True Things About Me — Deborah Kay Davies

True Things About Me is disturbing and compelling, especially because it doesn’t want to explain. Its unnamed protagonist doesn’t want to explain. She just wants to act and in acting without explanation she may in some ways be truer to life, in which we so often act and then come up with rationalizations about why we acted after the fact. The disturbing implication of the novel may be that our reasons for doing things are opaque even to us and always will be. Like markets, we just can’t predict our own behavior.

True_things_about_meIn the novel the unnamed narrator has unplanned, unexpected sex with a man just out of prison who is registering for benefits. It is unexpected, a disjunction, a call to action in a mythic sense, and beyond the initial bang, so to speak, True Things About Me is at most loosely plotted. The scary thing about the story is not that it may be sick but that it may be normal, or at least more common than is commonly supposed, despite the evidence in fiction and art that few of us, Paglia aside, want to face. Much of the online commentary mentions “mental illness,” which is a comforting but wrong misreading. Desire can be neither legislated nor medicalized away. It will reemerge in different forms, and its verbal component is weak or nonexistent. When Alison, the narrator’s boring foil friend, wants to know what’s happening with the narrator, the narrator says “Somehow I couldn’t be bothered to explain it all.” “Somehow:” why bother analyzing what can’t be fully analyzed?

Her parents are either delusional or right; when the narrator invents a boyfriend for her parents’ benefit her mother says, “I just hope he’s a nice boy.” The irony is obvious. Her mother describes Alison as “so sensible,” which may read here as a synonym for boring. There may be no greater modern relationship sin than being boring or needy.* When madness intrudes in normal life we don’t know how to react, unless perhaps we live a continually mad life, like a different Alison, the protagonist in Story of My Life. For the narrator of True Things About Me everything is permitted and nothing matters, which may be the nature of modern adulthood for many nulliparous people.

For the narrator internal changes inspire external changes. After her encounter she thinks that “It seemed to me that I hadn’t looked at clothes properly before.” The clothes she buys says things other than what her old clothes presumably said: “a pair of low-slung cream linen trouser, and a scarlet and cream striped bustier” are new to her, and make one see fashion as part of the story. Silence is power, which is strange in a book composed of words; at one point she says that “He didn’t say much.” What and how he does counts.

Alison and her coworkers are twits. At one moment “They were talking about a television programme. Everyone was really into it. Alison was the most knowledgable.” There is nothing wrong with being into a TV show but in this context the TV show is a stand-in for a life the coworkers are too scared to live. The narrator becomes an outsider by dint of secret knowledge. She drifts away or is separated from from Alison’s world and that is arguably an improvement. Halfway through the novel she considers getting “back into the real world,” raising the usual question of what constitutes reality beyond knowing it when you see it.

In Nine and a Half Weeks one gets many sentences like “His face is blank. The gray pupils on which mine are focused reflect two miniature faces.” There are many descriptions of movement (same page: “I walk slowly across the carpet”) but few of feeling or context. Here is one extended, reasonably representative passage from True Things About Me, and it’s representative in both style and in raising questions about whether one should trust this narrator:

I began to see how it was, how it had always been. Alison was one of those types who loved to sit on the sidelines of someone else’s fascinating life and shout advice at them. She fed off me, and I let her. It made people like that feel even more smug about themselves when they could observe another human being struggling. Unravelling, if they were lucky. . . . She sounded like a second-rate actress in a daytime soap.

Who does the narrator sound like?

True Things About Me may be obliquely related to Susan Minot’s Rapture. Both could be construed as arguments that things don’t matter—people and experiences do. True Things About Me is also a commentary on soulless bureaucratic jobs and their deadening effects on the human condition.

At one point an old woman says, “That girl is on the game [. . .] living off immoral earnings. It’s disgusting. Someone ought to come round and investigate.” The contemporary term “hater” describes her well. The old woman hates the player because she is “living like she doesn’t have a care in the world. It shouldn’t be allowed.” Why not? The narrator doesn’t ask and the old woman doesn’t volunteer. The narrator is about to live without a seeming care in the world either. She leaves her work as an anonymous, Houellebecq-esque bureaucrat processing welfare claims forms to meet a dissolute but presumably sexy man. She blows off her friend, Alison, who is the voice of boredom, restraint, wisdom, and creation, to go “underground.”

There are numerous references to going underground, with connotations that go back to Persephone if not earlier. While there her mind “had stretched and blanked, like a washed sheet on a clothes line.” Is that how the best sexual encounters always happen? Maybe. But the metaphor can be extended through the novel, in which her mind is never really not “blank.”

