Life: How the writer progresses

“If a writer is not simply going to repeat himself (which isn’t always a bad thing to do), he has to keep changing, more or less reinventing himself. He hopes that the changes are ‘developments’; that his ‘stages,’ like a rocket’s, are all pushing the same payload toward heaven, in their different ways. He hopes too—since some legs of the trip are liable to be rougher than others—that his audience will stay with him across the troll-bridges and that they’ll reach the sweet cabbage fields together. It may be that there is more troll than cabbage in these pieces; I hope not.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

What Ever Happened to Modernism? — Gabriel Josipovici

I’ve been meaning to write about What Ever Happened to Modernism? for a while, but this This New York Review of Books essay by Eliot Weinberger hits the major points I’d like to make better than I would’ve. It also describes the major issue I have with What Ever Happened to Modernism?: we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism—or who, in Josipovici’s eyes, we should admire. Weinberger notes that “There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”) [. . .]” and that “Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised.” Both are true. Polemics work best when we have positive and negative examples. Josipovici mostly gives us the negative.

The other thing I notice in What Ever Happened to Modernism? is the slipperiness of definition, which leads to the larger problem of Modernism and Postmodernism in general: we can get point to some works that we think embody some values of either movement, but we find deriving general principles from those specific works hard, if not impossible. Now, the real question to anyone who says anything about Modernism or Postmodernism is, “What do you mean by those words or artistic movements?” Even the phrase “artistic movements” might be wrong, since some have argued for the political value of them, and to the extent art and politics are separate one should note the binary.

How do we decide on what Modernism is? We can’t, really, as Weinberger notes:

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

The more specific the definition, the more it leaves out; the more general, the harder the whole idea is to discuss. That doesn’t stop writers of polemics, of course, and as I read What Ever Happened to Modernism? I did think. . . something. I’m just not real sure what exactly I thought or why. I’m flipping through my much-marked copy, looking for a characteristic passage or turn of phrase, but you’d be better off reading Weinberger on Josipovici.

I suspect I’m not the only person with such a hazy reaction. Lately, I’ve been rereading novels I really admire as I start another novel of my own. Those I admire include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Tom Perrotta’s Election, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. After reading them, I almost always have a better sense of what I should be doing as a writer and what a particular book should do. This feeling isn’t limited to fiction: I get the same sense from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, or John Barth’s essays in The Friday Book. They’re all enmeshed in individuality.

Josipovici is aware of his narrativizing tendency and some of the dangers of definition; he says:

Naturally I think the story I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that take more or less account of the facts. I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past.

There are many stories, and I don’t fully buy his.

Speaking of Barth, I find myself most drawn to his formulation in The Friday Book, which is cruelly out of print:

I happen to believe that just as an excellent teacher is likely to teach well no matter what pedagogical theory he suffers from, so a gifted writer is likely to rise above what he takes to be his aesthetic principles, not to mention what others take to be his aesthetic principles. Indeed, I believe that a truly splendid specimen in whatever aesthetic mode will pull critical ideology along behind it, like an ocean liner trailing seagulls. Actual artists, actual texts, are seldom more than more or less modernist, postmodernist, formalist, symbolist, realist, surrealist, politically committed, aesthetically ‘pure,’ ‘experimental,’ regionalist, internationalist, what have you. The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.

Notice how Barth conveys his view of generality in a single word: “suffers,” as if literary categorization is a disease. In the wrong person, it is one. Discussing generalities is not much fun unless you have a lot of specifics to back them up, and I have no way to paraphrase or add to Barth’s last sentence from that quote: “The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.” Martin Amis’ Money, regardless of how you categorize it, still stands out to me as being a) unique and b) good, which very few novels of any sort achieve. To lambast Amis in general, as Josipovici does, is to miss all those particularities that make him stand out. Of course, I’m committing the same sin here because I’m not citing specifics in Money. But I also sometimes rise to the level of the work being discussed, so perhaps that sin can be excused.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 1

T.C. Boyle is the author of 8 short story collections and 12 novels, including Talk Talk, The Inner Circle, Drop City, and, most recently, The Women. His new novel describes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the view of a fictional apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who focuses on Wright’s relationship with his three wives, his mistress, and his mother. Each influences Wright, paralleling his increasing sophistication as an artist.

Boyle spoke at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on February 25. He wore red Chucks, black jeans, and a gold coat, looking a bit like the professor you imagine being even more fun at the bar after class or a faintly piratical psychologist—which, in a way, many novelists are. This interview was conducted afterwards, and the following is an edited transcript. Links have been subsequently added by me.

Jake Seliger: How’s your tour been so far?

T.C. Boyle: It’s really rewarding, huge crowds and a lot of dedicated readers. It’s wonderful, and I really love to meet the readers because I will never get over the thrill of having people liking my work and engaging with them. But I’m also exhausted. However, we are celebrating right now because this is the last gig.

JS: As I said on the phone, there’s a very interesting set of symmetries for me because I have a copy of Stories, which you signed on 2/9/99.

TCB: Wow.

JS: The very first time I went to a reading—

TCB: But it’s signed to Isaac.

JS: That’s my Dad. But I was there with him. Anyway, about your new book, which I really enjoyed, you mentioned [in his talk at Changing Hands] that there’s an obvious parallel between writing and architecture that goes on throughout The Women. There’s one scene in particular where the two come together on page 237: “He left the car running as he got out to swing open the gate, seeing the small things, the way the ditch along the drive had eroded in the previous week’s storm, the weeds crowding out the wildflowers, the iridescent blue of the damselflies threading the air…” it’s just one of these really interesting moments where you can see him looking at all these small things and see the way he might build these small ones into bigger ones.

TCB: Because he was a perfectionist and attentive to detail. Everyday he decorated the house, everyday. No matter what the season, he would send the apprentices out or he himself had tremendous energy to cut flowers or cut a branch off the tree in the winter, and always the house changing and flowing and big pots of full of things and bringing the outdoors in. And that was part of what he wanted to do.
JS: It’s interesting that you talk about a lot of the changes in the house because in some ways it seems like he went through a lot of interpersonal changes—obviously he went through a lot of changes in terms of the women he was with as well—and I think there’s a parallel there. Were you thinking consciously about that, in terms of the changing of architecture and the changing of people? It seems like a lot of that is going on in the book.

TCB: I think so.

JS: [Arizona] is very, very car centered…

TCB: Yeah, I hate that, that’s one of the reasons I left LA and moved to Santa Barbara. Where I’m living now, there’s just a village, and I can walk everywhere. I do walk everywhere. It makes your life a thousand times better because you don’t have to fight for parking spots, or worry about traffic. You just walk. You see nature. It’s just wonderful.

JS: There’s some descriptions in The Women too of Wright walking around, going on some jaunts of his own.

