The literary world is saturated with opinions on Franzen's big novel - it's one reason that I read it, the feeling that if you believe in the importance of literature, then there's an obligation to be on familiar terms with the discourse. And so, a few thoughts...
It's clear that Franzen has lived up to his own philosophy, as expressed in his famous Harper's essay (he's against unnecessarily 'difficult' literary works). Freedom makes for remarkably smooth reading - I don't recall the last time I read a 560 page book so quickly. It's an enjoyable read, to be sure - but for me, its not a surpassing work of art. The comparisons with War and Peace (see: NY Times Book Review) are more than a tad overstated.
To some extent, critics have created the strong reaction to Franzen (though he doesn't go out of his way to cultivate a passive response himself). Rid of all the baggage it comes with though, the weight of expectation, the burden of being held up as the definitive chronicle of our age, Freedom is a solid book. It's ambitious, for sure, and sharply observant of our culture. In many ways its more refined (and more enjoyable) than The Corrections, though it suffers from many of the same problems - deeply unconvincing plot elements, for instance. Take note - whenever a key character leaves the US, Franzen is headed for trouble.
For me though, what's most lacking is any great sense of style. It doesn't read as an artful book, and though you can argue that transparency represents it's own stylistic accomplishment, it's one better suited to acting than it is to literature. In this regard, and by most measures of cumulative weight, Franzen lies beyond John Irving, in line with Michael Chabon, but still some distance short of the likes of Roth, DeLillo and McCarthy, et al.
'Look, this is America, if you keep doing the same thing as a band over and over again, people will come see you. In England if you keep doing the same thing they throw sticks at you - you have to change constantly, make a harp record or something to stay current.'
The very brilliant, very smart James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, with a concise definition of the difference between music listeners in England and the US.
I finished reading Saul Bellow's letters. Tremendous, of course. A couple of striking themes emerge. One is of how many enemies Bellow created over the course of his life - not least of which were several ex-wives, intellectuals, critics and fellow writers. There is something of the philosopher or sage in Bellow's natural tone, yet for all of his wisdom, he managed to make quite a hash of his personal life. When it comes to personal relations, it's hard to trust in the wisdom of a man who married five times and was divorced on four occasions - and was never the instigator of divorce proceedings.
The book is very moving about the aging process. Bellow was eighty-eight when he died, and naturally enough, the book traces his depleting energies. As autumn makes its brief appearance in Austin, I felt sympathy as the great man of letters chronicled his diminishing powers. Although not yet half the age Bellow was when he died, perhaps for the first time recently I've felt touched by the question of mortality. A great friend of mine stayed with me this past week, a friend who lost his wife to cancer at the age of forty-six a little over a month ago. Autumn, after all, is the season of reflection...
'But I'd better not try thinking today. My mind isn't very good. It's like the weather coming over the Lake: foggy. The sparrows are sitting in my tree, waiting for spring to start again. I knew their ancestors.'
The East Austin Studio Tour - a couple of weekends every year when the city's artists throw open their studio doors, show (and hopefully sell) their work...and I manage to feel a brief connection to the city.
I left NYC almost three years ago, after a creative sojourn in Williamstown, MA. In a letter written from a dude ranch in Nevada in the mid-50's, holed-up trying to expedite a divorce, Bellow catches something of what prompted my move:
'This sort of life suits me more than I thought possible. I fish and ride, and walk and read and write; at moments I even think. On Columbus Day I lit a candle, for isn't this what America was supposed to be?
When I was a kid, my first day in nursery school I had a wooden block thrown in my eye. I required surgery, and for a time I wore glasses. Since then, perhaps, I've associated glasses with a certain vulnerability, and on occasion empathized an inordinate amount with those who wear them.
My wife wears contacts, but at night, reading in bed, she switches to her glasses. Without them her eyesight is poor...but when she wears them, unfailingly I am moved to great tenderness for her. My lovely wife.
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.
The word 'occasional' looms so large in that paragraph...
Photo: Martin Schoeller's Obama portrait - photographed by Rick Rocamora for The San Farancisco Chronicle.
