Thursday, March 27, 2008


Queen Mary, she's my friend

Exactly a week ago, PEN chose a rather grand location to announce the participants in the next World Voices Festival: that would be the Queen Mary 2, docked out in a shiny new Red Hook terminal. The ship is vast. Security is tight--this was probably the first literary soiree at which I had to sign a statement promising that I had experienced no diarrhea or vomiting in the last 48 hours. Once we were cleared for entry, we marched up an elaborate gangplank into what resembled a premiere shopping mall (and I mean that in the nicest possible way): lots of glass, indirect lighting, hardwood accents. Lots of stores, too, at least on the way to the auditorium. Inside, we sank into the comfy seats and were addressed by Bernard Warner, Commodore of the Cunard Fleet. This upright gentleman in his spotless uniform turned out to be a highly entertaining speaker. "We are not a cruise ship," he assured the crowd, in case anybody had mistaken his resplendent vessel for some downmarket tub. What did the Queen Mary 2 have that a cruise ship didn't have? "We have forty percent more steel," Warner noted. "We have a long bow, a deep draft, and a gorgeous streamlined hull."

The double entendres flew thick and fast, but Warner was too much of a pro to wink at the audience. Instead he brought out PEN Executive Director Michael Roberts, who spoke of "the essential oneness of countries and cultures." Surely, I thought, it would be his job to forge a metaphorical link between this gorgeous streamlined hull and the festival itself. Roberts did not disappoint. The Queen Mary 2, he said, "exists to bring people across the oceans that divide us, in the most beautiful way"--fulfilling the exact same purpose as the PEN World Voices Festival. Swish!

The fact soon came out that Salman Rushdie, who had been slated as ringmaster, was not present. He was in London, promoting his new novel. Luckily Francine Prose--introduced as "our ship's captain"--was on hand to do the honors. We had already been presented with some imposing numbers, inspired, perhaps, by the commodore's statistical snow job. The festival would boast 170 writers from 51 countries, speaking 23 different languages. But Prose went into more detail, listing the highlights of a mind-blowing schedule. It's a truly dazzling roster: from André Aciman to Lila Azam Zanganeh, no authorial stone has been left unturned. Prose mentioned "The Three Musketeers Reunited: Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa," a May 2 recap of a 1995 event at London's Royal Festival Hall. No doubt this venerable power trio will cause the walls to bulge at the 92nd Street Y. (But will they play "White Room"?) Me, I'm psyched for the May 3 tete-a-tete between Ian McEwan and Steve Pinker, or the Robert Walser tribute later that same day at the Morgan Library.

Prose then surrendered the stage to what was described as "a musical collective of authors and artists"--which is to say, a pretty good band with a cute accordion player but no particular reason to be there. The crowd listened to the first tune with good-natured receptivity, but got a little twitchy as the show continued. "This next song is to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war," we were told. I'm sure many of the audience members disapproved of the Iraqi adventure, but that didn't mean we had to enjoy the chorus, sung by the three female members of the band: "Die, motherfucker, die!" Only the last tune, "Paperback Writer" (witty choice, folks) won them back some points. What's more, Dale Peck and Jonathan Ames climbed onstage for the finale, gamely shaking their tambourines, while another, less identifiable audience member was dragooned into playing the kazoo. An excellent lunch followed, in a handsome dining room with multiple water views: here, at least, you knew you were on a boat, rather than in the guest quarters at Mar-A-Lago. And so, after a lengthy wait to retrieve our passports and driver licenses, ended our afternoon on the Queen Mary 2. The PEN World Voices Festival will be an obvious blast. As for the ship itself: despite my caustic tone, I could hardly bear to step off the gangplank and return to the grubby, non-nautical world from whence I came. I dearly wish to cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, paying for my bed and board by giving literary talks to all comers in the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar. Are you listening, Commodore Warner?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008



The New York Sun ran my review of Alan Shapiro's Old War this morning. At first I was slightly resistant to the poet's thrifty methodology: he likes to recycle certain words in each poem, in the manner of such late Randall Jarrell pieces as "Well Water" or "Next Day." But I was won over. I began this way:
If you're lucky, the most fundamental lesson of life--the fact that we live on borrowed time, with the final foreclosure never more than a breath away--arrives in installments. Our loved ones disappear at a dignified pace, in single file. Each shock prepares us for the next. In this sense, the poet Alan Shapiro has been profoundly unlucky. During the late 1990s, he lost both his sister and brother to cancer. Meanwhile, he was beset by the scarcely more bearable trials of middle age: ailing parents, a crumbling marriage.