TCB: Yeah, he becomes my creature and my character of course, as does anybody you invent or write about. And I’m worried about the effect he has on his acolytes, what type of person he is, but irrespective of that I do believe that art has no ethical consideration. Art just stands for itself and what it is. So I admire him despite some of his personality problems. One thing I admire is that [Wright] was a nature boy.

JS: You do admire Wright, and he does have a lot of admirable qualities, and one thing I was thinking about when I was reading the book is that you see the admiration there, but he’s also not the sort of person one would want as a relative.

TCB: He would be impossible. If he were here, we wouldn’t even be able to say a word. He becomes a little bit of a satiric figure here. But I love to have it both ways in many of my stories and a book like this. Miriam, for instance. I have a lot of fun with her in a satiric way, although she’s sort of opéra bouffe, which is what his whole life seems to be—Frank Lloyd Wright with Miriam. But I also want you to feel something too… there’s a kind of dread hanging over the book, because you know that Mamah’s going to be burned because you read about it in the footnote. But you keep going backward in time, so you know you’re going to get there.

JS: It’s a reverse chronology. It’s interesting that you mention Miriam as an example of having it both ways because she’s in some ways the character who most fascinates me.

TCB: Me too. She took right over and I love her.

JS: … You’re introduced to Miriam as a harpy—

TCB: It’s going [chronologically] backwards [in time]. It gives you a chance to reflect on what loves relationships are like, when you meet someone and they’re great and you love them and then they turn sour. So when you first see Miriam and she’s this incredible harpy, this maniac, and poor Olgivanna. But then you backtrack and you see Miriam ten years earlier. I thought that was a really intriguing way to tell the story. And also it allows me to end with the tragedy of Mamah.

JS: Perhaps I was accidentally thinking of Miriam coming first because she seems to really cast a very long shadow across the first part of the book, and I’m thinking in particular of this passage: “For years now—longer than he could remember—he’d been rolling a stone up a hill, a boulder that picked up weight on each revolution like a ball of snow, and Miriam’s face was imprinted on the side of it…” you get this Sisyphean aspects of it, and I can imagine him looking at that face. To me, there’s this fascinating aspect of it, that she’s so present in his life.

TCB: Yeah, and in the actual history he seemed to be the sort of artist who needed lots of tumult in his life in order to create—to have someone to butt up against. I don’t think ever bargained for something as extreme as Miriam, because of her mental problems and her drug addiction and her grandiosity and desire to be as great as the great man that she’s allied with. Still, unlike me—

JS: I like how you add “unlike me.”

TCB: —who needs tranquility to work. I’m a little fascinated by the kind of artist who needs this tumult in order to work. The obvious metaphor, of course, is that to build a book is like building a house.
JS: You build one brick at a time or one sentence at a time.

TCB: Also, we see something. We have a vision first, and then we translate it to accomplish something concrete. He always began by just drawing a picture of a house in colored pencils.

JS: With soft lead.

TCB: With soft lead. There’s a lot of that going on to intrigue me. The other key figures I’ve written about who are the egomaniacs, Kellogg and Kinsey, were both men of science, and here I’m writing about an artist and trying to re-imagine it a bit… of course we have to stay inside writing our books and think inside our own minds. He got to do that sort of work in his drawing… but then he also got to go outside, and be physical, and work among the workers. And also, I don’t know how you work, but I’m improvisatory. You know, it just happens, it just continues to happen, step by step by slow accretion. So is he. He didn’t adhere strictly to plans over time.

JS: It’s interesting how you talk about the inside and outside, because I was listening on the way over here to an interview you did with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm [a book radio show hosted on KCRW and available at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw] about your last book, Talk Talk, and that you as a writer can’t live inside your head for 365 days a year, and you need that teaching aspect or going out into the world to try to stay sane.

TCB: Absolutely.

JS: So would say that he has that built into his work?

TCB: Sure. He wasn’t simply a draftsman working for somebody—he was a creator. By the way, I did Michael’s show yesterday, and it was the best one we ever did. He was such a deep reader… it’s a pleasure to meet deep readers who are really engaged with it, way beyond “I like this, I don’t like this.” It’s a much deeper experience. He was very taken with the intricate structure of The Women and how it works and what it says about levels of meaning…
We don’t know any history of an event. Any biography of somebody has its biases, even in terms of what happened on a given day, or what the events were. So you’ve got an unsteady sort of revelation of truth anyway. Then when you take it from the point of view of Tadashi, who is learning about himself. He gives it another level altogether. And then, in my view—and this is part of the fun I had with it and the humor—Tadashi apparently has delivered a manuscript or reminiscences to his grandson-in-law, O’Flaherty-San, for translation and elaboration. So he’s now reading this text and writing footnotes, and sometimes he’s very surprised by what the footnotes say. And in the course of commenting on the text, as we get into the more tragic aspects, he then begins to reflect on his own self in the footnotes. So there’s a lot going on and yet it seemed to be the proper structure for this. It just began to reveal itself to me. And I had a great deal of fun with it as a result.

JS: Have you ever read Mordecai Richler’s book Barney’s Version?

TCB: No.

JS: I ask because it’s got at least a somewhat similar structure… it’s written [from the perspective of an] old man who is partially losing his memory, and his son is going back through his memoir reading, and it’s got all these little foonotes…

TCB: So they’re having a dialog in footnotes?

JS: Yeah, in a way they are. And it’s a very funny novel… in one of your other interviews, you said you like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor

TCB: It’s utterly huge in my life.

JS: How so?

TCB: It’s picaresque, and it’s wild humor. And its subversion of history is something that really appealed to me.

JS: It seems like in The Sot-Weed Factor, Ebenezer Cooke is going on this journey, if not from innocence to cynicism, then from innocence to something else. It seems like in The Women, Tadashi-san is still very much revering the master. In a way he is, but in a way he’s also subverting the master.

TCB: Yes. That’s where I got my title, when he gives this speech at the end of the introduction, and he’s trying to sum up and he gets a little out of control. He says that Wrieto-san [Tadashi’s name for Frank Lloyd Wright] is this great master we revered and we paraded through the streets, who was a philanderer and abuser, especially of the women. So that gave me a dramatic context to let him try to discover something of himself.

JS: Is there an answer about what [Tadashi] discovers [over the course of the book]? I’m taken with a footnote on page 384, when Tadashi says that he thinks Daisy Hartnett [a white woman Tadashi thinks he loves but whom Wright sends away after discovering their affair] was certainly a force of nature. It’s a fascinating footnote because Tadashi reacts to being separated from Daisy in a way that you can’t imagine Wright reacting in being separated from what he wants. Tadashi accepts it. It feels like there’s this shadow plot flowing underneath with him and Daisy, and it just pops up here and there.

