that modernism was experienced by a relatively select few even as it influenced the many. It’s even true today, when, as he notes, about half of all paperbacks sold are small-r romance novels and the literary fiction covered by most major print outlets only receives a tiny slice of the market’s dollars. This is not to start a tedious genre debate, though no romance novel I’m aware of has broken from its pigeonhole, as many science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective novels have, and I suspect few owe much to “The Wasteland.” As Gay says on page 459 (of 510), “The question just whom modernist novels, or movies, were intended for was one that had been difficult to answer for decades” (there probably should be an “of” between “question” and “just”). Indeed! But such modernist works receive a share of critical attention far out of scope with their readership or waters.

Maybe the key tenants of modernism inherently limit its accessibility, especially given the definition Gay establishes for modernism: “the lure of heresy that impelled [the modernists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibility; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” The case for using this, as opposed to other definitions, is an excellent one, and in reading Modernism I cannot help but feel that his ideas about what makes modernism modernism have been wandering about in my mind, unrevealed to me prior to this book. And yet, as Gay’s comments about romance novels demonstrate, he keeps his sense of proportion among the tectonic shifts in art and thought that occurred over the period he covers. Modernism has influenced nearly all avenues of thought, but some aspects of culture and emotion have been more touched than others, though probably none in Western culture remain unmoved.

The writing helps: Gay has many wonderful passages, including one I have already quoted and many more I would like to. A scholarly subject came surprisingly alive, like math taught by an enthusiastic teacher with a contagious sense of play—in other words, the one I never had till after I graduated from high school. But I digress: the point is that Modernism is having almost as much fun as its subjects, and perhaps implying that, even if some of its criteria are wrong or that modernists are not all that important, so what? It is an implication that I suspect modernists would agree with.

Still, the book can slide into academicese: “The indifference and hostility of conservative tastes and the ideological objections of powerful institutions often limited, or delayed, a positive response to aesthetic innovators.” Yes, I agree after Gay’s persuasion, but I’m still thinking that he traded ease for brevity. Elsewhere, he says “Much like the stream of refugees from Nazi Germany who signally enriched American and British culture, Italy, too, had its share of enforced cultural transfer […].” Wait, “signally?” What does “signally” mean here? I have no idea, but, minor issues are passing clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.

Sometimes Gay’s wrong notes do not seem part of an atonal scheme, but just an example of the elegant variation:* “On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, an irrevocable exit that would release worldwide rejoicing.” To my knowledge, suicide is always irrevocable, making the fussy phrase “irrevocable exit” redundant redundant, but he certainly gets the “rejoicing” aspect right. For the most part, Gay’s flawless prose operates on many levels:

From [Strindberg’s] subjective vantage point, he argued that human nature is not cast in bronze, but open to the most disparate pressures, some from social demands and others, less easy to trace, from inner urges. Nor can desire and anxiety escape the conflicts that contradictory impulses arouse in the individual. In a hysterical period—and Strindberg insisted that his culture was helplessly mired—contemporaries necessarily display an unsorted patchwork of qualities old and new that prove vacillating and are given to self-contradictions.

Wow: an argument about art, internal versus external manifestations of thoughts and feeling, society’s role in those manifestations, and Strindberg’s thoughts on them and his society. That I wrote “is it really, or did modernists make it so?” in the margin now seems churlish. He makes statements that are, at times, too strong or unsupported, as when he says we live in a “post-Christian” age—did no one tell America’s presidents or its legions of church-goers?—but in most ways he is just the professor you wish you had: knowledgeable, considered, devoted to correctness and willing to see many sides of a thing or idea.

He also reminds me of how far we’ve come: when I pass blank canvasses and other such foolery at the Seattle Art Museum, I just yawn and walk by. The frequent modernist cries in attempting to rip the veil from reality or “declare their [Van Gogh and Gauguin] innermost selves without bourgeois reticence” are themselves examples of veils or reticence. Such paradoxes, oxymorons, and the like might be another of modernism’s defining characteristics, and Gay shows many examples of them; I have not found a better curator.

* As defined by the eponymous blog:

The Elegant Variation is “Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do.”

No good novels?

An e-mail from a reader noted that I haven’t liked many novels over the past few months, and in looking back she’s right: the last novel I really liked was The Name of the Rose. More common have been flawed but decent novels like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man. Fortunately, Ladies’ Man didn’t stop me from getting Price’s most recent work, Lush Life, which is amazing, gigantic, detailed, and many other superlatives thus far, although I’m only halfway through. It stalks the billion-footed beast (warning: .pdf link). It lives up to the hype. It deals with the rich, the poor, the cops, the pimps, the dead, the live, and the soon-to-be-dead (I suspect), and does so with linguistic flair.

Now I’m especially excited to hear Price on Friday.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the kid you didn’t really want to befriend in middle school but liked well enough as a harmless oddity. The novel is a long account of Ebenezer Le Page’s life , a resident on Guernsey, a Channel Island. Le Page’s glory days, such as they are, occur mostly in the first half of the twentieth century and come slightly before the author’s, as G.B. Edwards died in 1976 with his only novel unpublished. This edition comes from The New York Review of Books, which appears to be using the story as part of the novel’s appeal.

Le Page is an insular man with some folk wisdom; he notes that “I have never known the rights and the wrongs [of some Guernsey residents…] That’s the trouble of trying to write the true story of my relations; or of myself, for that matter.” On the page opposite, he is merely strange: “I like my two china dogs. When I write down anything wicked, one of them look very serious; but the other one, he wink.” This lack of pluralization is apparently an example of the Guernsey patois, and it becomes comprehensible and even normal over the course of the novel. As for the china dogs, their symbolic appeal is obvious, though whether the narrator understands is not.

