Monday, October 10, 2005

I made a massive incursion

this afternoon on Widener Library, having realized that I will not feel at home until I surround myself with a much, much larger number of books than I initially brought with me to the sublet-of-mushroom-colored-walls. A lot of books about Fielding for work, but a collection of others for immediate reading, most pressingly Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist, which I have just finished reading. I really, really liked it--I'd read "13, 1977,21" and "The Beards" in the New Yorker, and these remain the two richest essays for me here, but the essay on Philip K. Dick is excellent (it's called "You Don't Know Dick," and it includes the useful irv as an alternative for oeuvre) as is the piece titled "Lives of the Bohemians."

And yet as much as I liked every single piece in here (with the possible exception of the essay on Cassavetes), I would have to say that Lethem is finally a novelist rather than an essayist. I love various novels by (for example) George Orwell and James Baldwin, and yet reading either man's essays you see that for this particular writer the essay is the perfectly suited form for the maximum distillation of intelligence and voice and humanity, the novels always falling slightly short of that standard. Lethem is the opposite: it's not that I wasn't moved by various revelations in these pages, I was, but The Fortress of Solitude does things of which these essays are wholly incapable. Interesting.

What I like most here--it's personally very compelling to me, and part of what I'm trying to work out as I revise my novel-in-progress--is the force of the reflections on the appeal of what Lethem calls "dripless, squeakless art" (JL as a kid asks his mother why there are drips on his father's paintings, and she offers the analogy that the paint drips are like the squeak of acoustic guitar strings audible in folksingers' recordings) to the adolescent in the grip of unbearable feelings. In "The Beards" Lethem describes himself asking works of art "to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family," then plumbing them so deep that "many perfectly sufficient works of art would become thin, anemic":

This was especially true of anything that assumed a posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly, intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick, Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The artists who'd seemed to promise the most were the ones who'd created art that stirred me while seeming to absent themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones capable of failing my needs most violently. When I discovered their imperfections, my own hope of absenting myself from emotional risk seemed imperiled. It was as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my oversized needs and turned away, flinched from what I'd asked them to feel on my behalf.

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