TCB: Yeah. I think so. And again, this is about relationships, and reflecting on relationships. How is this different from the kind of relationship that Frank Lloyd Wright had with his women? This seems to be much deeper.

JS: It’s so short with Daisy—[Tadashi says] “I can say that Daisy Hartnett was certainly a natural force, and I too much constrained by expectation.” It seems like he’s still constrained by expectation.

TCB: It’s a cultural thing too.

JS: You’ve got your combination of three big figures—Kellogg, Kinsey, and now Wright.

TCB: Yes. And don’t forget we also have Mungo Park of Water Music and Stanley McCormick [of Riven Rock] into the mix also. But they don’t fit quite so neatly into this little box set of the egomaniacs of the 20th century.

JS: The egomaniacs and the admired ones. Both in this book, you have Tadashi, who is a superficially passive figure. I say “superficially passive” in part because of those footnotes that are constantly interposing themselves. In The Inner Circle, you’ve got [John] Milk [the first-person narrator], who’s another person who seems very passive compared to the great man. In some ways, they seem to me like Carraway figures who are separated from the big man.

TCB: It’s a good observation. A number of people have been making that connection. It’s a time-honored way of getting at the personality of some larger-than-life figure. I’m not so much interested in investing Frank Lloyd Wright and writing about him from his point of view, although we get a little bit of it because the story needed it at certain points. I think it much more fascinating to veer—like [how] The Great Gatsby works. That is, to have a character who changes and observes the great man, but you learn about the character more than about the great man. And so you learn what the effect of a guru is on some people—to give yourself up to somebody. What is the cost to you? Because obviously I would never do that. I’m a fan of a thousand artists who I love dearly. But I’m not going to give my life up for them, or I’m not going to serve them. I want to be their equal. But many people are simply followers of not only artists, but political figures—

JS: I’m thinking back to Drop City.

TCB: Yes, exactly.

JS: I think in that book you have a very clear—well, perhaps not very clear—delineation between the followers and not.

TCB: So, what happens is—as you’ll discover in your own career—when you write many books, you can look back and see what your themes and obsessions are and why you choose the particular subject or character to write about. It’s great. I could write papers on my own work. I could sit and articulate about it.

JS: I think people have written papers on your work.

TCB: They may have. Of course, I don’t do that in the abstract beforehand. I am simply an artist. I don’t want to be a man of letters. I don’t want to write anything except fiction. It’s magic. It’s magic that I love. I don’t have time for anything else.

JS: So you don’t have those Fridays like John Barth did? Have you read his collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays?

TCB: No.

JS: He also wrote essays which I think are very good… He says four days a week he writes fiction and on the Friday he—

TCB: I would love to read them. I should. Updike was one of my heroes too, and he was our foremost man of letters. And he was quite consciously doing that. I am different though. I realized this a long while ago. Even though I got my Ph.D. in 18th century British Lit and I love scholarship, to me scholarship is only a tool for me to create a story. I am much more intuitive and much more an artist than I am analytical. I discovered this and I’m running with it.

And so far I don’t see any limits or any end to that. I don’t have Fridays to write essays because I’m working on Fridays on fiction. It’s all I want to do. And I think because anything can be a story for me and any mode and anything I want to discover, I can only think about deeply if I create a fiction. There seems to be no… burn out factor. There’s no end to the material. I feel very lucky in that way.

JS: I can see that, especially where you’ve talked elsewhere about wanting to be unique each time. I think you’ve done a remarkable job—I’ve pointed out parallels [among Boyle’s works], but that’s because at an abstract enough level you can see parallels in anything.

TCB: I still want to have a new way in to each story.

JS: That seems to be what Tadashi provides you.

TCB: Because it would be very easy to write another book like The Inner Circle, where a single “I” narrator revisits his integration with the master. But I’d just done that, and I was interested in something else altogether. Of course intervening were Tooth and Claw and Talk Talk.

JS: Talk Talk has Dana, who is a very figure in that. She’s a kind of driving person, and Bridger is an enabler—

TCB: As his name suggests.

JS: Right. I suspect there’s an obvious, freshman-year analysis of the book—

TCB: No, that’s great. Don’t forget, I was there too, and I made all these connections in the book, and I was thankful for them. So I’m greatly honored that other people see these connections, and that I have a body of work in which people can compare this story or that one or this novel and that one and see threads. It’s wonderful. I’m very happy.

JS: I think I do see that, with Dana… as a powerful figure. In that book, I think she’s more powerful than Bridger, and she’s the force of it, bringing others along—well, bringing Bridger along in her wake. In [The Women], I think Miriam in a way wants to do that, but if she found someone she could do it with, I don’t think she would be happy. Or I think she would then start moving on—

TCB: Right. These are really people, who were really attracted to one another for the psychological reasons that you’re suggesting. She needed the greatest challenge possible. And so did he. And again, I have to withdraw here, and I’m not anything like this. I couldn’t imagine the writers who marry other writers. It’s your enemy sleeping in bed with you. How could you keep from choking her to death every night?

JS: I’ll ask Michael Chabon that next time I see him, because he’s married to, um—

TCB: Ayelet [Waldman]. I know them both, yeah—

JS: I’m telling Noah about the flood, then.

TCB: —that’s really strange. For me [to imagine being with someone much like him]. I mean, everybody’s different. My wife is my complete antithesis. She doesn’t want to be on stage. She’s mathematical and scientific, which I am not. Her trick is that she’s imperfect, which allows me to be perfect.

JS: That’s good. If she were here and I said, “By the way, Tom says that your imperfections allow him to be perfect,” how do you thinks she’d respond? In a Miriam way, or in a Kitty way?

TCB: Don’t forget, the wife and mother-in-law of a comedian always take a beating. It’s just the way it is. She knows, she understands. I’ll tell you, this is true though, about Frau Boyle and myself, sometimes she goes on tour with me, and I do my little shtick, like tonight—I develop a shtick. You want to hear me being very original about the book—it’s in the first couple days. So, I just speak spontaneously to the crowd and then I do the reading and then I take questions. But there is a shtick involved—it might be a little different each night, but I’m going to come to the same basic points and make the same basic jokes. It’s like the tenth night, and she’s heard it ten times, and I see the whole crowd, and they’re roaring with laughter. Then I see her, and she’s roaring with laughter as well! And that’s true love.

JS: I can’t see Miriam laughing at herself if someone is making jokes at her expense.

TCB: No. She took herself very seriously.

JS: In some ways, given how Kitty is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.

TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.

EDIT: You can read part two of the interview here.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 1

T.C. Boyle is the author of 8 short story collections and 12 novels, including Talk Talk, The Inner Circle, Drop City, and, most recently, The Women. His new novel describes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the view of a fictional apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who focuses on Wright’s relationship with his three wives, his mistress, and his mother. Each influences Wright, paralleling his increasing sophistication as an artist.