From Peter Baker's piece on Barack Obama in the New York Times, Sunday Oct 17 2010:
'On the campaign trail, he thought it was silly to wear a flag pin, as if that were a measure of his patriotism, until his refusal to wear a flag pin generated distracting criticism and one day he showed up wearing one. Likewise, he thought it was enough to pray in private while living in the White House, and then a poll showed that most Americans weren't sure he's Christian; sure enough, a few weeks later, he attended services at St. John's Church across from Lafayette Square, photographers in tow.'
It's a story that defies words...but one whose outcome, at this point, looks unassailably positive. Doubtless trials and difficulties lie ahead for these men. But what an astonishing, affirmative result this is.
Actually, I just finished it. It's a book that's been critically lauded, by an author whose work I thoroughly admire and enjoy, and yet... I'm left a little disappointed by it. At the same time, I feel a pang of guilt for saying so, for there's no question that it's a funny, clever book, by a man who, alongside Sam Lipsyte, ranks as our greatest present day satirist.
I think what left me feeling a little let down was that in some ways it's really a refining of his brilliant previous work, Absurdistan. In both books we follow a cuddly, befuddled Russian Jew emigre through a collapsing society, a society that's besieged by forces both outside and within. In both stories, our lovable buffoon is chasing the love and affection of an outsize American archetype - in Absurdistan, a bounteous New York stripper 'Half Peurto Rican. And half-German. And half Mexican and Irish....raised mostly Dominican.' In the new book, the heart object is a skinny Korean girl from Fort Lee, New Jersey, by way of Southern California.
For me though, Absurdistan didn't need refining. It's sprawling, uncontainable, and I prefer it that way. Love Story is brilliantly imagined, and biting satire indeed, but I want to see what else it's brilliant author can do.
Photograph by Joshua Bright for The New York Times
The photograph above shows the house in which F Scott Fitzgerald lived in the early '20s. During this time he was inspired to write The Great Gatsby, though most of the real blood, sweat and tears went into writing the book in Juans le Pins, in the South of France.
The first time I went to New York, long before I lived there, I wanted to tour the Great Neck region of Long Island, play th book tourist. Pretty much everything I read though indicated that there was little evidence of the neighbourhood as Fitzgerald saw it. Not completely true, as this New York Times article suggests:
If you've ever driven across country, say, from NYC to Texas, you'll know the highways are dotted with porn palaces and XXX booths. The sheer number of them is vaguely astonishing. But a porn Dive-in Theatre? What sane person could possibly resist? Particularly on a Sunday afternoon...
Imagine our disappointment then...
At discovering it had seen better, more active days.
On a side note, I can never see a drive-in movie theatre without thinking of the Denis Johnson short-story Emergency, in the Jesus's Son collection. It's one of the most memorable stories I've ever read.
This photograph of Cody Lindquist, a lovely lass I was friends with in NYC, was taken at Coney Island on the day that the Improv Everywhere group gathered a few hundred people together to go to the beach in black formal wear. It epitomizes Cody in a lot of ways - equal parts beauty and irreverence.
More irreverent Cody and Improv Everywhere below.
I've just finished What He's Poised To Do by Ben Greenman. It's a smart short-story collection with a 'gimmick' - each story has an epistolary element to it. The stories are also united by an enquiry into the way lovers fail to communicate - what is said, versus what is heard. A couple of the stories come off as finger exercises, but the majority are playful and emotionally revealing. I particularly admire Greenman's ability to cover a good deal of ground in a short space - his character's lives are fully realized in comparatively brief sketches, and though the stories aren't necessarily plot-driven, he moves the action with brilliant economy. He also manages to be witty and serious at the same time - not an easy thing to do. As a character tells his lover inKilling The Pink, 'You're the sad mask; I'm the happy mask. Takes both of us to put on a play.'
