Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Twilight of the Superheroes

I've been a fan of Deborah Eisenberg's fiction for many years. Her detractors have sometimes complained about her focus on Manhattan-style angst, as if she were some kind of Woody Allen in drag, and overlooked the alternating currents of satire and tenderness that give her stories their peculiar glow. In any case, Eisenberg has a new collection out, her first in nearly a decade: Twilight of the Superheroes. It is, I confess, something of a mixed bag. In the title story, a fictional grapple with 9/11, the author stubs her toe on the generational divide: the older characters live and breathe, while a quartet of twentysomethings seems to have walked in off the set of Friends. Eisenberg manages the voice of (relative) youth to better effect in "Revenge of the Dinosaurs." I also admired the grief-stricken telegraphy of "Like It Or Not," very much in the author's classic New Yorker groove.

There is, however, one absolute gem in the book, "Some Other, Better Otto." It's a tale of familial dysfunction, always an Eisenbergian speciality, and she gets some wonderful comic mileage out of that perennial war of the worlds:
The older one even had a wife, whom Corinne treated with a stricken, fluttery deference as if she were a suitcase full of weapons-grade plutonium. The younger one was restlessly on his own. When, early in the evening the three stood and announced to Corinne with thuggish placidity that they were about to leave ("I'm afraid we've got to shove off now, Ma"), Otto jumped to his feet. As he allowed his hand to be crushed, he felt the relief of a mayor watching an occupying power depart his city.
Love it! But what I loved even more was an observation Otto makes about his sister, a chronic depressive with the leapfrogging intuitive powers of a genius. Otto keeps trying to put his finger on exactly what makes her different. Finally he comes up with an answer:
A tremendous capacity for metaphor, Otto assumed it was; a tremendous sensitivity to the deep structures of the universe. Uncanny. It seemed no more likely that there would be human beings thus equipped than human beings born with satellite dishes growing out of their heads.
The author, too, is one of those uncanny human beings. Without that identical gift, she would still be a superb comedian and anthropologist of middle-class moeurs. But metaphor is what ultimately allows a naturalist like Eisenberg to plunge beneath the parochial surface and find the real treasures, the real truths. For that we should be grateful. In literature, as in life, superheroes are in short supply.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Mahler 4 and Noesis

Thursday night was a treat: I went to see Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic play Mahler's Symphony No. 4 at Carnegie Hall. Since my 80-year-old father and I had bought tickets at the last minute, our seats were in the very back row of the upper balcony. We spent a couple of minutes waiting for express elevator, standing in front of an autographed photo of Fritz Kreisler. To pass the time, my father dug out an old and apropos joke from the Bob Hope archive: A man is sitting in the upper balcony at Carnegie Hall. He turns to the guy next to him and says, "Wow, the stage sure is far away." The other guy says, "What stage? I'm flying the airmail to Cleveland." Rim shot! We took our seats. Never before had I studied the ventilation grills and cleverly disguised ductwork at such close range: why, I could almost reach out and touch them. But now the lights were dimming, and the orchestra took the stage. From where we were, they were the size of sparrows, maybe terns. The alpha sparrow, Sir Simon, had a baton and a corkscrewing shock of gray hair. Und so weiter.

The concert began with the New York premiere of Noesis, a piece by Hanspeter Kyburz, born in Lagos to Swiss parents in 1960 and now resident in Berlin. The entire back of the stage was crammed with an arsenal of percussion instruments, many of which I had never heard of (xylorimba, crotales, hyoshigi, guiro), and the naive might have expected some sort of world-music blowout, two parts King Sunny Ade to one part Schoenberg. But I had already read the program notes, which were not encouraging: "Kyburz is very much a child of our time. He uses a computer to develop musical structures formed in his imagination in order to determine the aural and aesthetic results. He then accepts, alters, or rejects what he has conceptualized in a kind of self-critical dialogue with himself." Uh oh. Even more discouraging: Kyburz's title comes from Husserl, the elaborately bearded phenomenologist whose whose speculations on perception and intersubjectivity seem a mite arid for musical tinder. There were, however, some pleasures to be found. The opening movement featured some eerily rustling string figures, and a tremendous command of dynamics from Rattle and his ensemble: the sound swelled and receded, with hair-raising tuttis and frequent drops off the precipice into silence. Not much you can hum in there, of course. The composer has drunk deeply of the chromatic cup, and prefers to keep all twelves tones in play at any given moment. This tends to quash the melodic impulse. Yet after the middle, slow movement had wound down with some otherworldly keening--I assumed we were hearing a glass harmonica, but it seems to have been a bowed vibraphone--my sweet tooth for melody was satisfied after all. Over urgent, scrabbling runs from the double-basses, Kyburz voices some open horn figures that suggested nothing so much as a Teutonic Aaron Copland. The piece ended with a final salvo of percussive violence. My father, who had nodded off during the slow movement, woke up and said, "It could have been worse."