Boyle spoke at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on February 25. He wore red Chucks, black jeans, and a gold coat, looking a bit like the professor you imagine being even more fun at the bar after class or a faintly piratical psychologist—which, in a way, many novelists are. This interview was conducted afterwards, and the following is an edited transcript. Links have been subsequently added by me.

Jake Seliger: How’s your tour been so far?

T.C. Boyle: It’s really rewarding, huge crowds and a lot of dedicated readers. It’s wonderful, and I really love to meet the readers because I will never get over the thrill of having people liking my work and engaging with them. But I’m also exhausted. However, we are celebrating right now because this is the last gig.

JS: As I said on the phone, there’s a very interesting set of symmetries for me because I have a copy of Stories, which you signed on 2/9/99.

TCB: Wow.

JS: The very first time I went to a reading—

TCB: But it’s signed to Isaac.

JS: That’s my Dad. But I was there with him. Anyway, about your new book, which I really enjoyed, you mentioned [in his talk at Changing Hands] that there’s an obvious parallel between writing and architecture that goes on throughout The Women. There’s one scene in particular where the two come together on page 237: “He left the car running as he got out to swing open the gate, seeing the small things, the way the ditch along the drive had eroded in the previous week’s storm, the weeds crowding out the wildflowers, the iridescent blue of the damselflies threading the air…” it’s just one of these really interesting moments where you can see him looking at all these small things and see the way he might build these small ones into bigger ones.

TCB: Because he was a perfectionist and attentive to detail. Everyday he decorated the house, everyday. No matter what the season, he would send the apprentices out or he himself had tremendous energy to cut flowers or cut a branch off the tree in the winter, and always the house changing and flowing and big pots of full of things and bringing the outdoors in. And that was part of what he wanted to do.
JS: It’s interesting that you talk about a lot of the changes in the house because in some ways it seems like he went through a lot of interpersonal changes—obviously he went through a lot of changes in terms of the women he was with as well—and I think there’s a parallel there. Were you thinking consciously about that, in terms of the changing of architecture and the changing of people? It seems like a lot of that is going on in the book.

TCB: I think so.

JS: [Arizona] is very, very car centered…

TCB: Yeah, I hate that, that’s one of the reasons I left LA and moved to Santa Barbara. Where I’m living now, there’s just a village, and I can walk everywhere. I do walk everywhere. It makes your life a thousand times better because you don’t have to fight for parking spots, or worry about traffic. You just walk. You see nature. It’s just wonderful.

JS: There’s some descriptions in The Women too of Wright walking around, going on some jaunts of his own.

TCB: Yeah, he becomes my creature and my character of course, as does anybody you invent or write about. And I’m worried about the effect he has on his acolytes, what type of person he is, but irrespective of that I do believe that art has no ethical consideration. Art just stands for itself and what it is. So I admire him despite some of his personality problems. One thing I admire is that [Wright] was a nature boy.

JS: You do admire Wright, and he does have a lot of admirable qualities, and one thing I was thinking about when I was reading the book is that you see the admiration there, but he’s also not the sort of person one would want as a relative.

TCB: He would be impossible. If he were here, we wouldn’t even be able to say a word. He becomes a little bit of a satiric figure here. But I love to have it both ways in many of my stories and a book like this. Miriam, for instance. I have a lot of fun with her in a satiric way, although she’s sort of opéra bouffe, which is what his whole life seems to be—Frank Lloyd Wright with Miriam. But I also want you to feel something too… there’s a kind of dread hanging over the book, because you know that Mamah’s going to be burned because you read about it in the footnote. But you keep going backward in time, so you know you’re going to get there.

JS: It’s a reverse chronology. It’s interesting that you mention Miriam as an example of having it both ways because she’s in some ways the character who most fascinates me.

TCB: Me too. She took right over and I love her.

JS: … You’re introduced to Miriam as a harpy—

TCB: It’s going [chronologically] backwards [in time]. It gives you a chance to reflect on what loves relationships are like, when you meet someone and they’re great and you love them and then they turn sour. So when you first see Miriam and she’s this incredible harpy, this maniac, and poor Olgivanna. But then you backtrack and you see Miriam ten years earlier. I thought that was a really intriguing way to tell the story. And also it allows me to end with the tragedy of Mamah.

JS: Perhaps I was accidentally thinking of Miriam coming first because she seems to really cast a very long shadow across the first part of the book, and I’m thinking in particular of this passage: “For years now—longer than he could remember—he’d been rolling a stone up a hill, a boulder that picked up weight on each revolution like a ball of snow, and Miriam’s face was imprinted on the side of it…” you get this Sisyphean aspects of it, and I can imagine him looking at that face. To me, there’s this fascinating aspect of it, that she’s so present in his life.

TCB: Yeah, and in the actual history he seemed to be the sort of artist who needed lots of tumult in his life in order to create—to have someone to butt up against. I don’t think ever bargained for something as extreme as Miriam, because of her mental problems and her drug addiction and her grandiosity and desire to be as great as the great man that she’s allied with. Still, unlike me—

JS: I like how you add “unlike me.”

TCB: —who needs tranquility to work. I’m a little fascinated by the kind of artist who needs this tumult in order to work. The obvious metaphor, of course, is that to build a book is like building a house.
JS: You build one brick at a time or one sentence at a time.

TCB: Also, we see something. We have a vision first, and then we translate it to accomplish something concrete. He always began by just drawing a picture of a house in colored pencils.

JS: With soft lead.

TCB: With soft lead. There’s a lot of that going on to intrigue me. The other key figures I’ve written about who are the egomaniacs, Kellogg and Kinsey, were both men of science, and here I’m writing about an artist and trying to re-imagine it a bit… of course we have to stay inside writing our books and think inside our own minds. He got to do that sort of work in his drawing… but then he also got to go outside, and be physical, and work among the workers. And also, I don’t know how you work, but I’m improvisatory. You know, it just happens, it just continues to happen, step by step by slow accretion. So is he. He didn’t adhere strictly to plans over time.

JS: It’s interesting how you talk about the inside and outside, because I was listening on the way over here to an interview you did with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm [a book radio show hosted on KCRW and available at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw] about your last book, Talk Talk, and that you as a writer can’t live inside your head for 365 days a year, and you need that teaching aspect or going out into the world to try to stay sane.

TCB: Absolutely.

JS: So would say that he has that built into his work?

