Sunday, September 25, 2005

I am not sure

if I haven't been reading novels because I'm feeling strange or if I'm feeling strange because I haven't been reading novels. However if it's the first there's nothing much to be done about it, so I tackled the second issue this afternoon by blowing off work to read the rest of Jonathan Lethem's truly amazingly good novel The Fortress of Solitude. It is not to my credit that it's taken me so long to come to Lethem's fiction; certain writers get that awful hipster-AND-critic anointed status and the hype rubs me the wrong way because of some shameful competitive (and also feminist or at least pro-female) instinct that makes me want to hold out against a general consensus of praise for prestigious guys. And yet every time I am kicking myself when I finally read the stuff: it is true for instance that The Corrections is not exactly my kind of novel (Franzen is too hard on all his characters, just as he is on himself in his first-person essays, there is something altogether too self-scourging and neurotic and ungenerous for it to be my favorite kind of thing) and yet it is a really extraordinary novel; I had this completely unreasonable prejudice against Michael Chabon, I don't even know how that came about, and then picked up Summerland at the local children's bookstore because it is so obviously the kind of book I love and ADORED it and then devoured The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and have indeed bought & given away multiple copies of each of those two (Kavalier and Clay's a good example, though, of a book whose paperback design was more appealing than the hardcover one, I am insulated from this by always having books from university libraries with no dust-jackets but in this case had the public library copy and was rather put off by the comic-book-ness of it all and returned it 2 weeks later without having read it, later of course was just HORRIFIED at having missed the chance at getting acquainted with this amazing novel a year sooner--a shameful admission b/c I like to think that my XX chromosome status has had no effect on my literary tastes, and of course there are lots of women who DO read a lot of comics, but I felt exactly the same way about the McSweeney's comics issue).

So I read an essay of Lethem's earlier this year in the New Yorker and loved it--I don't think there's a link online, and I can't remember the title, but it was a very list-like but also quite moving chronicle of his immersion in music and literature in film during his adolescent years and following the death of his mother, all written in great short sections with roman numerals; am I competely misremembering this or is that a fair account?--and then a student whose opinion I trust gave Lethem's name in response to the usual depth-mining "so who are the really good writers I should be checking out" question I ask the interesting early-twenty-something-year-olds of my acquaintance in case I'm missing out on something important.

This novel leaves me more or less speechless. (Those MacArthur folks were just right, as usual; their literary choices meet with my unqualified approval, I'm too lazy to link but think of them choosing Colson Whitehead and Lydia Davis and all sorts of other totally cool folks.) It gave me that feeling that I most value while reading a novel, a sense of being most immediately involved. And the language is mesmerizingly perfect--here's a sample paragraph, from pretty early on, that had me dog-earing the page in pleasure and envy:

Mingus fished in his lining for his El Marko, a Magic Marker consisting of a puglike glass bottle stoppered with a fat wick of felt. Purple ink sloshed inside the tiny screw-top bottle, staining the glass in curtains of color. Mingus drew out a safety pin and stuck the felt in a dozen places, pinning it out he called it, until the ink bled so freely it stained the light skin at his palm, then the green cuff of his oversize jacket. Dylan felt a quiver of the plasure he associated with his father's tiny brushes, with Spirograph cogs and skully caps.

What else did I love? The scene with Dylan and Robert Woolfolk and the beautiful mom in the park. Of course, the central scene about midway with Dylan and Mingus surprised--tactfully--by Barrett Rude, Junior. But also and especially the remarkably sympathetic portrait of the truly awful Arthur Lomb, who is presented with all his good and bad qualities in a loving picture that recognizes the cartoon-like qualities of such characters and works by way of almost transcription-like and perversely endearing dialogue ("Only thing that matters is the test for Stuyvesant. Just math and science. Flunk English, who gives? The whole report card thing's a joke, always was. I haven't gone to gym class once. You know Jesus Maldonado? He said he'd break my arm like a Pixy Stix if he caught me alone in the locker room. Gym's suicide, frankly. I'm not stripping down to my underwear anywhere inside the four walls of this school, I'm just not. If I have to BM, I hold it until after school"; "Mel Brooks's funniest film is The Producers, then Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles. Terri Garr is hot. I feel sorry for any kid who hasn't seen The Producers. My dad took me to all the humor movies. The best Panther is probably Return. The best Woody is Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"). We all knew/know these guys. But this then leads into an extraordinarily humane and perceptive reflection about the main character Dylan Ebdus's relationship to his impossible friend:

Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult. Here was Dylan's burden, his cross: the accumulated knowledge of Arthur Lomb's smug policies on every possible question. The cross was Dylan's to bear, he knew, because his own brain boiled with pedantry, with too-eager trivia ready to burst loose at any moment. So in enduring Arthur Lomb Dylan had been punished in advance for the possibility of being a bore.

I think that is my favorite paragraph of any book I've read in the last year. MY brain is of course also boiling with eager trivia!

So I am adding this to my short list of particularly favorite novels; for reasons presumably autobiographical and temperamental I gravitate to novels that include children/music/growing up/cities and this one is well worth including in the group. The first and most obsessively reread (ah, 20 times would not be an excessive estimate, I love this book and ritually reread it every year or so) is Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, then also the much-reread James Baldwin novel Just Above My Head (these two novels are so much my two best-loved twentieth-century novels that I do not understand why they are not on everybody's most-required-reading list); and more recently the absolutely excellent The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, which I must buy another copy of and reread, books I like I always give away (and BTW if you clicked on that last link, though I have a resolution not to make excessively indiscreet remarks on this blog in case I later am cutting a higher profile in the publishing world & regret early intemperance, I do think this is a particularly unfortunate example of the Marion Ettlinger author photo).

