On books, taste, and distaste

Jason Fisher made this astute observation in an e-mail:

One thing I will say, as now a fairly regular reader of your blog, is that you don’t seem to read very much that you actually like. You seem, in some ways, doomed to be disappointed either by your tastes or the bar you’ve set up. Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is. I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature, but I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

There are some very fine and accurate observations here: I am disappointed by a lot, as a cursory examination of recent posts will show, although I would also say that some of what comes across as disappointment is analysis. For example, I liked Richard Price’s Lush Life. Even within that praise, however, I discuss the off notes:

Imperfections in Lush Life are minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical.

Occasionally I do find the excellent novel, and I had Fisher’s e-mail in mind when I took Wonder Boys from the shelf and reread it in a great gulp, like a full water bottle after a long run. The last paragraph of my post says:

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Knowing how wonderful writers can be makes those who don’t rise to the challenge of their predecessors and contemporaries rather disappointing, like spending time fixing random and unimportant errors rather than focusing on systematic issues that could prevent them in the first place. Although I don’t think my taste stuffy necessarily—I like the whimsical and humorous far too much—I don’t like to waste my time on the high-, middle-, or low-brow. Faulkner’s weaker novels are of little more interest to me than The Da Vinci Code, and the hysterical realists (see more on them here, in a walled garden).

In How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn says of the critic:

What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

I might quibble with the words “anxiety” and “fragility,” both of which strike me as close but not precisely akin to those ephemeral qualities Mendelsohn is trying to describe, but the idea is fundamentally right: why it is that so many works of art are off just enough to cast them from the great to the good, the good to the mediocre, the mediocre to the atrocious. It’s that initial passion that propels us, and me, forward, however, and as one does move forward, one’s knowledge of what makes good and bad becomes steadily more refined and one’s taste further develops. When I began reading adult books around the time I was 11 or 12, I devoured innumerable pulpy fantasy and, to a lesser extent, science fiction novels. My taste then was much coarser, and as I’ve developed as a critic and person, I’ve become more aware of the—not fragility, exactly, but the very tight rope suspended over a wide chasm, and how difficult it is to stay on that rope and not to fall in. Now commonplaces are more apparent, patterns become clearer, and ideas that seemed vivid the first time I encountered them have become stale. The quest for novelty evolves, and the initial passion becomes more discriminating, and as it does, disappointment becomes common in a way that makes one almost in danger of enervating.

Such discrimination also makes the highs all the higher, and what I before had perceived as the difference between good and bad novels was the difference between a boy evaluating on a mound he just dug to the hole from where the dirt came versus an adult evaluating the difference between the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps that is somewhat overblown—the Himalayas? Really?—but it nonetheless helps express the contrasts in scale that I’m describing. The wonderful and extraordinary don’t necessarily have to be Melville or Tolstoy, and that’s where I’d distinguish Fisher’s point:

I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature […]

I’d count Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado among my favorite recent novels. If they have elements of being half-hour sitcoms, it’s their devotion to humor, but they are all far deeper than most sitcoms—or novels—and have a core of meaning if one wishes to find it underlying their jokes. In some ways, such novels are my favorite: they’re intellectually stimulating but lighter than a perfect souffle. The best sit-coms are like this too: some early episodes of Sex and the City had this mixture of the profound through the banal and vice-versa. But a show like Friends never seemed to have that depth, at least to judge from my relatively limited experience: it was melodrama without the drama, all surface and nothing beneath. Art like that doesn’t usually appeal to me, but I don’t think it a requirement that serious precludes being funny, or that serious is an absolute virtue to be worshiped. For more on this subject, see James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.

In humor we might get at the deepest truths; I can’t remember who said it, but someone noticed that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. But I don’t go for empty vessels in reading or watching. In pop songs I listen to while driving, sure, but very seldom elsewhere. A corollary of that might be that I don’t like a lot of novels, or books in general.

[…] I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

I might be driving toward the same point and might have also misrepresented Fisher’s meaning if not his exact words in responding, above. But I would say that I’m not convinced pure entertainment or pure diversions exist: art needs to have some depth (or height—I’m forced into using these relative positions to average without specifying really whether they should be up or down) sufficient to be genuinely entertaining and diverting in the first place. Failing at that task means they can’t be diverting. To me, greatness in fiction starts with entertainment and diversion, though diversion from what I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the real—whatever that is.

