I’m looking at grad schools in Arizona this week. In the meantime, check out this and its links to favorite posts and other blogs.
“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 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.
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.
“The story behind the story is always better than the story.”
—Richard Price at Elliott Bay Books, 3/21/08
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.”
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.