Briefly Noted: Tenth of December — George Saunders

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” inspired me to read Tenth of December, but as often happens the headlines deceive. In the last twelve months I’ve read phenomenal books like The Great Man and The Black Swan. I’ve also read Tenth of December, which isn’t exactly bad; I felt like a Good Person for having read it.

Yet feeling like a Good Person isn’t the same as saying a book is fun or great (which are not always the same thing). Some stories in Tenth of December are funny; “Exhortation” in particular made me laugh, written as a deranged memo from the “Divisional Director” to the “Staff” and saying things like

We all know very well that that ‘shelf’ is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck…

Saunders does corporate euphemism frequently (“given the current climate”) and often well. He also does sad, as in this diary extract:

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, adventure, etc., etc.) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

There’s a Raymond Carver feel* (the dropped “youthful dreams of travel,” the unforeseen children, the sense of potential squandered in the detailed “unfashionable glasses”) mixed with Modernism’s dropped words. Yet it’s hard for me to get excited about passages like this one, which I feel like I’ve read before; too many stories leave me saying, “So what?”, even though there are some extravagantly wonderful passages:

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.

Yet these sections are too rare for me and the random detritus of fiction too frequent. Too often I found myself thinking, “So what?” There is admirable weirdness in some stories but less so perhaps than Ian McEwan’s early short stories. I read people saying things about how Saunders has the pulse of America or writes about an America others don’t or whatever, but I’m not sure that his work reflects America so much as it does an imagined reflection of America common in many journalistic and academic minds.

In addition, literary fiction habitually condescends to jobs, workplaces, and businesses. Sometimes that condescension is justified but more often it feels like misunderstanding intensified by the expert use of language. Saunders treads the lines where satire, condescension, and realism meet. There are interesting literary novels set in workplaces that have yet to be written—something like Last Night at the Lobster, a novel that I think will stay with me long after Tenth of December has faded.


More Carvarian, reproduction-related unhappiness, from another story: “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.” From this and countless similar renditions of the same perhaps we should assume that maintaining equanimity in the face of children should be an explicit goal.

Links: Sprawl, short stories, climate, schools, suicide, and more

* The Nefarious Ways Sprawl Begets Sprawl.

* The short story survives because of its utility to the MFA.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? The job prospects for new Ph.D.’s in fields like history and English are miserable, yet students keep signing up for their shot at the ivory tower. Readers, tell us what you think is going on.”

* A follow-up to the previous link: “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed? 21 Answers From Readers,” including one from yours truly.

* “Sexting, Shame and Suicide: A shocking tale of sexual assault in the Digital Age.”

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* Magical thinking about death.

* Ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of climate change, threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom.

Links: Short stories, cheating, Anthem, Jacques Barzun, Tuition, and more

* “[postsecret] What It’s Like To Cheat.”

* “Why Does the Short Story Survive?” notice this:

As the title suggests, this book has an instructive function and can be read like a manual for aspiring prosers. Each author introduces his or her selection, and the results are frequently thrilling. Imagine taking a ten-minute master class with Dave Eggers or Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis, whose erudite prologue to Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” shows how to nail an opening hook. Publisher’s Weekly has called Object Lessons “an MFA between two covers,” and there are valuable craft takeaways for those who seek them. But the book’s variousness should also remind writers that short fiction’s formal conventions are far from set in stone.

* An unusual reading of Ayn Rand’s Anthem. (HT Marginal Revolution.)

* Jacques Barzun dies. I’ve only read From Dawn To Decadence, and liked it, except for the last 100 pages.

* It was only a matter of time: Tuition by Major.

* The European Left and Its Trouble With Jews.

* Socialized Medicine Can Kill, with Caroline Cassin as a specific example.

* Amusing search query of the week: “how much do band guys get laid.” Probably depends on the band and the guy. Someone else found this blog by searching for “why do europeans have more class than americans?”, which is also pretty amusing. For an answer, ask Henry James.

* Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.

Those are European ideas in Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds

Anaïs Nin’s story “A Model” begins with this:

My mother had European ideas about young girls. I was sixteen. I had never gone out alone with young men, I had never read anything but literary novels, and by choice I never was like girls of my age. I was what you would call a sheltered woman [. . .]

(I think a character in one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels says something about American movies’ influence on European sexuality and implies Europeans are somehow behind in this regard at some point in the past, though I can’t find the quote.)

Today’s stereotypes depict “European ideas” as being sexually hedonistic, especially regarding teenagers who are supposed to be under their parents’ control. One can such ideas manifested in discussions of, say, the Dutch response to emerging sexuality, or in Amy Schalet’s “Sex, love, and autonomy in the teenage sleepover.” If widespread assumptions about European and American sexual ideologies flipped at some point in the 20th Century, I’d be curious to know why and how.

Those are European ideas in Anaïs Nin's Little Birds

Anaïs Nin’s story “A Model” begins with this:

My mother had European ideas about young girls. I was sixteen. I had never gone out alone with young men, I had never read anything but literary novels, and by choice I never was like girls of my age. I was what you would call a sheltered woman [. . .]