True Things About Me is probably too uncomfortable to be of interest to most people; in this respect it resembles Never the Face, an underrated and under-known book. I imagine True Things About Me doing better in Europe than here, based solely on stereotype. The truth is out there, the book implies, and you will not like it.

See also Rebecca Barry’s NYT review, although she doesn’t get the novel and wants to throw around the word “abuse,” as if the novel is a cautionary, modern liberal, story about leading a sanitized life purged of dark impulses. Camille Paglia would be the ideal reviewer: she might not like the book—in some ways it may stick too close to the tradition—but she would get it.

* Reminder: Linking does not imply endorsement.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

So you want to be a writer, or an entrepreneur, or…

I’m reading Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book Rework, which has lots of potentially pernicious advice in it but also has this bit, which is good: “What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.” This is equally true of writing, but a lot of would-be writers seem to like the idea of writing more than the actual writing itself.

I often offer this challenge to people who say they want to or wish they could write a novel:

1) Turn off your Internet access and cell phone.

2) Write chapter one over three days (or so; the actual timeframe doesn’t matter, as long as it’s short).

3) Send me the result. I’ll read it and send it back to you.

So far, I think one person I’ve offered that challenge has taken me up on it, and I never got chapter two. I interpret this as meaning that most people who say they want to write a novel (or write anything else, or learn the guitar, or get laid more, or lose weight, or start cooking, or any number of other skilled endeavors) don’t actually want to, because if they did, they would start today. If you shoot for, say, 500 words a day, you’ll have a pile of around 80,000 in six months, leaving some room for missed days, editing, and so forth.

If you shoot for 1,000 words a day, you’ll have it in three months.

This, however, is only the start, which I didn’t realize when I was nearer to the start than I am now. But if you’re not putting in the seat time, writing, you’re not going to do anything and all your intentions aren’t going to matter. Fried and Hansson are pointing this out in the context of business, where it’s equally valid, and there are probably an equal number of people saying, “I should start a business” and “I should write.” Most of them are probably better off not acting on their impulses. But if they do, why not start?

Bookshelves, offices, and Neil Gaiman

Photos of Neil Gaiman’s impressive bookshelves have been making rounds of the literary blagosphere, and let me be the latest to link to them and say “wow.”

Gaiman Shelves

(There are more pictures in the original post.)

My own are humbler; I posted some pictures of the shelves in my old apartment here, and you can see one of them here:


Not nearly as impressive as Gaiman’s, to be sure. But then I haven’t been reading as long and have purged much of my library twice: once when I left for college and discarded much of the pulp fantasy (like DragonLance and The Wheel of Time) that I used to like, and again when I graduated from college and figured that many of the books, both ones I’d read in general and in class, I was unlikely to read again. So far that’s proven right regarding, for example, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Someday, when I’m less mobile than I am now, I wouldn’t mind a setup like Gaiman’s. And by “wouldn’t mind,” I probably mean something closer to “would love to have.”

Road Dogs — Elmore Leonard

I’m very much on the record as an Elmore Leonard fan, but his newest novel, Road Dogs, reminds of me of Mr. Paradise, and not in a flattering way: they both strain a bit too hard and don’t come together as well as they should.

That’s an unfairly vague statement. But I can’t easily find a place to situate it in the text of Road Dogs. Plot points might provide assistance: bank robber Jack Foley of Out of Sight fame gets off thanks to his cellmate Cundo Rey, meets the beautiful Dawn Navarro, and implicitly agrees to participation in whatever scheme Cundo has, presumably involving A Simple Plan-levels of money.

The convoluted plot explanation in this New York Times review by Janet Maslin shows the futility of trying to write succinctly about an Elmore Leonard novel, as tracking the array of motives and ideals behind each character is one of the many pleasures his novels give; they are practically a master class in plot, which might be in part what makes them so real. Each character is (mostly) rational in a different way; the characters don’t make wildly implausible leaps and evolve in a way that’s realistic and yet surprising.