After the intermission, it was time for Mahler. The Fourth is a famously sunny piece, the only bombast-free symphony the composer ever wrote, with the possible exception of the First. The mood, as he once described it, is like "the uniform blue of the sky.... Sometimes it becomes overcast and uncanny, horrific: but it is not heaven itself which darkens, for it goes on shining with its everlasting blue. It is only that to us it seems suddenly sinister." It also happens to be the piece that really introduced me to Mahler, courtesy once more of my father, who gave me Otto Klemperer's old recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra many years ago. So I was practically quivering with excitement as the atmospheric flute-and-sleighbell riff wafted up into the balcony. This was going to be good!

The Fourth is much more compact than its mighty predecessor, the compendious, kitchen-sink Third. It also calls for a smaller ensemble: no trombones, no tuba, a skeleton crew of four horns (versus eight in the Third). In Rattle's hands, the first movement sounded almost like a piece of chamber music, ever more mercurial and many-voiced. This is true to Mahler's intention, of course. He thought the momement should set out in a state of innocence, then ripen and ramify into exponential wisdom. It begins, he wrote, "as if it couldn't count to three, but then launches out into the full multiplication table, until at last it is reckoning dizzily in millions upon millions." Rattle threw the details into high relief. Individual bits--like the brief, bucolic conversation between the clarinets, bass clarinet, and bassoon that precedes the second entrance of the sleighbells--were exquisite. What he sacrificed, I think, was a certain momentum and overall shapeliness. The momement didn't unfold in a single sweep. And the climax--with the first trumpet leaping up an octave to high D and singing out those three golden notes at a double forte, undergirded by the French horns at fff--came across as oddly muted. Come on! Check it out (the trumpet part is four staves from the top, above the timpani part, below the French horns):

I think this calls for a little incandescence. You certainly can't pretend it's business as usual.

In any case, the second movement, with its moonlight-on-the-krummholz textures, was appropriately magical, and the third had exactly the sort of dramatic momentum lacking in the first. Rattle took his time, letting the strings and harp linger on the initial hymnlike theme. The radiant outburst towards the end of the movement, which Mahler considered the climax of the entire symphony and an anticipatory glimpse of eternity, was worth the wait. It may have been slightly muted for occupants of the back balcony: more like viewing heaven through the wrong end of a telescope. I relished it, though, and loved the way Rattle steered straight into Das himmlische Leben. Magdalena Kozena, a foxy Czech mezzo-soprano, had slipped onstage during the final measures of the previous movement. She sang the Wunderhorn text, a child's vision of heaven, with an appealing and lovely simplicity. Her voice didn't quite project up to you-know-where, but I'll stop complaining about the seats. The acid test: I came out of Carnegie Hall in a much happier state than when I had entered.

One last note, which pertains more generally to artistic creation, and more egomaniacally to the bumpy home stretch of my own novel-in-progress. Mahler wrote much of his music in a kind of compositional ecstasy. The Fourth was a more difficult nut to crack, requiring extra diligence, sweat, boredom. Yet the composer, enamored as he was of the Romantic model of inspiration, thought he had learned a good lesson:
Perhaps it isn't necessary, or even desirable, for a work of art always to spring from a mood, like an eruption. There should rather be a uniform degree of skill throughout. This is true art, which is always at the disposal of its possessor and overcomes all difficulties, even that of one's not being in good form.
That comes from Jonathan Carr's biography. I found an even finer bit in Mahler's correspondence. Writing to Nanna Spiegler on August 18, 1900, he discussed his most recent creation:
I am still half living in the world of my Fourth.--This one is quite fundamentally different from my other symphonies. But that must be; I could never repeat a state of mind--and as life drives on, so too I follow new tracks in every work. That is why at first it is always so hard for me to get down to work. All the skill that experience has taught one is of no avail. One has to begin to learn all over again for the new thing one sets out to make. So one remains everlastingly a beginner! Once this used to make me anxious and fill me with doubts about myself. But since I have understood how it is, it is my guarantee of the authenticity and permanence of my works.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


The best things in life are free

But if you're willing to spend some money, there are some amazing bargains out there. William Shatner, for example, just sold one of his kidney stones to online gaming emporium GoldenPalace.com--the same people, you'll recall, who purchasd that grilled cheese sandwich embossed with the Virgin Mary's image. For a mere $25,000, the buyer got not only the stone (so large, Shatner notes, "you'd want to wear it on your finger") but the surgical stint and a piece of string used to help pass the offending item. To give Captain Kirk credit where credit is due, he'll donate the proceeds to Habitat for Humanity. Best detail: he declined an initial offer of $15,000.