TCB: Sure. He wasn’t simply a draftsman working for somebody—he was a creator. By the way, I did Michael’s show yesterday, and it was the best one we ever did. He was such a deep reader… it’s a pleasure to meet deep readers who are really engaged with it, way beyond “I like this, I don’t like this.” It’s a much deeper experience. He was very taken with the intricate structure of The Women and how it works and what it says about levels of meaning…
We don’t know any history of an event. Any biography of somebody has its biases, even in terms of what happened on a given day, or what the events were. So you’ve got an unsteady sort of revelation of truth anyway. Then when you take it from the point of view of Tadashi, who is learning about himself. He gives it another level altogether. And then, in my view—and this is part of the fun I had with it and the humor—Tadashi apparently has delivered a manuscript or reminiscences to his grandson-in-law, O’Flaherty-San, for translation and elaboration. So he’s now reading this text and writing footnotes, and sometimes he’s very surprised by what the footnotes say. And in the course of commenting on the text, as we get into the more tragic aspects, he then begins to reflect on his own self in the footnotes. So there’s a lot going on and yet it seemed to be the proper structure for this. It just began to reveal itself to me. And I had a great deal of fun with it as a result.

JS: Have you ever read Mordecai Richler’s book Barney’s Version?

TCB: No.

JS: I ask because it’s got at least a somewhat similar structure… it’s written [from the perspective of an] old man who is partially losing his memory, and his son is going back through his memoir reading, and it’s got all these little foonotes…

TCB: So they’re having a dialog in footnotes?

JS: Yeah, in a way they are. And it’s a very funny novel… in one of your other interviews, you said you like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor

TCB: It’s utterly huge in my life.

JS: How so?

TCB: It’s picaresque, and it’s wild humor. And its subversion of history is something that really appealed to me.

JS: It seems like in The Sot-Weed Factor, Ebenezer Cooke is going on this journey, if not from innocence to cynicism, then from innocence to something else. It seems like in The Women, Tadashi-san is still very much revering the master. In a way he is, but in a way he’s also subverting the master.

TCB: Yes. That’s where I got my title, when he gives this speech at the end of the introduction, and he’s trying to sum up and he gets a little out of control. He says that Wrieto-san [Tadashi’s name for Frank Lloyd Wright] is this great master we revered and we paraded through the streets, who was a philanderer and abuser, especially of the women. So that gave me a dramatic context to let him try to discover something of himself.

JS: Is there an answer about what [Tadashi] discovers [over the course of the book]? I’m taken with a footnote on page 384, when Tadashi says that he thinks Daisy Hartnett [a white woman Tadashi thinks he loves but whom Wright sends away after discovering their affair] was certainly a force of nature. It’s a fascinating footnote because Tadashi reacts to being separated from Daisy in a way that you can’t imagine Wright reacting in being separated from what he wants. Tadashi accepts it. It feels like there’s this shadow plot flowing underneath with him and Daisy, and it just pops up here and there.

TCB: Yeah. I think so. And again, this is about relationships, and reflecting on relationships. How is this different from the kind of relationship that Frank Lloyd Wright had with his women? This seems to be much deeper.

JS: It’s so short with Daisy—[Tadashi says] “I can say that Daisy Hartnett was certainly a natural force, and I too much constrained by expectation.” It seems like he’s still constrained by expectation.

TCB: It’s a cultural thing too.

JS: You’ve got your combination of three big figures—Kellogg, Kinsey, and now Wright.

TCB: Yes. And don’t forget we also have Mungo Park of Water Music and Stanley McCormick [of Riven Rock] into the mix also. But they don’t fit quite so neatly into this little box set of the egomaniacs of the 20th century.

JS: The egomaniacs and the admired ones. Both in this book, you have Tadashi, who is a superficially passive figure. I say “superficially passive” in part because of those footnotes that are constantly interposing themselves. In The Inner Circle, you’ve got [John] Milk [the first-person narrator], who’s another person who seems very passive compared to the great man. In some ways, they seem to me like Carraway figures who are separated from the big man.

TCB: It’s a good observation. A number of people have been making that connection. It’s a time-honored way of getting at the personality of some larger-than-life figure. I’m not so much interested in investing Frank Lloyd Wright and writing about him from his point of view, although we get a little bit of it because the story needed it at certain points. I think it much more fascinating to veer—like [how] The Great Gatsby works. That is, to have a character who changes and observes the great man, but you learn about the character more than about the great man. And so you learn what the effect of a guru is on some people—to give yourself up to somebody. What is the cost to you? Because obviously I would never do that. I’m a fan of a thousand artists who I love dearly. But I’m not going to give my life up for them, or I’m not going to serve them. I want to be their equal. But many people are simply followers of not only artists, but political figures—

JS: I’m thinking back to Drop City.

TCB: Yes, exactly.

JS: I think in that book you have a very clear—well, perhaps not very clear—delineation between the followers and not.

TCB: So, what happens is—as you’ll discover in your own career—when you write many books, you can look back and see what your themes and obsessions are and why you choose the particular subject or character to write about. It’s great. I could write papers on my own work. I could sit and articulate about it.

JS: I think people have written papers on your work.

TCB: They may have. Of course, I don’t do that in the abstract beforehand. I am simply an artist. I don’t want to be a man of letters. I don’t want to write anything except fiction. It’s magic. It’s magic that I love. I don’t have time for anything else.

JS: So you don’t have those Fridays like John Barth did? Have you read his collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays?

TCB: No.

JS: He also wrote essays which I think are very good… He says four days a week he writes fiction and on the Friday he—

TCB: I would love to read them. I should. Updike was one of my heroes too, and he was our foremost man of letters. And he was quite consciously doing that. I am different though. I realized this a long while ago. Even though I got my Ph.D. in 18th century British Lit and I love scholarship, to me scholarship is only a tool for me to create a story. I am much more intuitive and much more an artist than I am analytical. I discovered this and I’m running with it.

And so far I don’t see any limits or any end to that. I don’t have Fridays to write essays because I’m working on Fridays on fiction. It’s all I want to do. And I think because anything can be a story for me and any mode and anything I want to discover, I can only think about deeply if I create a fiction. There seems to be no… burn out factor. There’s no end to the material. I feel very lucky in that way.

JS: I can see that, especially where you’ve talked elsewhere about wanting to be unique each time. I think you’ve done a remarkable job—I’ve pointed out parallels [among Boyle’s works], but that’s because at an abstract enough level you can see parallels in anything.

TCB: I still want to have a new way in to each story.

JS: That seems to be what Tadashi provides you.

TCB: Because it would be very easy to write another book like The Inner Circle, where a single “I” narrator revisits his integration with the master. But I’d just done that, and I was interested in something else altogether. Of course intervening were Tooth and Claw and Talk Talk.

JS: Talk Talk has Dana, who is a very figure in that. She’s a kind of driving person, and Bridger is an enabler—

TCB: As his name suggests.

JS: Right. I suspect there’s an obvious, freshman-year analysis of the book—

TCB: No, that’s great. Don’t forget, I was there too, and I made all these connections in the book, and I was thankful for them. So I’m greatly honored that other people see these connections, and that I have a body of work in which people can compare this story or that one or this novel and that one and see threads. It’s wonderful. I’m very happy.