I've also been reading Terry Southern's scabrous Red Dirt Marijuana, at the behest of a friend. I'm lousy with people handing books to me - I always have a lengthy list of my own to get to, and generally I prefer to wade through those on my list. Finally, while waiting for new books to arrive, I've been dipping into Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes again. Sometimes when you've been having a difficult week with your own creativity it can be helpful to look at the work of a total train-wreck, and re-assure yourself that a brilliant, albeit dark work can come out of a space much darker than the one you're inhabiting.
classic you’ve been meaning to read 'Something by Faulkner' would probably have been my answer until recently. His sentences are notoriously difficult, and I've always wanted to make sure I was ready for him. But now I'm not so certain I'm interested enough. I'm sure I could get through it at this point, but it just seems like heavy lifting that I'm not interested in doing. Maybe Faulkner just falls outside my jurisdiction.
The next bona fide classic I'll read will probably be Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, which I've had in my hand several times recently. Also, Cormac Mcarthy's Blood Meridian - which takes us back to Faulkner, in a way. last book you finished in a single sitting Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher, though it's a monologue from a performance, so I'm not sure it really counts. The last book I polished off at 3 am was Lush Life by Richard Price. most treasured book in your collection I was pretty excited to own a first edition Love In The Time of Cholera, not least because I picked it up for 50 cents at a parking lot sale soon after it was released. But then I loaned it out, with great reluctance - which is the only way I loan books out - and my unpredictable friend held it hostage for a while. Just when I began to fear I wouldn't see it again, my friend died - was murdered, in fact. I harbored considerable guilt for a long time because I mourned not only the loss of the friend, but also the loss of the book. The book now takes it's rightful place as insignificant, but there it is.
There's no single book of importance now. I'm fond of my old English editions of F Scott Fitzgerald novels, Hemingway novels, because of their influence on me at an important time. At the other end of the scale, I'm also pretty attached to Where Do I Go From Here? the second of four 'autobiographies' written by the genius Irish footballer/alcoholic/womanizer George Best. I own all four, two of them signed, but this one is the best written of them, and the inscription is personalized.
book you borrowed and never returned I can't think of one. I always return books I've borrowed, unless I'm told I can keep them. So should you. book you’ve planted on a coffee table to impress someone
Doubtless there have been many - but at least they've usually been books I was reading, or had recently read. if you could subscribe to only one literary journal
Online, I subscribe to The Second Pass, to which I also contribute. Print - probably The Paris Review. I'm interested to see what the new editor does with it. most influential books
Pretty much everything by and about Scott Fitzgerald. I was lucky enough to read most of it when I was 20 or so, when I was ripe to absorb the whole 'doomed romance' ethos hook, line and sinker.
Later, I went through a Raymond Carver/Richard Ford phase, as many did in the early 90's.
More lasting though, I'd say mid-period Martin Amis (Money, London Fields). Amis, in turn, pointed me towards Saul Bellow. I can't think of a book I return to more often than Humboldt's Gift. most anticipated upcoming release
Compare, if you're so inclined, the Bowie of 1974 (previous post) with the Bowie of 2002 (below).
The clip is from Parkinson, a chat show on English TV. Perhaps the closest US comparison with Parkinson might be Charlie Rose, though it's fair to say that Parkinson was more celebrity/populist driven. What the two shows share, however, is an interview format based on more than just sales promotion and sound-bite - they each attempt to dig beneath the surface a little. But, I digress...
Of course, we are all different people eighteen years between visits. Some though, more than others. Here, it's not just the difference in Bowie's dentistry that stands out. Here is a man whose life and persona is unrecognizable from his previous incarnation. The distance between the two is enormous. How I wonder, does one reconcile such disparity within oneself?
For myself, the obvious example of how I've shifted (self-) expectation, created 'new' selves, sought to enlarge the canvas, has been in shifting geographic location - from England, to Los Angeles, to New York, etc. etc Any time I've felt that I had a clear sense of what my life moving forward would be, any time it's become too predictable, I've upped stakes. And yet I've done so while carrying with me a sharp nostalgia for those past lives, past selves. I've always been reluctant to let them go. It is, as the professional observers might say, 'a conflict.'
To use another extreme example, I've often wondered how someone like Lou Reed absorbs a life experience that covers such range. Troubled young poet, downtown hipster, heroin addict, psychotic, etc, etc, on through whatever he is today - survivor, surly partner of avant-garde artist, etc etc.
Thought for the day then: Perhaps 'self' is the through-line that connects the off-shooting limbs of experience.