Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The great wall

A little more than two weeks ago, I was walking home late at night, on what turned to be the last balmy Sunday of the year. As I strolled up Second Avenue, I noticed a large flatbed truck parked by the curb. Lashed on the back was an enormous, rusty slab of steel, whose curved contours suggested a blade for the mother of all snowplows--something on a Paul Bunyan scale. To my surprise, I came across perhaps a dozen of these truck as I walked north, each with its garishly oxidized cargo in tow. In each case the steel sheet was held aloft by thick metal cables, which looked bizarrely delicate in this context, like the product of some industrial spinneret.

Curiosity finally got the better of me. After snapping a couple of pictures, none of which conveyed the scale of the sheets, I asked a bystander what was going on. He was, fortuitously, the truck driver, and the cargo turned out to be Richard Serra's "Sequence," a mammoth metal curlicue that had made its debut at the sculptor's recent MOMA retrospective. Now, Serra's work has not always warmed the hearts of his fellow human beings. These are aggressive creations, which don't so much buttonhole the viewer as place him or her in a half-nelson. In her Newsday review of the show, Ariella Budick cut to the chase with her very first sentence: "It's easy to hate Richard Serra." Still, she did note a new spirit of playfulness in these 200-ton behemoths, referring to "Sequence" as "an Escher print come to life." Well, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has offered to house two of the new pieces that Serra created for MOMA, and that was why "Sequence" was preparing for its cross-country odyssesy.

"We can't move oversize loads through Manhattan on a Sunday night," the driver told me. At the stroke of midnight, the dozen diesel trucks would rev their engines and head West. "How long will it take for you to reach Los Angeles?" I asked him. "A week," he said. "We'll be there next Sunday." He missed his target by a single day (maybe he had to change some horrendous flat on the Jersey Turnpike), pulling into Los Angeles eight days later. This photo, from the LACMA website, gives a much better idea of Serra's Brobdingnagian toy. The orange hue of the rusty Cor-Ten steel looks almost cheerful, like something you might use to paint your child's nursery. Or not.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Yesterday and today

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times ran my review of John Updike's Due Considerations. I had quoted Martin Amis's famous characterization of Updike as a "psychotic Santa of volubility," and when it came time to fact-check the phrase, I found myself chuckling over the entire paragraph:
Mr. Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem--but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.
In the last sentence Amis takes a nasty turn, for which he atones later on, placing Updike in the very top rank of contemporary American prose with Saul Bellow (gold medal) and Vladimir Nabokov (silver medal). In any case, here's how I began my review:
If John Updike had written nothing but novels, his career would still have an almost Victorian amplitude. Since 1959, he has published 22 stout, supple fictions crammed with the minutiae of American life and perfumed, much of the time, with sexual effluvia. The Rabbit series alone would make him a major novelist. Yet the bright book of life, as D.H. Lawrence called it, has never been sufficient to devour all of Updike's prodigious energies. Short stories, light verse, children's books, art appreciation, an anthology of musings on golf--all have poured forth from the atelier in Ipswich, Mass., in the sort of industrial quantities that once prompted Martin Amis to call Updike a "psychotic Santa of volubility."

Then there are the essays. Updike assembled his first collection, "Assorted Prose," in 1965. This was a fairly modest volume, as was its successor, "Picked-Up Pieces," which appeared 10 years later. Since then, the pace has grown more rapid and the books much heftier. "More Matter" (1999) ran to 928 pages, and at that point even the author wondered whether he was coming to the end of his essayistic tether, referring to it as "my fifth such collection and--dare we hope?--my last."
You can read the rest here. Meanwhile, the very same paper just ran my piece on Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love and Dave Marsh's The Beatles' Second Album. Is there anything more to say about the exhaustively documented Fabs? Evidently (one, two, three, four!):
From the very beginning of their career, the Beatles have proved an irresistible temptation for biographers. The first substantial book about them, Michael Braun's Love Me Do, appeared in 1964--just a year after the group's initial conquest of the United Kingdom with "Please Please Me." Since then there has been an onslaught of biographical material, with distinguished contributions from Hunter Davies (best access to the inner circle), Philip Norman (wittiest style), and Bob Spitz (biggest tonnage). Add to that the sanitized self-portrait of The Beatles Anthology (2000), and you begin to wonder whether there are any Fab-related stones left unturned.