The poet's response, initially, was a book of essays about his sister's death, Vigil (1997). Yet he soon returned to verse with Song and Dance (2002), and in an interview that same year, he explained why: "I needed poetry then. I didn't need prose. I needed song. I needed art at its most elevated--as elevated as I could make it, anyway." The poems in that collection, which represented a quantum leap forward for Mr. Shapiro, both memorialized his brother and acknowledged just how meager the consolations of art could be. Poetry didn't kill the pain, and it didn't fill the void left by his brother's death. It simply allowed the poet to (in John Berryman's phrase) bear and be. No wonder he needed it so badly.
You can read the rest here. Also, check out David Ulin's review in the Los Angeles Times, which dwells briefly on the black comedy in Old War: "There is humor here, in an oddly fatalistic way, but even more there is acceptance, release almost, a kind of willful recognition of our ephemerality."

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Two from Amis

The experience of reading Experience never fails to surprise me. Martin Amis's fiction remains a mixed bag--his brilliant, buoyant comic novels are consistently dragged down by their ballast of Big Ideas. But his autobiography is sui generis: reflexive, fragmentary, self-mocking, and poignant in exactly the way his novels are not. Here are two bits that have stuck in my brain. The first is about Saul Bellow, a father figure he could emulate with any Oedipal entanglements--but about something more, too. Amis writes:
I see Bellow perhaps twice a year, and we call, and we write. But that accounts for only a fraction of the time I spend in his company. He is on the shelves, on the desk, he is all over the house, and always in the mood to talk. That's what writing is, not communication but a means of communion. And here are the other writers who swirl around you, like friends, patient, intimate, sleeplessly accessible, over centuries. This is the definition of literature.
That does it very nicely. Literature is a device for attaining (relative) immortality. But further down the same page, Amis is feeling all too mortal. He and Christopher Hitchens, returning from a tense visit with Bellow in his New England fastness, have a laughing jag in the car. Their hysterical mirth is clearly a cover for high anxiety. About what? Amis figures it out:
But feelings were being mourned: feelings about the first half of life. Youth can perhaps be defined as the illusion of your own durability. The final evaporation of this illusion parches the skin beneath the eyes and makes your hair crackle to the brush. It was over. There would be hell to pay. Dying suns of a certain size perform the alchemist's nightmare: they turn gold into lead. And there we were, in 1989, heading towards base metal. Transmutation had come to him, and would soon come to me.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Fitzgerald, G. Dead

Good news (courtesy of Kerry Fried): in May, Fourth Estate will publish So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. I think we're in for a treat. The late author never caught up with email, SMS, or emoticons--she corresponded in the classic manner, with a pen and paper and an instinctive command of English prose. Incidentally, she also had the sort of handwriting that is vanishing from the earth. The only reason I know this is because I own a tiny specimen of her calligraphy--a note tucked into my first edition of Offshore (for which I also have Kerry to thank). As can see, Fitzgerald was responding to a query from a bookshop owner, who thought she might be interested in a cache of books on Cairo. She directed him elsehwere: "I wonder whether you could be thinking of Penelope Lively, who lived in Egypt as a child?" Some authors might have been peevish about this case of mistaken identity. Fitzgerald was not. I also like that other line: "I don't collect books at all, they just seem to accumulate of their own accord." Here we go:

On another note entirely, I backslid and starting poking around YouTube again. This formidable time sink must be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, though, here's an ancient clip of the Grateful Dead, culled from an old broadcast of Playboy After Dark (I'm not making this up). Check out Jerry's serape, and Bob Weir's preppy outfit--he could have stepped out of a Gap ad, minus the psilocybin. Special period touch: the superimposed flashes of groovy dancers, which I initially thought were defects in the old film stock. They just don't make them like this anymore.

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.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Man at work

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