To summarize, Fisher is right that there are many novels I don’t like, but I would also say that those I don’t like throw those I do into sharper relief, and that there is little if any place for a mediocre novelist in this world. Different people have different standards for art and greatness, and I don’t deny those standards exist. Nonetheless, Philippa Gregory and Tom Clancy will never rise to them. The latter is writing speculative nonfiction most of the time, whether he realizes it or not, and the former doesn’t write skillfully enough to distract me from anything because her stylistic and other mistakes are so common. I’ve also noticed that I’ve tended to write more about nonfiction over the last month or two, and perhaps that’s partially because one can still derive something from bad nonfiction; bad fiction, on the other hand, might be a total deadweight loss of time, money, and thought.

I have to quote from Kundera’s The Curtain:

(Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral […])

and, later:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Kundera is perhaps overly grandiose here, but he is more right and wrong. And too many novels are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional, and I usually try to point those novels out and point out why and how they have those qualities. Sometimes I succeed better than others, and I often feel too aware of my own deficiencies in expression, which I try to remedy even as I fear that I am like a short person trying to grow by wishing for height. Fortunately, that analogy is imperfect because intellectual growth is possible, I believe, for all people who are open to it, but I’m not so sure that becoming an intellectual giant is. Nonetheless, I think there are worse quests in this world than the quest for knowledge and for representation.

More on Richard Price from the NYRB

Michael Chabon opines on Richard Price in the New York Review of Books. As usual regarding that publication, the essay is too long and digressive, but it’s worth reading anyway. A sample:

Lush Life is a good, worthwhile, and in many ways satisfying novel. No matter how routinely and highly praised it may be, Price’s ear for dialogue, his ability to capture and reproduce the rhythm, tone, and evanescent vocabulary of urban life, cannot be overpraised: with all due respect to Elmore Leonard, Price is our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature. Resorting with miraculous infrequency to the use of dialect spellings and other orthographical tricks, Price gets his characters’ words to convey subtle nuances of class, occupation, education, even geographical gradations of neighborhood, while also using them as a powerful vehicle for the transmission, in fits and starts, evasions and doublings back, of their interior lives. He is a perfect magpie for slang, and like its predecessors this novel is rich in fascinating bits of law-enforcement and street-criminal argot.

I’m on the record praising Lush Life. I still hold that Leonard is the better dialog writer, however, although Chabon’s position is entirely defensible. And I also hold that you don’t need to spell “dialog,” “dialogue.”

Lush Life and Richard Price in Seattle

Richard Price’s Lush Life is a study in power—who has it, who doesn’t, who is trying to get it—and dignity, which, sooner or later, almost every character loses. Those who have power and dignity in one sphere, as detective Matty Clark mostly does in the police world, lose it in another, as Matty does at home. He is uncomfortably close to a stock genre detective, but the lush language of Lush Life gives Matty others such life that they are people, and people who reflect their social and media environment.

Lush Life begins not with a murder but with the “Quality of Life Task Force,” a group of four white cops who are lowering, not raising, the quality of life. The idiotic speculation of one is juxtaposed with an image representing one of the book’s central concerns:

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”

Groups overlap in Price’s Lower East Side, with the influence of the earlier group never fully erased, just as the Star of David is still faintly visible. People linger, which Price spoke about when he visited Seattle in March, saying that there are “six groups of people who don’t realize they’re not there anymore.” Moreover, as he says, “nobody knows anybody, nobody sees anything,” especially relating to crime, which leads to the perceived necessity of the Quality of Life Task Force and the real necessity of detectives like Matty.

The intersection of two particular groups leads murder, one group being the relatively wealthy suburban kids—I think of them as kids though one, Eric Cash, is a 35 waiter and would-be screenwriter—who move back to the areas their grant parents fled and provide the victim. The other group is the poor urban kids who might have provided the perpetrators. None come off well. Nor do their parents, who range from uninterested in actively hostile. The murder of Isaac Marcus, for example, inspires his divorced parents to shack up again in a hotel, and when Matty arrives afterward and opens a curtain, “both of them staring at him with the unself-consciousness of animals, with unblinking pie-eyed shock.” But are they in shock at the light, Matty, themselves, or the situation? I’m not sure, which is part of the novel’s beauty.