Most of the time, anyway. The setup for Road Dogs sounds good, but I kept thinking: would Foley really go along with the game, knowing that he’s likely to be played? When he sleeps with Dawn—too early in the plot—does the premonition of ill consequences with Cundo reverberate. Would Foley let Dawn’s hustle—pretending to be a mystic or medium—go on, knowing it was silly? Maybe all three are unfair, or silly, but they seem character violations, which are especially surprising in a writer who so seldom commits them, whose characters breathe like your roommate, or the guy you knew from high school who got sent up for weed, or whatever. Jack Foley did in Out of Sight. In this novel, Cundo sees him as I did in Out of Sight while they pass time in prison:

The way I see you, Jack, you smart, you can be a serious guy, but you don’t like to show anything is important to you. You here, you don’t complain—not anymore—you could be an old hippie living here. You get your release . . . Ah, now you get to think what you going to do.

If that’s what it takes to get Jack into whatever Cundo plans, he’s not so smart a guy. The real question becomes, why do bright guys like Foley bother dealing with so many idiots? It’s a paradoxical issue present in many Leonard books, and one that can be explained away through circumstances, upbringing, temperament, and more, and yet it still sticks out when I consider many of his works as a whole, like a bit of sand in an otherwise greased machine.

And the grease is still present. Leonard gives a fabulous description of an empty cop who “didn’t seem to know where he wanted to go, got to the end of his marble-slab desk, nothing on it, and stopped.” I like that—”nothing on it,” much as there’s nothing in the guy’s mind. But Leonard can also over do it, as when he makes fun of the Alan Moore-types through the mumbo jumbo a woman named Danialle spouts:

[It’s] sort of spooky… talking about the reality of the unseen world. It exists on a higher vibrational frequency than ours. The temperature’s a constant seventy-eight degrees, and there aren’t any insects, but there are animals, pets.

In the context it’s funny enough but never goes past that; this isn’t a study in the psychological, as The Turn of the Screw is.

Despite these problems, one can count on Leonard for consistency: since switching from Westerns to a genre that’s a kissing cousin to mystery, which I call “caper novels,” he’s written 80,000-word novels featuring protagonists who are streetwise but not over educated, clever without being brilliant, and cool until they’re pushed too far. Crime hovers around each novel; a few have it at their center, as in one of his two best novels, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

Leonard’s much praised dialog still often kills. Here’s Jack Foley, reformed bank robber dealing with a man who needs no further description:

Where you been… you get stuck with the white-power ding-dongs, the best thing is to sound as dumb as they are and they’ll think you’re funny. You heard them laugh, didn’t you? And they don’t laugh much. It’s against their code of behavior.

Leonard’s style remains, but Road Dogs feels like he’s coasting, and the latest variation of coat and pants are not quite tailored as they should be; stitches show, and we get the impression a better job might have been done. Maybe Leonard shows his hand too early, as Cundo Rey and Dawn Navarro don’t get more attractive as the narrative progresses, and they don’t throw much in the way of surprises. They rub off, unfortunately, on Foley, who suffers by the company he keeps, as we all do. But he doesn’t find new company, as he did in Out of Sight, who will show him in the style he deserves.

(See Robert Pinsky’s review in the New York Times, which apparently loves Leonard so much that they’ll look at Road Dogs twice. He says:

But a good book should also be about something. Although it isn’t always mentioned, Leonard’s books have subjects. “Road Dogs” is about the varying degrees of truth and baloney in human relationships. Sometimes the truth or the baloney is lethal.

I’m not sure this is true—not for this one of Leonard’s books. That might be part of its problem—that, or all of his books are about truth and baloney to a large degree, especially given the milieu Leonard writes about. Maybe this thought will be the subject of an eventual academic article.)

The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World is almost superfluous: its arguments about the rise of other nations and how the United States should respond can be found, implicitly and explicitly, in The Atlantic, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and other magazines. Most of its analysis is not particularly deep and didn’t reorient my worldview. But at the same time, I’ve not seen the whole package regarding how the world is changing through the growth of non-Western countries from a single source before, and if nothing else The Post-American World is a handy to have as a pointer—don’t follow my argument regarding the importance of international humility? Read The Post-American World!

Many of the book’s subsidiary claims are disputable—is geography really responsible for the imbalances of world power? How much of China’s lagging after the 17th century is due to its government?—but The Post-American World‘s central thesis concerning the almost inevitable rise of other countries in the political, economic, and social spheres is accurate and worth pondering, especially by the very politicians who seem most likely to ignore it. Indeed, its discussion of the problems of current U.S. politics is coherent and useful, and I observe some small manifestations of those problems on Grant Writing Confidential.