But Lethem's novel is particularly evocative for me, I so remember that "can I see that?" thing from the 70s (but he missed the more joyful "shoot!" Which is what you say when you see a car that you want, in reality or in a magazine--and for many, many years, though I was always a frighteningly good speller, I had only the vaguest phonetic idea of how you might write down the resonant words "Lamborghini Cantache S"), and the awfulness when you're the only white kid, and "Play that Funky Music"; I was not a graffiti type myself, though there might be one or two horrifying graffiti-related incidents in my past, but one of my brothers still goes by his old tag JonDoe (I am Jenny Doe in certain Philadelphia circles to this day), and I remember the walls of my brothers' rooms literally black with tags, it was a kind of compulsion wholly unstoppable by parents or landlords. We didn't call it yoking, but I remember sitting--incredibly foolishly, to this day I am sensitive about whether it is a good time/place to read/listen to music on public transportation rather than paying attention to what's going on--at the trolley stop on Germantown Avenue near my school in Philadelphia reading a book with my winter coat on my lap and having it snatched away from me and the shame and humiliation of listening to the other kids yell after the boy who took it "give the girl back her coat, man!," of course to no avail; or my brothers--identical twins--being stopped by a gang of kids on their way to school, stripped of their sneakers and then forced to punch each other out of some strange ritual twin-horror-uncanniness-white-harassment thing, and the worst of it was them having to walk the rest of the way to school barefooted--or in socks? I don't have the reality-effect detail here, I wasn't there, but surely socks are more likely--and explain what happened.

As an unrelated aside, I've got good news on my new academic book. I won't give details, since this is contingent on (a) me writing the rest of the book for a September 2006 submission date (I've written about 60%, two chapters that I submitted to the publisher in June along with the book proposal and one more chapter that I wrote in July-August; there are two more big chunks to write, then an all-out thorough revision over the summer of 2006) (b) it meeting with expert approval from the readers for the press and (c) me revising the final manuscript in accordance with those reports. But I am happy to say that the advance contract in the mail. (Metaphorically, and possibly literally as well.) It's a great university press, and a fantastically good editor who I'm very excited to work with on the project; so that's all good. Here's the brief description:

What determines a person’s character, nature or nurture? Investigating early modern British debates about human nature in the period before the coinage of modern scientific terms like biology and genetics, BREEDING: NATURE AND NURTURE BEFORE BIOLOGY uses a combination of history and close reading to sketch a way out of the current stalemate between liberal humanist and sociobiological accounts of human identity. By tracing eighteenth-century writers’ use of the term “breeding” to negotiate tricky questions about education and inheritance in relation to the physical properties of people, plants and animals, the book arrives at a fresh perspective on the terms that beat out “breeding” for talking about human identity in contemporary America.

And by the way, I am still stymied by the instructions about how to split up a long blog entry with an "after the jump" feature. So accept my apologies for this excessively long entry.

(Final detail. The book I was reading on the day my coat was stolen--I was in ninth grade, thirteen years old, and I had discovered it earlier that day in the school library with a thrill of delight and also a bit of mortification since I sort of thought I was too old for L'Engle's books now but this was a new installment in a series I had read with obsessive interest--was A House Like a Lotus.)


  1. what an interesting topic. i am always curious to trace examples of the word "stamp." henry adams, for instance, talks of people having the "harvard stamp."

  2. So much information in this one! I read the Lethem in April and thought it was good, although the parts in CA were not as interesting to me (and I wanted more of his girlfriend), and my best friend, who is really interested in race relations, found it even more interesting, although we both thought it was too long.

    I met Franzen and Chabon at the New Yorker Festival yesterday and the day before. Franzen, as you note, is hard on himself - perhaps too much so, but I feel the authenticity (and the implicit camarderie) behind that. In fact he was reading with Zadie Smith (whose On Beauty is supposedly brilliant - I just read Howards End a month ago and I'm looking forward to reviewing On Beauty for Spec) and he said that he liked how much she seemed to like her characters. Then someone asked him if that meant he didn't like his and he demurred, saying that he did like them, or rather he liked writing them. He admitted to being hard on himself and his characters, by extension, but I see honesty behind that, as someone in a perhaps similar situation. And he gets my goodwill, too, for signing my Corrections as his assistant was flagging down a taxi. My Chabon story is much less interesting - he asked me if I was Brazilian because I was wearing a Brazilian soccer shirt and my name confused him.


  3. The Harvard stamp! Funny, that relates to a conversation I was having last night with my friend Avi, about the Harvard thing--since we are here now in its shadow, it's most apropos. If you haven't read it, you really should check out the fabulous essay by Margreta De Grazia on this question of stamps and human nature, “Imprints: Shakespeare, Gutenberg, and Descartes,” in Alternative Shakespeare, vol. 2, ed. Terrence Hawkes (London: Routledge, 1996), 63-94.

    I was having a pang this weekend at missing New Yorker festival stuff (though it was the music panels I most wanted to see), but this very detailed account makes up for it! Maybe I will go and buy ON BEAUTY this afternoon, I am really eager to read it.