Meanwhile, John Lennon's original, scribbled lyrics for "A Day in the Life" are about to hit the auction block on Tuesday, where they're supposed to fetch in the neighborhood of $2 million. I still love the idea of Lennon sitting down at the piano with a copy of the Daily Mail and stitching together details from one banal story after another. And I still consider it one of the most beautiful and inventive pop songs ever. Too bad they cut out the "sugar plum fairy" intro you can still hear on the unplugged Anthology version.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


NBCC nominations

As Hillel Italie has already reported, the National Book Critics Circle announced its nominees on Saturday night to a packed crowd at the McNally Robinson store in Soho. By the time I arrived, the front area was too jammed to permit any real movement: I stood there in my raincoat and chatted with board member Art Winslow and decided it would be too much effort to thrash my way toward the fruit-and-cheese table. Then the announcements began, invisibly, behind a scrum of backs and heads.

After a short preamble by John Freeman, Colson Whitehead read off the fiction nominees and was gently chided for not mentioning the respective publishers. No real surprises here, which is a disappointment: the NBCC often includes a left-field candidate, and sometimes actually bestows the award on this unsuspecting figure. Neither E.L. Doctorow, Mary Gaitskill, Kazuo Ishiguro, nor Andrea Levy fit the bill, and even William T. Vollman, in the wake of his upset victory at the National Book Awards, seems strangely (to use the Seinfeldian phrase) spongeworthy. Still, it's a solid slate, and I'll complain no further.

Edmund White announced the biography nominees. I was thrilled to learn that Jonathan Coe's life of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, had made the cut. Then came the nonfiction slate, which included Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster--excellent news for Dalkey Archive panjandrum Chad Post, standing just a few feet away with forthcoming DA author Mark Binelli. Sharon Olds did the honors for the poetry slate, keeping her comments short and sweet.

Next Richard Howard, doubtless using either his monocle or pince-nez, ran down the criticism nominees, making a number of characteristic detours which I couldn't quite hear. Such is the firepower and media clout of this category (which I chaired for several years during my time on the NBCC board) that some papers have omitted the details from Hillel Italie's report. For shame! To redress the situation, let me do a sonorous roll call myself: John Updike's Still Looking, Arthur Danto's Natural Wonders, Hal Crowther's Gather at the River, William Logan's Undiscovered Country, and Eliot Weinberger's What Happened Here. Give them a round of applause, folks. And let me say a few words. The Weinberger, however worthy, is just barely a criticism title--I can only imagine the logic-chopping behind closed doors at the board meeting, having done a good deal of it myself. Updike, a tremendous book critic, is less scintillating on the visual arts (as Geoff Dyer conceded in his smart NYTBR piece) and I can't really see him winning. Surely Jed Perl's New Art City, which got a mild drubbing from Updike himself, deserved a spot on the list.

Me, I'm for the Logan. His ferocity may put off some of the judges, just as it did in 1999, when Reputations of the Tongue was nominated. Yes, it can be painful to see one of your favorite poets take a licking from the guy: you finish the essay and feel like you've just been visiting a friend in the hospital. I'll never agree with him about, say, C.K. Williams. But for sheer wit and critical stringency, he's hard to beat, and the celebratory pieces in The Undiscovered Country (on Milton, Whitman, Lowell, Marianne Moore, Geoffrey Hill, Randall Jarrell) hit just the right note of irreverent delight. Come on, he's overdue, having published three substantial volumes of criticism since 1998. Give him the prize already!

Whoops, I almost forgot the autobiography category. Joyce Johnson announced the candidates, two of which strike me as obvious leaders of the pack: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. The Didion is a deserving choice. At this point, though, with a Broadway adapation in the works and a National Book Award on the author's mantelpiece, the board may feel redundant giving it the nod. Pamuk's weird and wandering self-portrait, refracted through the history and topography of his native city, seems more likely to me. But hey, I was wrong about American Idol, so why trust me on this one?

