Friday, May 12, 2006

The sublime and the ridiculous

It was strange to the point of surreal sitting & listening to last night's poetry reading at the Harvard Advocate, the small-to-medium-sized room was full which I suppose means about thirty-five people or something like that but those people disconcertingly included in the front row (I may be forgetting one or two) Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart.... Happily the readers (Steve Burt and Dan Chiasson) seemed unintimidated, but surely it was a bit nerve-racking.

Afterwards I felt very very weary (not the fault of the readers, both of whom were extremely good--I must get Dan's books, they've got some natural-history things going on that sound rather what I'm interested in these days) and drifted into the bookstore (yep, it was one of those nights) and purchased (rather to my shame--I couldn't find anything more interestingly light!) Sophie Kinsella's novel The Undomestic Goddess, which proved soothing but understimulating.

The first forty pages or so were very good, well-written and really pretty funny (especially if you are undomestic--there is a good part in the beginning where the corporate-lawyer heroine gets a message from her cleaning lady asking where she can find a vacuum-cleaner bag and asks "Why does the vacuum cleaner need to go in a bag?" The vacuum cleaner in my NY apartment was purchased for me by my mother who gave me at the same time about a hundred bags for it in full knowledge that I was never, ever going to go and buy bags for it myself--as I don't vacuum very often it's sort of a lifetime supply), but then the whole rest of the novel is only about half an hour's worth of material eked out for 374 pages. Pleasant enough, but too slight.

I read the first of the Shopaholic novels a few years ago, Confessions of a Shopaholic I think it is; I was staying with my friend A. in Cambridge for a conference, she has a million books but they are more in the Eliot and Hardy vein & I was desperate for a light read; I begged & pleaded for something appropriate & I really think Shopaholic may have been the only trashy novel in the house, I sat down & read it with great enjoyment (augmented by a large quantity of wine) though I felt the book was marred by its complete lack of financial realism--I can't remember now, but I think the shocking credit-card debt the Shopaholic accidentally racks up is something like fourteen hundred pounds whereas in real life if you were that kind of girl you could get through tens of thousands, really, in a matter of months. (And I find it very strange that Sophie Kinsella is also Madeleine Wickham, I read one or two of those Wickham books when they were first out & they are more like what my grandmother liked, this mid-career or actually quite early career swerve into chick-lit seems not so much regrettable as sensible given that the bubbly first-person style is something Kinsella/Wickham has something of a talent for. Sub-Bridget Jones, but what can you do....)

The trouble with the whole reading-as-self-medication thing is that it's difficult to get the right mix, there I was around midnight & just desperate now for something a bit more substantial to take the domestic-goddess-y taste away (because of course the corporate lawyer after being framed in a corporate scandal flees to the countryside, takes a job as housekeeper & decides that life in the country with gardener paramour is infinitely superior to fast-track urban lawyer life, clearing her name also before retreating to the countryside again with a classic "she changes her mind at the last minute, but she and the gardener reunite on the train station platform" finale), so I knocked off a very small library book, one of the few remaining that I must read before I leave, Jonathan Lethem's Men and Cartoons.

Some of these stories I like very much indeed, especially the ones whose worlds exist sideways but still in close proximity to real life ("The Vision," "The Spray," "Super Goat Man"); the more obviously science-fiction-inflected ones I don't think I like so much ("Access Fantasy," "The Dystopianist..."). In many cases there's a very clear connection between a story and one of the novels, i.e. "Access Fantasy" is perhaps too much an echo of Gun, With Occasional Music, though the super-hero allusions don't strike me as problematic in spite of their obviously coming to full fruition in Fortress of Solitude--but the super-hero strain runs deep in Lethem's writing & he makes it do lots of different (to me all quite satisfactory) work.

But taken as a whole, the collection made it clear what I like so much about Lethem: the way his sentences (or often those of his first-person narrators, in this case) manage to be very funny & very serious at the same time, and with an ultra-distinctive sound/rhythm, a kind of verbal patterning that is just physically pleasurable to read; the way he uses the story form as a way of working out an idea (though I still think the essay in some cases would be a better mode for this purpose--I understand that's debatable, though, & most people do not agree with me on this); and most of all the anti-metaphoric nature of his thinking.

The strange things in his fictions are never reducible to symbols, I find that very appealing: it's one of the reasons I often find a good piece of essayistic prose more satisfactory than a poem or a short story, the way that prose-writers are more likely to leave things really (not just in-the-end-readably) non-symbolic. I still feel that certain books were ruined for me by the kind of "read-for-symbols" thing you have to do in high-school English classes, and also that metaphor is a powerful but not-mostly-to-my-taste mode; The Great Gatsby in particular (that awful green light!) is something I cannot revisit without a shudder, though really I think Fitzgerald is a genius (but give me "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" instead).

Earworm alert: I have not been able to get that song "Cinnamon Park" out of my head for thirty-six hours, it is making me crazy! Do not click and listen to it....

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