Monday, October 17, 2005


Last night's fun, Time 100

Last night while I was gabbing on the phone, Nina was nice enough to bring me a glass of beer. At once I knocked over the glass, soaking everything on my desk, and my computer, which must have sucked up some fizzling liquid through the intake vents on the bottom, blacked out. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed some paper towels. My friend, who was holding the line, got to hear some audio-verité cursing as I mopped up the mess. For about thirty minutes, I couldn't revive the computer. Very distressing. Nina and I deployed my precious No. 0 screwdriver and removed the base plate: the innards were dry as a bone. Finally the machine began to show some signs of life. There was some disorientation: the hungover computer thought it was December 1969 (really). I reset the clock.

Now all is well. But I was so thrown by this potential disaster that I grabbed the nearest books and took to my bed. What did I grab? First, Elizabeth Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book, a 2001 collection from Graywolf. Problem: as the title suggests, many of the poems take the form of recounted dreams. But as Freud pointed out more than a century ago, dreams--with their slippery logic and metaphoric fluency--share a common language with poetry, so there's a kind of clanging redundancy to Alexander's procedure. She might as well begin each poem with: I wrote a poem that said.... Still, there are some strong, strange pieces ("Race," "Opiate," "Orange") and the libidinous oddity of "Nat King Cole on the Amalfi Drive":
He sings after making the beast with two backs,
something low-down and dirty, fried liver and onions,
put your hands on your hips and let your diction slip.

We do it real quick. I am "that kind of girl."
He shakes out his marcel, calls Yes!
to the Lord, caretaker of bliss, maker of figs,

the good Lord of smothered chicken and biscuits
who gave us five senses, said, Go forth and taste
for your time on this earth is not long.

We keep our pleasure secret, dahlias
underneath my skirt as I watch from the studio audience.
The Negro crooner sings of "Eskeemos."

Wild applause from the flush-cheeked fans.
My dahlias rustle, brush. A wink for me,
a smile for me, for me in black and white.
In a companion piece earlier in the book, she has an assignation with Michael Jordan (really). Go figure. Meanwhile, I moved on to The Education of Henry Adams, that freeze-dried masterpiece of American autobiography. Flipping back and forth, I found myself savoring this freaky passage near the beginning: the six-year-old Adams is behaving like a brat, refusing to go to school. His mother is, one assumes, tearing her hair out. Enter the ancient John Quincy Adams, who happens to be the brat's grandfather:
[The boy] was in a fair way to win, and was holding his own, with sufficient energy, at the bottom of the long staircase which led up to the door of the President's library, when the door opened, and the old man slowly came down. Putting on his hat, he took the boy's hand without a word, and walked with him paralysed by awe, up the road to the town. Afer the first moments of consternation at this interference in a domestic dispute, the boy reflected that an old gentleman close on eighty would never trouble himself to walk near a mile on a hot summer morning over a shadeless road to take a boy to school, and that it would be strange if a lad imbued with the passion of freedom could not find a corner to dodge around, somewhere before reaching the school-door. Then and always, the boy insisted that this reasoning justified his apparent submission; but the old man did not stop, and the boy saw all his strategic points turned, one after another, until he found himself seated inside the school, and obviously the centre of curious if not malevolent criticism. Not till then did the President release his hand and depart.
Funny, that's exactly what always happened when I tried to play hooky: Dwight D. Eisenhower emerged from a little room in the attic and walked me over to Edgewood School. But he wasn't my grandpa.

Moving right along: Time has just posted its 100 Best Novels Written in English Since 1923. Lists like this are created precisely so people can bitch about them. My gripes, in a nutshell: Gravity's Rainbow belongs, but not The Crying of Lot 49. Portnoy's Complaint belongs, but not American Pastoral. The Rabbit books got stronger and stronger as Updike went along, and Rabbit At Rest is incontestably a better book than Rabbit, Run. The omission of Samuel Beckett is criminal, and the same thing goes for Penelope Fitzgerald. And what about William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow? And J.F. Powers's Morte d'Urban? And Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters? Having said all this, I'll add that it's a very decent list, and that the Web version includes links to the some of the original reviews.

The list does have problems, but any list that has Pale Fire on it and the diverse favorite novels of a diverse group of friends (Lolita, and catcher in the rye and Lord of the Rings0 is cool eventhough it has Gone with the wind and is missing Tender is the Night.

But, it does contain American Pastoral and the Crying of Lot 49.
Franzen but no Mailer? Speaking of Franzen, I'd be interested in your reaction to Ben Marcus's lengthy essay in the October Harper's, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It."
Disagree with your Roth choice. A solid list overall. We are all going to kvetch about certain inclusions and exclusions but I had relatively few.
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