Among these bursts of ideas, however, are along recitations of occurrences on Guernsey. They become tedious as we learn about the couplings (mostly in marriage) and uncouplings (mostly not) of the people of Guernsey, and the results of this action. But I could never come to care about either, and to me the land itself and how it shaped the people seemed more interesting than its inhabitants. Oddly enough, I saw Guernsey mentioned in The Wall Street Journal not long after finishing the novel:

Though it’s registered in Guernsey, U.K., and trades in Amsterdam, Carlyle Group runs Carlyle Capital out of its New York offices. Early Thursday in Amsterdam, the shares plunged 70% to $0.83 each. The stock has lost around 83% since the company first disclosed its funding problems last week.

These would be the financial types Le Page rails against for changing his island from a rural, inward focused area to a hot tourist and financier destination. Guernsey’s former dialect seems to have been absorbed into general English and French since the events of the novel, and the destruction of its linguistic character seems unfortunate if inevitable. But maybe it will also reduce some of the smug satisfaction of residents like le Page, who learns he can’t sell his gold easily because of restrictions placed by Britain. In response, he says: “‘The balance of Credit? […] I haven’t the vaguest idea what that mean; but I do know whoever it was made that law are a lot of rogues and vagabonds! I worked for every penny of those sovereigns!’ I was real angry.” Maybe so, but even justified ignorance is seldom attractive, it should also be noted that the dropped words are in the original. On the same day, le Page says: “I slept like a log and woke up late.” The somewhat pleasing alliteration is not enough to make up for the cliche. It’s one I don’t think I’d see in Robertson Davies, who is an obvious comparison to Edwards in content and, to a lesser extent, style. In content the two share an interest in the rural and somewhat isolated products of Britain. But Davies became the better writer, though his Salterton Trilogy was weaker than much of his later work. Had Edwards produced later works, he might have shown the same upward trajectory, but we are left with an original novel that makes me wish it had led to second, third, and fourth novels that rendered this one a footnote in Edwards’ career.

Seattle visits from Price and Ferris

Richard Price will be at Elliott Bay Books on Friday, March 21 at 7:30; he’s the author of Clockers, which I haven’t read but the National Book Critics Circle loves, Ladies’ Man, which I read but didn’t love, and, most recently, Lush Life, which I plan to read and the New York Times loves.

Joshua Ferris will also be at Elliott Bay, but on Monday, March 24 at 7:30; he wrote Then We Came to the End.

Barring disaster, I’ll be at both.

The Magus

John Fowles’ The Magus is one-third to half again as long as it should be; that it is among the most uneven novels I’ve read is, I think, a consequent of length. At places its greatness nearly overwhelms, while in others melodramatic banality utterly underwhelms. I think the latter is a symptom of length and the necessity of having numerous reversals of character psychology. Each time we think the narrator, Nicholas, has uncovered the truth of the characters’ interactions, yet another layer emerges. Over time this became tedious, as declarations of love were made—again—only to have me glance at the thick stack of pages remaining and know without even needing to guess that the would-be lovers are not about to sail off the Greek island, back to England, and embark on raising two kids in the suburbs. Incidentally, this problem does argue well for something like the Kindle if for no other reason than not having a page count might maintain suspense, especially because so many sections in The Magus felt like they heralded “The End” only to have the marathon continue to the point of punishment.

The Magus begins with the end of a love affair between Nicholas and Alison, which coincides with a strange offer for Nicholas to teach at a boys’ school on a Greek remote island. The offer is taken and the affair ends, or perhaps the other way around, as it’s hard to track the order of events in a novel where so much and so little happens. Causes and effects become entangled somewhere towards the middle, when you lose track of what’s known and what isn’t and who has declared love and retracted it and who will again. Much of this is intentional: Nicholas takes the job and is entreated by a strange man who would be named Prospero if the Shakespeare allusion weren’t too obvious. Instead his name is Conchis, and he runs a game/theater on Phraxos, which appears to be a fictional island. I’m willing to roll with the premise, though I’ve yet to run into a megalomaniacal rich person who wants to play twisted emotional games with real people, which should be relatively easy given Seattle’s proximity to Microsoft. But I’ll assume that such people exist and that they have enough manipulation for 656 pages.

Like Nicholas, I kept getting caught on an unseen bramble when I came to passages like “The old man had surrendered” (359) or “‘It’s how you made me feel'” (363), only to know that all wasn’t well because of aforementioned stack of 300 pages left. All that is after a woman declares, “‘I don’t know what I feel, Nicholas. Except that I want you to feel like that'” (355). Ah, yes: the hardest travel of all is to the heart, but The Magus is a travel novel for what happens to its characters and because it would be an excellent companion—it’s fairly compact but very long and would be marvelous in exotic places like the ones it describes. In addition, you would have some opportunity to forget or forgive the more ridiculous passages and savor the meatier ones. The melodrama wouldn’t gall as much, and the overly cute bits could be taken with the seriousness they appear to shoot for. The Magus is clever but takes too many pains to be clever: I understand the commentary it makes implicitly and explicitly about the shimmering, leaping, uncertain border between life and art, but I just wish it weren’t so damn annoying about it. And that the characters would just get it on or break it off already.

Finally, on a personal note, the oddest thing about The Magus for me was the eerie resonance some passages had with some of the writing I’ve been working on. Especially in first third of The Magus, I kept having to shake off the bizarre feeling of being preceded by an author I’d never read and knew little about. And yet my novel is done, and so to find aspects of it in The Magus unsettles. But I do think I avoided many of its pitfalls and kept some of the qualities that made The Magus delightful.

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