Finally: the Nona Balakian Citation for reviewing went to Harper's contributor Wyatt Mason, who I met for about five seconds before he scooted out the door. In his prefatory remarks, former Balakian winner Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out that his own moment in the sun had been conspicuously omitted from the coverage in the New York Times. Bummer. The good news: when the NBCC finally erects its snazzy, Frank-Gehry-designed headquarters in 2007, there will be a critical Wall of Fame in the lobby, right behind the Coke machine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Frey, laziest lead, Barnes, REFCO's Tale: From Bad to Verse

The Frey Affair has been covered so extensively by other bloggers (not to mention the New York Times) that I hesitated to pile on. After all, I had never read the book--the author's noisy self-regard in that old New York Observer interview was enough to put me off--and I didn't really care if he was prone to embellishment. Last night, however, I glanced at The Smoking Gun's investigation, which makes for some very entertaining reading, and was, well, shocked. It wasn't Frey's comical and compulsive fibbing that threw me. No, it was the brief excerpts from the book. Here, for example, is a key passage:
As I was driving up, I saw her standing out front with a few of her friends. I was staring at her and not paying attention to the road and I drove up onto a sidewalk and hit a Cop who was standing there. I didn't hit him hard because I was only going about five miles an hour, but I hit him. The Cop called for backup and I sat in the car and stared at her and waited. The backup came and they approached the car and asked me to get out and I said you want me out, then get me out, you fucking Pigs. They opened the door, I started swinging, and they beat my ass with billy clubs and arrested me. As they hauled me away kicking and screaming, I tried to get the crowd to attack them and free me, which didn't happen.
And here's another, also documenting Frey's troubled relationship with the Men in Blue:
About an hour after we got there, some Cops walk in with a Guy I'd never seen before. These were Small-Town Cops, fat stupid Assholes with mustaches and beer guts and badges. I knew them and they knew me. In the years I had spent in that Town, I had openly taunted them and had dared them to try and catch me on something, which they never had. Now they had this new Guy, and they marched up to me, full of bullshit Cop bravado, and they pulled out a warrant, and they said I had to come down to the Station with them to answer some questions. They said there was another team of People searching my House with dogs. I laughed and told them to get the fuck out of my face, and the new Guy pulled out his badge and said Son, I am with the FBI and your number is up, and he grabbed me and hauled my ass out of there...
Assuming that these are representative passages, I have to say that this is one pathetic mudpie of a memoir. It sounds just terrible: inept, whiny, puerile. Can this really be the same book that Pat Conroy called "the War and Peace of addiction"? Is our literary culture so fixated on the crudest narratives of abuse and redemption that we no longer care if they're written in crayon? These are, I admit, rhetorical questions. A Million Little Pieces sold in the neighborhood of 150,000 copies even before Oprah anointed it with her magic wand. Since then it's blown past the two million mark--only Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (which may be nearly as factual a production as Frey's book) surpassed it in 2005. The public has spoken. If the author makes a decent showing on Larry King tonight--caked, no doubt, in blood, vomit, urine, and a dash of WD-40--I guarantee he'll be forgiven. Yes, Virginia, there are second acts in American life.

Next, the Laziest Lead of 2006. Sure, the year is still young and this doozy will no doubt be bettered, but Michiko Kakutani is currently way ahead of the pack. Here's how she began her review of Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey on Friday:
Question: what do you get if you combine the TV series "The Office" and the Guy Ritchie movie "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" with a Nick Hornby novel and the Kingsley Amis classic, "Lucky Jim"?
Come now! Almost every critic has fallen back on the venerable what-do-you-get trick. It's fast, it's easy, and it absolves you of having to say something original about the book at hand. But who else would have the gumption to drag a TV series, a movie, and two different novelists (apparently Nick Hornby's novels are interchangeable) into a single comparison? Hats off, is what I say.

I see that I'm hitting too many peevish notes, so I'll cheer up now with two short bits. First, here's a link to Kerry Fried's fine review of the new Julian Barnes in Newsday. Praising Arthur & George, she also notes the characteristic paradoxes of the author's career:
Julian Barnes will never be the bean counters' golden boy, and his elastic fictions that can pirouette into essay mode still give guardians of genre boundaries the willies. But for more than 25 years this ultra-gifted English writer has twitted both groups while delighting so many others.