On the basis of Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, the answer would have to be yes. The author, a journalist and former musician, hasn't dredged up much in the way of smoking guns or scurrilous revisionism. Indeed, he has relied almost exclusively on secondary sources, with a bibliography running to 12 pages of tiny, eyeball-punishing print. But his accomplishment here is twofold.
You can read the rest here.

Monday, October 01, 2007



My review of Exit Ghost ran in Newsday on Sunday. So did many others, and after the early spate of rotten notices, I was curious to see how the book would fare. David Ulin was considerably kinder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, while Michael Dirda splits the difference in The Washington Post Book World. Calling the novel a "magnificent shambles," Dirda speculates that we may be getting a glimpse of Roth's "late style," with its blatant disregard for narrative niceties:
At times I wondered if Roth was practicing what has sometimes been called the fallacy of imitative form--in this case, writing a slightly incoherent book to reflect the incoherence of his aging hero's mind. At other times, I concluded that his lack of a strong plot, the weak fantasy playlet of "He and She," the attack on the modern tendency to reduce art to a complex or an ism, and the many pages, albeit excellent in themselves, about George Plimpton were all typical of "late style," that wild freedom characteristic of great artists in old age when they blithely ignore the expected conventions and disdain the polish of ordinary form and beauty. Toward the end of life, mere "art" seems to get in the way of truth.
Problem: Roth has been ignoring the conventions since Portnoy's Complaint. If he's going to get any more unhinged, any messier, I'll have to break out the hard hat and a lobster bib. Meanwhile, here's my own piece in its entirety:

Exit Ghost has been widely touted as the last stand of Nathan Zuckerman. Here, we've been told, is the farewell appearance of Philip Roth's sturdiest alter ego, who has kibbitzed his way through eight previous novels and even poked his nose into the author's single work of autobiography.

About time, I thought. In his earliest incarnations, Zuckerman was a brilliant ploy--a fictional proxy who talked like Roth, walked like Roth, and could easily be mistaken for the man himself. In truth he was more like a stunt double, who resembled his creator but absorbed a much more outlandish level of punishment. Yet Roth thrived on this ambiguity. Self-exposure, self-invention--these were the twin poles of his imagination, generating their wild, comic, lacerating currents. Roth needed his mouthpiece, his trash-talking semblable. As he told an interviewer in 1983, fiction was above all a transformation "of a personal emergency into a public act."

After introducing Zuckerman as a full-fledged character in The Ghost Writer (1979), Roth kept up this pas de deux for three increasingly antic, self-centered novels. Then he raised the stakes in The Counterlife (1987), where both Zuckerman and his kid brother Henry were parachuted into zany inversions of their native Newark: Israel (where a Jew was the paradoxical norm) and England (where a Jew still scrabbled to climb the sociological ladder he had long since ascended in the New World). Surely this would be the final, flagrant shuffling of identities. Wasn't it time to demobilize this wandering Jew?

It was not. Just a year later, he was marshaled for a nervy, tailgunning afterword to The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography--a smart move on Roth's part. But after that, Zuckerman fell on hard times. In the ambitious trilogy of novels beginning with American Pastoral (1997), he remained on the sidelines, providing color commentary. For this reader, he seemed like a superfluous presence--a way for Roth to dodge direct engagement with narratives that were already recycling his most cherished motif, the extrication of the individual from the stultifying straitjacket of communal life. Zuckerman was Zelig with a typewriter, a tape recorder, a megaphone. In these novels, with their alternation of mind-blowing magnificence and irritating echolalia, Zuckerman was precisely what he once accused Roth of being: a crutch.

For all of these reasons, Zuckerman deserves to go out with his head held high. And Exit Ghost, at least in its initial pages, promises a kind of victory lap. Zuckerman, you see, is contemplating a return to the madding crowd. He has spent years on his New England hilltop, with a monastic focus on his prose and an increasingly tenuous connection to the great world.

