Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Baxter, Baker, faker

Just some odds and ends. The Los Angeles Times Book Review ran my piece on Charles Baxter's The Soul Thief a couple of weeks ago. I'm a big fan of the author's and it pained me give the book a lukewarm reception. There were some fabulous set pieces (as always) and a good many elegant, rueful, circuitous sentences (as always), but I simply couldn't swallow the structural shenanigans at the end. Even some zesty potshotting at Los Angeles couldn't save this souffle:
His jaundiced view of Los Angeles, where the milk of human kindness seems to curdle before one's eyes, suggests a triangulation between Nathanael West and Nathaniel Hawthorne (perhaps Mason's first name is no accident). So it saddens me to report that the climax is a hackneyed bit of metafictional whimsy, which more or less sinks the novel. It would be unfair to give away the trick, although Baxter tips his hand in the opening pages. Suffice it to say that we're dealing with a supremely unreliable narrator, and that the theft alluded to in the title might more accurately be described as an exchange of prisoners.
My fellow critic and friend Art Winslow, writing in the Chicago Tribune, took a kinder view of the book. Yet he too complained about the flimsy contrivance at the end:
The external framing of the main story creates a perspectival shift, telegraphed subtly here and there but presented in sudden and leaden fashion near the novel's end. With enough detail to lend it narrative and emotional weight, it might have equaled effects achieved earlier in the novel. But that is not the case; it feels tacked on, like a sheet of plywood over the picture window to keep it from cracking.... In other respects, The Soul Thief, scene by scene and sentence by sentence, sparkles with a tender energy and a tongue-in-cheekiness, lending it a wry quality overall.
Over at the New York Review of Books, Nicholson Baker goes nuts over Wikipedia. You might expect at least a little hedging, some casual harrumphing--Baker is a man in love with minutiae, and certainly facts do go missing from time to time at Jimmy Wales's wild kingdom. But no, he adores the whole enterprise. Here's one of his numerous valentines, couched in a typical metaphor:
It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. Some brought very fancy professional metal rakes, or even back-mounted leaf-blowing systems, and some were just kids thrashing away with the sides of their feet or stuffing handfuls in the pockets of their sweatshirts, but all the leaves they brought to the pile were appreciated. And the pile grew and everyone jumped up and down in it having a wonderful time. And it grew some more, and it became the biggest leaf pile anyone had ever seen anywhere, a world wonder.
A world wonder! He's not kidding. Here's another salient paragraph:
Wikipedia was the point of convergence for the self-taught and the expensively educated. The cranks had to consort with the mainstreamers and hash it all out--and nobody knew who really knew what he or she was talking about, because everyone's identity was hidden behind a jokey username. All everyone knew was that the end product had to make legible sense and sound encyclopedic. It had to be a little flat--a little generic--fair-minded--compressed....
That last bit, about the deliberately tamped-down tone of Wikipedia, put me in mind of Baker's new book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Coming from a man who has changed stylistic gears with almost every production, this is the oddest duck yet: an alternate history of the interwar years, culled from old newspapers, magazines, documents, and a respectable heap of secondary sources.

Human Smoke is an argument for pacifism, and an intriguing reshuffle of the deck. No doubt it will ruffle many feathers, not the least for its suggestion that the Good War was an avoidable bloodbath--not so good after all. But the other point worth noting is that Baker has checked his mandarin style at the door. His voice is flat, generic, fair-minded. He wants the facts to speak for themselves. Here and there a glint of relish, a fascination with human folly, creeps in: "Goering, the master of ceremonies, was wearing short pants, lace-up boots, a strap-on dagger in a red sheath, and a green jacket with yellow leather buttons. Hitler was in the usual Nazi brown, standing by the grand piano, on which stood a bust of Richard Wagner." But mostly Baker wants to sound like one of those vast, non-vivacious oracles: an encyclopedia. (You can read Charles McGrath's New York Times piece about Baker and Human Smoke here.)

Finally: move over, James Frey. Your canny exaggeration of your time in the slammer is a mere peccadillo compared to the serial whoppers in the widely praised Love and Consequences. As it happens, Margaret B. Jones was not a child of the urban wasteland. She did not, contrary to this profile in the New York Times, deal "drugs on the streets of South Central Los Angeles before she hit puberty." Hell, her name isn't even Margaret B. Jones--it's Margaret Seltzer. According to this piece in the Los Angeles Times:
Instead of being a half-white, half-Native American who grew up in a foster home and once sold drugs for the Bloods street gang, she is a white woman who was raised with her biological family in Sherman Oaks and graduated from Campbell Hall, an exclusive private school in the San Fernando Valley. Her admission that she is a fake came in a tearful mea culpa to the New York Times, which last week published a profile of Seltzer using her pseudonym. It was accompanied by a photograph of the 33-year-old and her 8-year-old daughter in Eugene, Ore., where they now live.
Tsk tsk. And to think that it was her sister who blew the whistle on her, after seeing that very profile in the Times. This is making me think twice about my own memoir--the one about being a vicious gang member in Scarsdale, New York.

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