Zakaria stays admirably focused on the big themes, even as he tries to put the fear of Islamic-inspired terror in its place, which is a much smaller one than it currently occupies. He even cites James Fallows’ “Declaring Victory” on this subject. He also effectively ties together two seemingly opposite trends, one toward globalization, heterogeneity, and internationalism, and the other towards renewed nationalism: “But while economics, information, and even culture might have become globalized, formal political power remains firmly tethered to the nation-state, even as the nation-state has become less able to solve most of these problems unilaterally.” To what extent this reflects a minor and odd issue and to what extent it is a damning, fundamental problem is unclear, but raising it as an issue is worth doing and will perhaps curtail it.

Perhaps most refreshingly, Zakaria tries and succeeds at remaining neutral as he discusses the positive, negative, and descriptive attributes of the big three: China, India, and the United States. For example, although the United States comes under justifiable criticism for a wide array of offenses and blunders, including Iraq, Zakaria also points out that “For all its abuses of power, the United States has been the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government—an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of human kind.” Reconciling these two features—abuse like Abu Ghraib—with the overall positive effect—an increase in worldwide liberty—is too often lost in partisan debate, with the left focuses on abuse and the right on a rah-rah America orientation. It’s also worth noting that a book like this probably couldn’t be published in China.

This is particularly important because one point Zakaria makes and doesn’t emphasize as much as he perhaps should have is that, to a steadily larger extent, the new world demands “the growth of new narratives.” His is one. He also sees cable news stations and other outlets that focus on narrower market segments as examples of this, and to me this profusion of new frameworks for looking at the world, which vary by country, region, and individual, are a powerful subject that is hard to comprehend. Still, American business seems better at responding than government, As Zakaria says, American companies have done better in adapting to the new world than American politicians. To him, “Washington, which faces no market test, has not yet figured out that diplomatic imperialism is a luxury that the United States can no longer afford.”

Still, an examination of new narratives might be an entire book in and of itself just for one country; in China, for instance, the number of new narratives just over the course of the 20th Century seems staggering in how radical the breaks appear to an outsider and non-expert like me, ranging from the imperial domination of others in the early part of the century to Communism beginning in 1949 to the ironically named Great Leap Forward that destroyed much of China’s professional classes to the capitalist reorientation that began in 1979, and those are just examples at the broadest levels. And understanding China and India is going to become more important as time goes on; as Zakaria says, “China operates on so large a scale that it can’t help changing the nature of the game,” much as the United States changed the nature of the European game beginning in the early 20th Century.

So what can be done, or, to put it in less confrontational terms, how should America respond to this world? Zakaria argues that we should focus on our strengths in openness and education. He draws parallels between Britain and the U.S., saying that wealthier countries can lose their competitive edge in technology: “A wealthier Britain was losing its focus on practical education. Science and geography were subordinated to literature and philosophy.” But he doesn’t give convincing, non-anecdotal evidence to support this assertion, and I’m not sure its true, though it is certainly plausible. What he does convincingly show, however, is that immigrants have fueled America’s cultural and scientific achievements, and immigrants continue to be major players in post-graduate degrees, especially in science. “If America can keep the people it educates in the country, the innovation will happen here. If they go back home, the innovation will travel with them.” This problem is real and has been observed elsewhere, but Zakaria underlines how poor a job we’ve done evaluating trade-offs. In a similar area, “The visa system, which has become restrictive and forbidding, will get more so every time one thug is let in. None of these procedures is designed with any consideration of striking a balance between the need for security and the need for openness and hospitality.” Once again, terrorism unhinges us and a do-something syndrome sets in. Getting this issue wrong isn’t as spectacular as terrorist attacks, and yet in the long term might do far more damage to the United States than 9/11. But that hidden damage isn’t easy to cover by TV news and so goes mostly unheeded. Zakaria says that “[The United States] needs to stop cowering in fear. It is fear that has created a climate or paranoia and panic in the United States and fear that has enabled our strategic missteps.”

When friends ask why I don’t feel any affinity for either major American political party, I now have a good recommendation for an explanation other Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a book that studies the inherent problems with power seekers and their minions. Zakaria argues that today “A ‘can-do’ country is now saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.” Still, I’m not sure this is any different from normal politics, and Zakaria’s evidence isn’t enough to prove his point. Yet I can’t help but agreeing with his larger thesis regarding the United States’ dysfunctional politics, and I’m not optimistic that a fix will be forthcoming, or, if it is, that it won’t be worse than the disease. At least a do-nothing government will first do no harm, which seems like an improvement on the last eight years, but for the next eighty, we need something better, and someone is at least framing the issues in a positive way.

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