(I think a character in one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels says something about American movies’ influence on European sexuality and implies Europeans are somehow behind in this regard at some point in the past, though I can’t find the quote.)

Today’s stereotypes depict “European ideas” as being sexually hedonistic, especially regarding teenagers who are supposed to be under their parents’ control. One can such ideas manifested in discussions of, say, the Dutch response to emerging sexuality, or in Amy Schalet’s “Sex, love, and autonomy in the teenage sleepover.” If widespread assumptions about European and American sexual ideologies flipped at some point in the 20th Century, I’d be curious to know why and how.

The Atlantic, Fiction 2010, and How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons

The Atlantic‘s fiction issue showed up this weekend and has, as usual, some fascinating material—most notably How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The case against writing manuals, which argues that books that teach you how to write like writing is an exercise in carpentry aren’t a good way to actually learn how to write. As he says:

The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction. Every day books are published that contain no real artfulness in the lines, books made up of clichés and limp prose, stupid stories offering nothing but high concept and plot—or supra-literary books that shut out even a serious reader in the name of assertions about the right of an author to be dull for a good cause. (No matter how serious a book is, if it is not entertaining, it is a failure.)

The real solution for writers? Reading:

My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose.

Note that he makes a distinction between books that deal with the craft of writing or the aesthetics of writing (“we have several very fine volumes in that vein (Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction come to mind”), but rather the books that act like you’re merely laying down two by fours (think of the old wheels that allegedly helped writers by things like “heroine declares her love”).

The books I offered in The very very beginning writer are geared toward the craft/aesthetic approach, not the model airplane approach, although I admit that I’ve ready some of the ones using the model airplane approach and promptly gone back to studying characterization with Robertson Davies, plot with Elmore Leonard, and depth with Francine Prose. D.G. Myers said, “I do not believe that anyone can learn to write fiction from a guidebook […]”, and he’s right. But I think that many if not most artists benefit from reflecting on their craft, especially when they’re learning it, and there’s a difference between guidebooks and ones that help shape fundamental skills, rather than merely giving a formula or recipe.

Some of the fiction in the issue is excellent too: The Landscape of Pleasure is fascinating for its half-knowledgeable narrator in the late adolescent mold, and T.C. Boyle’s The Silence almost ends with “And what was its message? It had no message, he saw that now,” a statement that feels deserved in the context.

Ian McEwan and "The Use of Poetry"

The main use poetry in “The Use of Poetry” is seduction: specifically, the seduction of the liberal artist Maisie (recalling shades of Henry James: What did Maisie know?) by the scientist Michael Beard in the late 60s. Michael learns enough Milton to impress Maisie, with her artistic tendencies, a feat that I doubt I’d have the discipline for despite being another liberal artist; they go out, Michael realizes his disdain for what seems the foppish laziness of the liberal arts, and he reinforces the inferiority complex many English majors feel in the face of hard science.

Or maybe not: when we think we see Michael’s perspective on how easy it is to read “four of the best essays on Milton,” McEwan drops this in by airmail:

Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, “But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.”

That’s the only mention of the “English professor in Hong Kong,” who appears, nameless, only long enough to correct us. He or she disappears: there is no wrapping up, no coming together of the English professor and some deeper meaning. He or she is there to tell us, and “The Use of Poetry” seems like a rebuke to the “Show, don’t tell” school of writing: it is all telling, or nearly all, and it teasingly plays with real world correspondences. “The Use of Poetry” says:

This understanding was the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights—not possible at first attempt. He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to grasp some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week.

A February 2009 profile of McEwan, also in the New Yorker, says:

McEwan enjoyed studying calculus—“It was like trying to lift a weight that was a little too heavy”—but he settled on literature, and showed enough promise that he was urged to apply for a scholarship at Cambridge.

Maybe McEwan fears the limits of our cognition, or his own cognition. Or maybe I am engaging the intentional fallacy. Surely the editors of The New Yorker noticed this correspondence in their earlier nonfiction piece and this later work of fiction. What, if anything, did they make of it? Were they as uncertain as me?

Finally, what to make of the title: “The Use of Poetry,” rather than “uses?” Apparently poetry has only one use, seduction, as I unfairly said in the first line of this post. But maybe it is not asking, “What is poetry used for?” but rather, “how and why is poetry used by a particular person—Michael—or people in general?” The title probably has other meanings too, like most poems, with their rascally habit of evading a single interpretation.

For some reason, I am reminded of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: both that novel and this story are highly directive, allusive, focusing on what love means in a modern context, using love to examine ideas and ideas to examine love. They both end, not with a statement or feeling of wholeness, but with a feeling of new sight but perpetual incompleteness, like that is our fate, no matter the math we learn or the poems we study. Could “The Use of Poetry” be to remind us of what we can never fully grasp, like Michael trying to understand the liberal arts, or Milton, who was in turn trying to understand us? Hard to say. But then, a lot in life is hard to say. The best we can do with it is try. Maybe with a poem.

Or a story.

EDIT: If you’re here because you’ve been assigned a paper on McEwan, you might find this post to be of great interest.

John Updike's "Lifeguard"

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

John Updike’s “Lifeguard”

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

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