"I'd conquered the solitary's way of life," he tells us. "I knew its tests and satisfactions and over time had shaped the scope of my needs to its limitations.... Why invite the unanticipated, why court any more shocks and surprises than those that aging would be sure to deliver without my prompting?"

Why indeed? What first tempts this monk down from his mountain is a minor urological procedure, which may absolve the incontinent Zuckerman from wearing a grown-up diaper. Control over his bladder, he ventures, could go some distance toward reuniting him with the rest of the human race: "I who'd never thought along these lines before, who from the age of 12 was bent on singularity and welcomed whatever was unusual in me--I could now be like everyone else."

Zuckerman being Zuckerman, he immediately reminds himself that shame and concealment are what bind us together in the first place--it's the prospect of a wet diaper that prompts the real shock of recognition. Nonetheless, his return to New York City in the fall of 2004 represents a terrific temptation. Wandering the streets after a decade-long absence like a Semitic Rip Van Winkle, he is both tantalized and tortured by the prospect of reconnecting.

Roth being Roth, he finds the perfect metaphor for his character's ambivalence: the cell phone. Having avoided this innovation in his rural fastness, Zuckerman is mostly appalled by the gabbling conversationalists on every street corner. "To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect," he ponders. How shocking, and tragic, that "the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard--and the accompanying disregard for being overheard." It's deliciously ironic that Zuckerman, who proved his mettle as an eavesdropper way back in The Ghost Writer, should be filing a brief on behalf of privacy. But there's a sadder irony afoot as well: the experience of separation is exactly what's been killing him for the past decade.

At this point, perhaps, Zuckerman would have fled back to the sticks, where even Verizon fears to tread. But two more developments conspire to keep him in Manhattan. First, he encounters Amy Bellette, whose youthful resemblance to Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer cued some of the most blasphemous fantasies of his career. She is now deathly ill, her brain half eaten away by a tumor. She is also defending her late husband, E.I. Lonoff, from a scandal-mongering biographer.

And since Zuckerman is seldom monogamous by nature, there is a second woman: Jamie Logan, a young married writer who rings his bell the moment she walks through the door. He can hardly resist touching her. He can hardly hold back "whatever words a man as mutilated as I was says to a desirable woman 40 years his junior that will not leave him covered in shame because he is overcome by temptation for a delight he cannot enjoy and a pleasure that is dead."

The ingredients are all there: love and death, art and resurrection. And then, about halfway through this midsize novel, the wheels come off. The first danger sign occurs when Zuckerman, after each encounter with the alluring Jamie, scuttles back to his hotel room and writes an imaginary dialogue between the two of them.

The speed with which fiction supplants reality is no surprise--two decades ago, Zuckerman was already doubting whether "the truly shaming facts can ever be fully borne, let alone perceived, without the panacea of the imagination." Still, there's something infantile about this retreat into stage-managed fantasy, where the object of Zuckerman's affection laughs at all his witticisms. And it's not clear whether the joke is ultimately on Zuckerman or Roth himself, who handled much of this same material with considerably less bathos in The Dying Animal (2001) and last year's Everyman.

In any case, it's all downhill from there. When Bellette finally shares her wartime experiences, so artfully withheld the first time we met her, they turn out to be awful but generic--not a word I would ever apply to most of Roth's output. And the dreadful dialogues between Zuckerman and his dream girl go on and on. "Your breasts impress me," he tells her, pretty late in the game, before slipping in an apposite quote from Keats' last letter: "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence."

A posthumous existence is a great subject, but Roth has simply failed to nail it in Exit Ghost. After a weird, promising digression on the late George Plimpton--whose mocking exploitation of his own WASP persona makes him a distant cousin of the ever-compartmentalized Zuckerman--the book just peters out. The hero either dies or dissipates into nothingness, as the coiled interiority of the novel collapses in on itself. Who would have thought that Zuckerman's exit would be a matter of such indifference? There may be some truth to his earlier suggestion that "the most potent discoveries are reserved for last." But not this time around.

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