Ambiguity is everywhere, as characters hope and dream of higher places. Eric is a friend, loosely defined, of Isaac Marcus, his desire to get into the movies is a much lighter version of Sean Touhey from Clockers. Lush Life in general is a better, subtler, richer version of Clockers, which is a tremendous compliment, for Clockers itself is a strong novel. But Lush Life goes beyond it, artistically and socially. Where Clockers is all cops and robbers, Lush Life encompasses everyone from the rich kids and the nominally upper echelons of society to the street dregs. It captures the former better than, say, Claire Messud’s good if indulgent The Emperor’s Children, which also focuses on them, and the latter with the skill Price has already established. You see a fantastic collision on page 92, when Eric tries to describe his work, of which he is vaguely ashamed, especially in the face of the skeptical cops. And with good reason: Matty belittles him, the scene is so effective I a) hesitate to quote it and yet b) want to so badly*. The scene works so well because you know Matty’s description is what Eric thinks of himself if he’s being intellectually honest.

To the extent there are novelistic rules about plot, characterization, movement, motion, and the like, I don’t think Price breaks them—he simply wields novelistic conventions better than almost anyone else and uses his talent on language itself. One dangerous thing about writing a long post and then leaving it till much later for proofreading is that you never know when James Wood is going to come along and preempt you. But his discussion of Price’s dialog is worth reading, and I note that he also found the excruciating interrogation scene and quoted the same scene. Wood focuses on the dialog, but the brilliant descriptions and contrasts also help:

Despite its stark opulence, the place was the size of a shoe box, with barely a foot clearance between that huge bed and the three-sided terrace, which offered an imperial overview of the area: a sea of cramped and huddled walk-ups and century-old elementary schools, the only structures out there aspiring to any kind of height the randomly sprouting bright yellow Tyvek-wrapped multistory add-ons, and farther out, superimposed against the river, the housing projects and union-built co-ops that flanked the east side of this grubby vista like siege towers.

All that in one endlessly rolling sentence: by the time you’re at the end, you’ve forgiven him for using the shoebox cliché. Notice the missing verb between “height” and “the:” but it’s okay, the verb would only interrupt the flow of the speech, and I hadn’t realized its absence until after I quoted it here. The sentence tells you how the landscape reflects the people, with the age of it providing a backdrop of substance in lives that often seem to lack it.

Imperfections in Lush Lifeare minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical. Two pages later, though, and Price is hitting the high notes again, hiding and eliding and showing: “Seated with Minette on the front steps of the now deserted Langenshield, Matty went through the motions of rattling off a cursory progress report, omitting, of course, the continuing press gag, the scuttled seventh-day recanvass, and the unreturned phone calls.” We get a picture of the bureaucracy, are reminded of the plot, and learn about Matty in his role of cop in one swift, seamless recap; a page later, Matty’s lack of enthusiasm about his children is obvious: “He said, ‘Yeah,’ but Minette read the tell, searched his eyes for what he wasn’t saying.” As previously mentioned, Matty does fit the template of emotionally wounded but dedicated cop too well, just as his sidekick, Yolanda, is too close a fit to the wisecracking assistant, but these are things only recognized afterwards, as I discovered that the characters lead lives of what appear to be squalor from the outside. But Lush Life gives the sense that maybe their lives are redeemed by moments of happiness or small success. As the conflicts between cultural and social classes, law and desire, and power and language play out, Lush Life brought me along like a literary but streetsmart guide. I mentioned how few novels have moved me recently, and it’s a pleasure to find one that does so with such panache and skill.

The crowd at his reading, or at least the verbal part of it, seemed less interested in discussing the novel itself and the aforementioned panache and skill than the Lower East Side. A number of older transported New Yorkers came to talk, apparently, about geography and places.

But Price talked about ideas, too—about the residents who don’t want to complain too much because they’re immigrants, the families who came to the Lower East Side as immigrants and fled as soon as possible, and the ones now going back because of the real estate costs elsewhere in New York. One thing Price avoids is The Wonderful Past, as he said the Lower East Side “has always been a hellhole,” and sentimentality about it is only useful for the preservationists and such. One ironic point Price made is that a tenement museum exists not far from actual tenements, which I can believe.

I asked about the connection between Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities bears many similarities to Lush Life, and his own work. Price thought I referred to “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” as mentioned here, but I said I meant that or Wolfe’s fiction. Price said it wasn’t explicitly on his mind but that Tom Wolfe had a point with his essay, and that there’s a whole world out there and you’re not obligated to make yourself its center. Instead of searching one’s interior, Price said “you can find yourself by getting lost,” and that’s been doing so for 15 years by following his gut wherever it takes him.