For instance, his third novel, Flaubert's Parrot (1984)--a dazzling, moving take on the truths of art and the uncertainties of reality--might have faded on the shelves of a self-selecting few. Instead, it is very much in print. On the other hand, the four crime novels he published as Dan Kavanagh, featuring a neatnik bisexual detective, ended up, Barnes laughingly claims, being subsidized by Flaubert's Parrot.
Finally, Nina's poem about the REFCO scandal finally came out in Financial Engineering News. "REFCO's Tale: From Bad to Verse" is, to my knowledge, the only account of this smelly business scandal in (mostly) iambic tetrameter. She concludes with these allusive stanzas:
One of the biggest brokers came unmoored
Because its finances were obscured.
To borrow from Yeats, what this conveyed:
"The struggle of the fly in marmalade."

So where was SarbOx, the level best
That Congress produced to yank and wrest
Financial bedlam and fiscal slight
From the quarterlies and the news at night?
You'll find plenty of other treats in there, including an answer to the question that has dogged poets for centuries: what rhymes with "bankruptcy protection"?

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Levon and Ralph

Is there anything as satisfying as seeing two of your obsessions overlap? I was just skimming through a transcript of Levon Helm's December 30 appearance on Nightline--yes, these are the chores that occupy my mornings--and came across the following exchange:
VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS): What does music mean to you?

LEVON HELM: Music is the language of heaven. That's what Emerson taught us. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was playing music. I would grab an old broom and, you know, pretend that I was singing and playing.
Emerson! Levon Helm is pushing the Transcendentalist line up in Woodstock! Very exciting news. Meanwhile, I found myself wandering over to the bookshelf and pulling out my dogeared copy of Robert D. Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. I can't imagine a better, more inventive work of literary biography. As he did in his earlier Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, the author divides his story into 100 bite-size chapters, and the final effect is eerily stereoscopic, as if you were studying the subject through a compound eye. One of my favorite parts is the final paragraph. Richardson has already dwelled many times on Emerson's fiery conception of the universe--a cosmic conflagration to which every human being contributes some minor spark. "We must have not only hydrogen in balloons and steel springs under coaches," the Sage of Concord insisted, "but we must have fire under the Andes at the core of the world." Well, in the last lines of the book, Richardson delivers this lovely, quiet recapitulation:
On the next day, April 21, six days before his death, Emerson was diagnosed as having pneumonia. Despite Edward's warning, Emerson got up, dressed, and went as usual to his study. After tea, he consented to go up to his bedroom early but would accept no help closing up his study for the night. He went from window to window, locking them and closing the shutters on each. Then, as was his custom, he went to the fireplace and took his fire apart, setting the sticks, one by one, on end on each side, and separating all the glowing coals. That done, he took his study lamp in his hand, left the room for the last time, and went upstairs.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Holiday blahs, Louis Armstrong to the rescue

The holiday blahs rolled in right on schedule, during the third week in December, and hung on until well after the ball dropped on New Year's Eve. Sometimes there's nothing to be done. I took solace from rereading one of my favorite novels, J.F. Powers's Wheat That Springeth Green, with its pragmatic credo: "As for feeling thwarted and useless," muses the priestly protagonist, "he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."

Another solace: hitting the repeat button on the iPod in my coat pocket so I could keep listening to Louis Armstrong's 1933 version of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." At the time I wasn't struck by the thematic consistency (he's complaining, I'm complaining.) I simply got hooked on this gem from Armstrong's big band phase in the early Thirties, which used to be the subject of endless bitching from his fans. Sure, the guys in Zilner Randolph's orchestra couldn't hold a candle to the rough-and-tumble rapport Armstrong elicited from the Hot Fives and Sevens. Still, you'd have to be deaf to miss the delights of this recording. After a brief intro, the leader sings the first two verses. His voice hadn't yet attained the sandpaper sublimity of his final decades, but he was already balancing the beleaguered sweetness of his delivery with sudden plunges into a drawling, bluesier register. Then--with what sounds like a guttural yeah! from Armstrong--the fireworks begin. He plays the first of three trumpet choruses in synch with the ensemble. For the second, though, he jumps in ahead of the pack with a bright, declamatory D, holding it for seven beats, letting it decay just a little and then leaning back into it: bingo! He toys beautifully with the melody, floating high above the ensemble, then engineers an even more dramatic entrance into the third and final chorus. The effect is amazing--five stabbing B-flats, a slide down to A-flat, followed by a police-siren glissando all the way up to high D, which seems to work some euphoric magic directly on my nervous system. Despite everything I've just written, it really does leave me speechless. (Even a sobersides like Martin Williams finds the third chorus an absolute mind-blower: in his classic The Jazz Tradition he calls it one of Armstrong's "most grand and eloquent transformations of a popular song.")

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