JS: I think I do see that, with Dana… as a powerful figure. In that book, I think she’s more powerful than Bridger, and she’s the force of it, bringing others along—well, bringing Bridger along in her wake. In [The Women], I think Miriam in a way wants to do that, but if she found someone she could do it with, I don’t think she would be happy. Or I think she would then start moving on—

TCB: Right. These are really people, who were really attracted to one another for the psychological reasons that you’re suggesting. She needed the greatest challenge possible. And so did he. And again, I have to withdraw here, and I’m not anything like this. I couldn’t imagine the writers who marry other writers. It’s your enemy sleeping in bed with you. How could you keep from choking her to death every night?

JS: I’ll ask Michael Chabon that next time I see him, because he’s married to, um—

TCB: Ayelet [Waldman]. I know them both, yeah—

JS: I’m telling Noah about the flood, then.

TCB: —that’s really strange. For me [to imagine being with someone much like him]. I mean, everybody’s different. My wife is my complete antithesis. She doesn’t want to be on stage. She’s mathematical and scientific, which I am not. Her trick is that she’s imperfect, which allows me to be perfect.

JS: That’s good. If she were here and I said, “By the way, Tom says that your imperfections allow him to be perfect,” how do you thinks she’d respond? In a Miriam way, or in a Kitty way?

TCB: Don’t forget, the wife and mother-in-law of a comedian always take a beating. It’s just the way it is. She knows, she understands. I’ll tell you, this is true though, about Frau Boyle and myself, sometimes she goes on tour with me, and I do my little shtick, like tonight—I develop a shtick. You want to hear me being very original about the book—it’s in the first couple days. So, I just speak spontaneously to the crowd and then I do the reading and then I take questions. But there is a shtick involved—it might be a little different each night, but I’m going to come to the same basic points and make the same basic jokes. It’s like the tenth night, and she’s heard it ten times, and I see the whole crowd, and they’re roaring with laughter. Then I see her, and she’s roaring with laughter as well! And that’s true love.

JS: I can’t see Miriam laughing at herself if someone is making jokes at her expense.

TCB: No. She took herself very seriously.

JS: In some ways, given how Kitty is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.

TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.

EDIT: You can read part two of the interview here.

Summary Judgment: The Island of the Day Before, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Brief History of the Dead

“Summary Judgment” is a new and occasional feature not unlike the “Books Briefly Noted” section in the New Yorker.

* The more I read of Eco, the more I think of him as an author of extremes in terms of accomplishment: his great books have the shock, astonishment, inevitably, and beauty that make them great, while his weaker ones can descend into bland self-parody or simple boredom. The Island of the Day Before rests firmly in the latter camp. Like Robert Penn Warren or Melville, Eco’s best novels, like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, more than excuse The Island of the Day Before. In this case, Amazon’s 448 used copies of the hardcover edition are available starting at $0.01 for a very good reason.

The unnamed “I” narrating the Island of the Day Before says that Roberto, a man cast on a dream-like abandoned ship in the mid-seventeenth century; Roberto is about to explore the dream ship, and on the verge of his exploration we are interrupted:

Or, rather, he does not set out at once. I must crave indulgence, but it is Roberto who, in telling this to the Lady, contradicts himself—an indication that he does not tell in complete detail what has happened to him, but instead tries to construct his letter like a story or, more, like a sketch for what could become both letter and story, and he writes without deciding what things he will select later; he drafts, so to speak, the pieces of his chessboard without immediately establishing which to move and how to deploy them.

Eco is describing the author’s troubles here, but its self-consciousness is more irritating than enlightening: save such disquisitions for literary essays rather than literature, where action should propel the reader to care before metaphysical blathering lulls him to sleep. It’s an intensely annoying affectation that continues throughout at least the first hundred pages. Who is the Lady ostentatiously mentioned? By midway through the novel, when I gave up, we hadn’t learned, and she remained a cloying illusive presence. Some novels use the layered story structure well—including The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and some of John Barth’s novels—but The Island of the Day Before among them.

You can find good explanations of what Eco is attempting in Barth’s The Friday Book and Further Fridays, and when the explanation is better than the specific work of art manifesting a phenomenon, you know that work of art—in this case a novel—has failed its greatest test: to make you feel. If the ghost ship interruptions had been removed and the sections about Roberto streamlined into something more conventional but, for this material, probably more appropriate, I think The Island of the Day Before would’ve worked much better.

* I re-read Robert Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, which tended to reinforce my initial impression of it being the least of his works, though still quite good. He doesn’t really find his legs until the second half of A Mixture of Frailties, the novel in which provincial Canadian Monica Gall ends up in England, discovering what art she had and how to free herself through music. She’s the most developed character in the trilogy, and if she is at times more passive than she should be, it’s at least forgivable.

The other two novels are mixed: the first, Tempest-Tost, is clever but has a tendency to interrupt the main story too often for elaborate backstory on characters, and this kind of thing is much more organic in The Deptford Trilogy. With Tempest-Tost, a community theater—er, excuse me, theatre—is performing The Tempest, which unleashes mini teapot tempests among many members of its conniving cast, most notably the floppy, self-satisfied math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, a man who is about forty but, as one character, says: “Spiritually—if one may use the word of Hector—he’s been seventy for years.” For that reason he’s one of the more interesting characters, a study in premature maturity. That he doesn’t realize it makes him officious, hilarious and pathetic at the same time. There’s a great speech about Mackilwraith that’s somewhat misplaced and also indicative of the novel’s problems:

I think it’s [I leave the “it” blank intentionally] the logical outcome of his education and the sort of life he has led. He’s vulgar. I don’t mean just that he wears awful suits and probably eats awful food: I mean that he has a crass soul. He thinks that when his belly is full and his safe, he’s got the world by the tail. He has never found out anything about himself, so how can he know anything about other people. The condition of the vulgarian is that he never expects anything good or bad that happens to him to be the result of his own personality; he always thinks it’s Fate, especially if it’s bad. The only people who make any sense in the world are those who know that whatever happens to them has its roots in what they are.

All of that is true, but it’s also somewhat awkward to have long, play-like soliloquies spout from characters in novels like . If this were an isolated example, one could let it pass, but the whole The Salterton Trilogy is filled with them. Davies’ later work has similar long commentaries, but they’re better integrated with the characters’ personalities and with the plot. This one is particularly noticeable because the sentiment expressed is interesting, but it’s easy to pass it as the scene it’s embedded in goes from person to person, each of whom diagnoses Mackilwraith’s psychological problems. Still, The Salterton Trilogy is fun, but read The Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy first, both of which show Davies’ powers at their zenith.

* Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead isn’t so much a narrative as a series of vignettes about two worlds: that of the living, which has been swept by a plague that’s a convenient but not overly ostentatious metaphor for corporate greed (“The ice cap was already melting, after all, pouring into the ocean by the tankerload, and the corporation might as well take advantage of it while they still could”) and zombification, while the other follows an almost pastoral city world or holding chamber for those heading from one zone—life—to another, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a clever set up, but one narrative thread should have predominated over the other; the switchbacks make it feel too dead, too abstract, like the world of the dead who are stuck in their strange city. Although there’s space for anti-corporate screeds in novels, this one is particularly blatant. Coca Cola is, if not the bad guy, then at least a vector for the bad guy, implying that Coca Cola executives are, if not evil in and of themselves, are at least the somewhat witting agents of evil. Save it for your alt-weekly column and give us more story and less ideology.

* Mordechai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman remains mostly confusion around page 100, but it doesn’t have quite the amusement needed to propel me to read on. The novel lacks a discernible backbone running through, while the tedium of continuing to track what, if anything, is happening outweighs the pleasure of occasional jokes. It’ll remain shelved next to Barney’s Version because it feels like it might have buried promise that I’ve yet to unearth.

Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev

Read Chaim Potok’s strange yet compelling My Name Is Asher Lev and skip its deracinated sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev.

My Name is Asher Lev concerns a boy divided between the drive for art that possesses him and the Hasidic religion into which he is born, which is somewhat like the Jewish equivalent of fundamentalist Christians. Think of his sect like the Verbovers of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The duality inherent in mixed loyalties is hardly a new topic; the most obvious example I know of is Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. But it’s done well here, and one feels Asher’s agony as he attempts to tread the artist’s path and the Hasidim’s. Inside, however, the artist predominates, and, as is typical in American fiction, self identity trumps group identity, as it should. Maybe Asher can’t help it. As a young man, he

began to realize that something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes. […] I could feel texture and color.

The struggle to develop his eye and practice his visual art while remaining faithful to the extreme interpretations and teachings of religion fuels the novel’s conflict. Asher doesn’t give up, and if at times the pompousness of the art talk almost overwhelms, other moments of genuine emotion make up for near bombast. In some criticism of Asher’s art within the novel, one senses the same kind of criticism that might be used against Potok: sentimentality and a rejection of trends in art hobble him. Both novels act as defenses against that charge, and they are mostly successful. In growing up, Asher makes the difficult choices growing up entails. We think he makes the correct trade-offs, but in such a milieu, those trade-offs are grave indeed.

Parts of the novel fail, like a painting askew: a mythic ancestor arrives in Asher’s dreams for no particular point, and many descriptions are flat, especially given all the discussions of how an artist sees. Ones like this appear over and over:

I got off the train and climbed the stairs to the street. It was cold and wet and gray. A bitter wind blew against the tall buildings.

or

The beds were covered with spreads. The refrigerator hummed softly. The apartment was neat and clean and faintly resonant with its own silence.

or

It was a large waiting room with white walls, a single window in the wall to my right, and a heavy wooden door in the wall across from the window. There was a desk beneath the window and chairs along the walls.

Banal description will hardly kill a novel, but if they are sufficiently banal and frequent, why include them? Why describe places that are everyplace and weather that’s as bad as the weather anywhere? There is no reason, and part of the reason I called My Name is Asher Lev strange in the first paragraph is because these descriptive problems are not so enormous that they capsize the novel.

Alas, The Gift of Asher Lev is a disappointment compared to My Name is Asher Lev. One sees no growth, little reconciliation, and no useful understanding for the state of the first two in my list. The world is ambiguous, yes, and that’s pounded into our heads. Many great novels come to no conclusions but better illuminate the confusion of the life—such as Moby Dick—but The Gift of Asher Lev is not among them. Characters like Lev’s boorish, ignorant cousins are comic book foils that contrast with the Rebbe’s wisdom. Devorah has all the character of an empty housewife, despite the references to her existence

Moment of humor are a change, but they’re too few to be a signifiant one. Asher, growing tired of his community’s ceaseless suspicion of his life—it is hard to refer to being an artist as a mere “profession”—responds to one inconsiderate inquiry by saying “That’s why I became an artist. So I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people think. You hit the nail right on the head, Kroner.”

The classroom scene in Asher’s daughter’s Yeshiva is the book’s fulcrum and chief reason for interest, and it’s reminiscent of Barth’s metaphor of the soft-shell blue crab in The Friday Book, which all interested in the definition and meaning of art should read for that essay alone. In Potok’s rendition, Asher draws a ram in three ways: once poorly, like a child, again realistically, like a photograph, and again with portions exaggerated for effect, like an artist. He asks a class of children rhetorically, “Aren’t all three different ways of seeing the same object?” and as a defense of the subjectivity merging with the individual’s perception it’s wonderful. As a short story, it would be equally good. As a scene in a novel, it’s like an island rising above an otherwise cold sea.

We find too few of those islands, and transcendent pieces of writing are too rare and disconnected from the story. Using a different metaphor, one could say that too many white spaces lack connective tissue and simple are. One other good example of the good in this novel: Asher explains his gift by saying “I don’t hope to accomplish anything. I just do it,” which is as good an artist’s credo as any, albeit one that many, many artists have espoused in various forms at various times. Asher’s wife, Devorah, says at one point that “We hear a song or read a story, and the good feelings we get don’t remain inside us. We are either anticipating them, or we’ve had them and they’re gone. We never experience them as now.” Well, maybe, and she’s describing the specious present that William James wrote about. It’s not a bad thought, but it’s underdeveloped, like most of this novel. My Name is Asher Lev is stronger and less curmudgeonly. On page 104 of The Gift of Asher Lev, he thinks that “The ordinary was king. And the courtiers were popularization, shallowness, doubt, cynicism. The century was exhausted.” Five pages later, a friend says of the art world, “There is too much ersatz work being done now, calculated gestures everywhere, cultural entertainment.” Maybe there is: but so what? And even if the evils of cultural entertainment are upon us, one isn’t obliged to indulge them. How about less complaining and faux existentialism and more work?

You’ll find it, but in My Name is Asher Lev. I will end reiterating the point made in the first paragraph: pretend that My Name is Asher Lev has no sequel. You’ll like it better.

Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev

Read Chaim Potok’s strange yet compelling My Name Is Asher Lev and skip its deracinated sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev.

My Name is Asher Lev concerns a boy divided between the drive for art that possesses him and the Hasidic religion into which he is born, which is somewhat like the Jewish equivalent of fundamentalist Christians. Think of his sect like the Verbovers of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The duality inherent in mixed loyalties is hardly a new topic; the most obvious example I know of is Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. But it’s done well here, and one feels Asher’s agony as he attempts to tread the artist’s path and the Hasidim’s. Inside, however, the artist predominates, and, as is typical in American fiction, self identity trumps group identity, as it should. Maybe Asher can’t help it. As a young man, he

began to realize that something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes. […] I could feel texture and color.