I got the impression that Price doesn’t really like Wolfe but respects him; in Lush Life, Price is a more consciously literary version of Elmore Leonard, which is a very good thing. Regardless of literary influences, however, Price has written as good a book as I’ve read recently and one that will, I imagine, prove even more resilient than Clockers.

* Okay, I can’t resist, but you’ve been warned that I recommend you skip it so the passage blows you away in the context. Matty tells Eric: “I have listened to your shit in here all day. You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket. Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don’t believe that shooting last night was an accident. I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off.”

No good novels?

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

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

Seattle visits from Price and Ferris

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

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

Barring disaster, I’ll be at both.

Ladies' Man

Repulsive characters go a long way back before 1978, but I can’t help noticing the peculiar slime of a guy whose girlfriend has a 105 degree temperature, and then says: “She fell asleep in my arms and I lay there furious because she didn’t acknowledge my sacrifice, the comforting strength of my goddamn presence. I wanted her to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you’ or ‘Oh, Kenny’ or something […]'” Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man spans a week, and this thought occurs on Friday, but the object of his objection has already dumped him in more a de facto than de jure manner on Monday or Tuesday. Like Kenny, the narrator, I found it difficult to remember what happened on what day. This is in part because nothing major happens to him, in the physical, emotional, or intellectual worlds, though a man who thinks: “It was my ‘leisure’ time and I was blowing it. What leisure time? That’s all I had was leisure time” is an unlikely person to have a great epiphany.

Like Ladies’ Man, however, Kenny is not without some redeeming qualities; he “pretend[s] to watch a basketball game which had orange guys against green guys.” This predates The Onion’s hilarious, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which covers the same territory. But his lack of interest in basketball mirrors his lack of interest in most of the rest of his life, and he’s so ironic and distant and above the fray that I wonder if we should care about Kenny only as much as he cares about everything else. Even his relative humanity is insincere:

Nothing heavy. Just misty sadness. It was over. It had been the best and now it was over and nothing had ever felt as good. We had peaked back then, and all we’d been doing since was dying.

This is a 30-year-old reminiscing about sweaty high school makeouts. He’s self-indulgent in other ways: “No wonder I was so goddamn lonely. Friends, man. I didn’t have any fucking friends. And friends were the bottom line.” Well, yes, and we get 264 pages demonstrating exactly why Kenny has no friends. What’s he going to do when he’s, say, 50? Perhaps read The Sea, which is at least a higher level of melancholy wistfulness. Oh, and Max Morden is as nicer a person than Kenny as a golden retriever is a nicer animal than a cobra. One woman who Kenny picks up feels his bite, although it is one of indifference rather than venom. For a character with vastly greater self-absorption than Kenny who is also vastly less constrained by society, try John Self in Money, who is the king of these weak anti-Hemingways who are also created by Price, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis.

I mention Hemingway because all three writers use devolved versions of his characters and prose. Kenny speaks without the classical background of Jake in The Sun Also Rises, and he has none of the restraint or passion of the characters in that book. Still, he whips out the occasional great metaphor in the pulp style: “For eighteen years that sound was an unnoticeable to me as my heartbeat” or “he had enough chest hair for a national park.” You can hear Elmore Leonard, or one of his models, George Higgins. These metaphors can’t redeem a long, awkward sex scene and lots of navel gazing or a character who can’t figure out that perhaps assholes are the only people who think everyone else is an asshole, as Kenny does at a bar: “Loud, suburban contractors and their wives, drunk Texans, Jap businessmen, medical students; assholes, all assholes.” We’ve been feeling scorn for the bourgeoise since Flaubert if not earlier, but now we have someone who doesn’t even recognize where his opinions come from, despite alluding to Joseph Conrad.

Kenny says things like “‘How many zorts that set you back?'” and wallows in the detritus of TV pop culture. Yes, we get it, but as the cliche goes, lie down with dogs and wake up with flees. Kenny, however, lacks the consciousness to realize this.

I read Ladies’ Man because I’d heard about Price’s Clockers and his new novel, Lush Life, both of which have been favorably compared to Ladies’ Man. I’ve read neither yet but intend to: Ladies’ Man is not without artistic redemption, and it sounds like Price’s bigger, better novels are worthier. Whether they live up to expectations remains to be seen.

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