The struggle to develop his eye and practice his visual art while remaining faithful to the extreme interpretations and teachings of religion fuels the novel’s conflict. Asher doesn’t give up, and if at times the pompousness of the art talk almost overwhelms, other moments of genuine emotion make up for near bombast. In some criticism of Asher’s art within the novel, one senses the same kind of criticism that might be used against Potok: sentimentality and a rejection of trends in art hobble him. Both novels act as defenses against that charge, and they are mostly successful. In growing up, Asher makes the difficult choices growing up entails. We think he makes the correct trade-offs, but in such a milieu, those trade-offs are grave indeed.

Parts of the novel fail, like a painting askew: a mythic ancestor arrives in Asher’s dreams for no particular point, and many descriptions are flat, especially given all the discussions of how an artist sees. Ones like this appear over and over:

I got off the train and climbed the stairs to the street. It was cold and wet and gray. A bitter wind blew against the tall buildings.

or

The beds were covered with spreads. The refrigerator hummed softly. The apartment was neat and clean and faintly resonant with its own silence.

or

It was a large waiting room with white walls, a single window in the wall to my right, and a heavy wooden door in the wall across from the window. There was a desk beneath the window and chairs along the walls.

Banal description will hardly kill a novel, but if they are sufficiently banal and frequent, why include them? Why describe places that are everyplace and weather that’s as bad as the weather anywhere? There is no reason, and part of the reason I called My Name is Asher Lev strange in the first paragraph is because these descriptive problems are not so enormous that they capsize the novel.

Alas, The Gift of Asher Lev is a disappointment compared to My Name is Asher Lev. One sees no growth, little reconciliation, and no useful understanding for the state of the first two in my list. The world is ambiguous, yes, and that’s pounded into our heads. Many great novels come to no conclusions but better illuminate the confusion of the life—such as Moby Dick—but The Gift of Asher Lev is not among them. Characters like Lev’s boorish, ignorant cousins are comic book foils that contrast with the Rebbe’s wisdom. Devorah has all the character of an empty housewife, despite the references to her existence

Moment of humor are a change, but they’re too few to be a signifiant one. Asher, growing tired of his community’s ceaseless suspicion of his life—it is hard to refer to being an artist as a mere “profession”—responds to one inconsiderate inquiry by saying “That’s why I became an artist. So I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people think. You hit the nail right on the head, Kroner.”

The classroom scene in Asher’s daughter’s Yeshiva is the book’s fulcrum and chief reason for interest, and it’s reminiscent of Barth’s metaphor of the soft-shell blue crab in The Friday Book, which all interested in the definition and meaning of art should read for that essay alone. In Potok’s rendition, Asher draws a ram in three ways: once poorly, like a child, again realistically, like a photograph, and again with portions exaggerated for effect, like an artist. He asks a class of children rhetorically, “Aren’t all three different ways of seeing the same object?” and as a defense of the subjectivity merging with the individual’s perception it’s wonderful. As a short story, it would be equally good. As a scene in a novel, it’s like an island rising above an otherwise cold sea.

We find too few of those islands, and transcendent pieces of writing are too rare and disconnected from the story. Using a different metaphor, one could say that too many white spaces lack connective tissue and simple are. One other good example of the good in this novel: Asher explains his gift by saying “I don’t hope to accomplish anything. I just do it,” which is as good an artist’s credo as any, albeit one that many, many artists have espoused in various forms at various times. Asher’s wife, Devorah, says at one point that “We hear a song or read a story, and the good feelings we get don’t remain inside us. We are either anticipating them, or we’ve had them and they’re gone. We never experience them as now.” Well, maybe, and she’s describing the specious present that William James wrote about. It’s not a bad thought, but it’s underdeveloped, like most of this novel. My Name is Asher Lev is stronger and less curmudgeonly. On page 104 of The Gift of Asher Lev, he thinks that “The ordinary was king. And the courtiers were popularization, shallowness, doubt, cynicism. The century was exhausted.” Five pages later, a friend says of the art world, “There is too much ersatz work being done now, calculated gestures everywhere, cultural entertainment.” Maybe there is: but so what? And even if the evils of cultural entertainment are upon us, one isn’t obliged to indulge them. How about less complaining and faux existentialism and more work?

You’ll find it, but in My Name is Asher Lev. I will end reiterating the point made in the first paragraph: pretend that My Name is Asher Lev has no sequel. You’ll like it better.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

John Barth’s Further Fridays is Recommended

I’m about halfway through Further Fridays, John Barth’s second “essay, lecture, and other nonfiction” collection and find it as pleasurable and intelligent as The Friday Book, his first. Perhaps my favorite essay thus far is “A Few Words About Minimalism,” which is anything but minimalist and contains this gem:

But at least among those of our aspiring writers promising enough to be admitted into good graduate writing programs… the general decline in basic language skills over the past two decades is inarguable enough to make me worry in some instances about their teaching undergraduates. Rarely in their own writing, whatever its considerable other merits, will one find a sentence of any syntactic complexity, for example, inasmuch as a language’s repertoire of other-than-basic syntactical devices permits its users to articulate other-than-basic thoughts and feelings, Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose.

(Link (obviously) added by me.)

That second sentence is delicious: perhaps Barth overindulges on other-than-basic syntax to make a point, but the way the structure of the sentence helps make the point that the sentence’s content conveys makes it so impressive. Not only that, but it makes a case without over-making it: that key word “tends” gives Barth enough wiggle room to concede that one can find emotionally and intellectually powerful writing in relative simple prose, and he never states that complex prose must be more emotionally and intellectual more powerful.

That virtue of statement and qualification is present throughout; Further Fridays is the rare collection that doesn’t overstate its claims (I’m still thinking of you, John Armstrong, although it does so at the cost of necessary complexity. You can’t make nuanced arguments about the nature of literary categorization, or movements, or literature, in soundbites and slogans, and it’s also hard to do so from a dogmatic political or philosophical position. Fortunately, Barth seems to occupy none—or, as he might say, his lack of position is his position—and the result is a feeling, no doubt illusory, that I read from the perspective of someone who simply likes to read and likes stories. And I learn from him: I can throw in that “no doubt illusory” comment to protect myself from obvious criticisms while still making the overall point about the nature of criticism.

Expect more on Barth shortly.

Life: Innocence or lack thereof edition

“One should be no great admirer of innocence, in either narratives, individuals, or cultures. Where it’s genuine, after a certain age it’s unbecoming, off-putting, even freakish and dangerous. Where it’s false, it’s false. To admire it much is patronizing and sentimental; to aspire to it is self-defeating. Let us admire—in cultures, narratives, and people—not innocence, but experience and grace.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book.

(In case it is not already apparent, The Friday Book is highly recommended.)

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