July, 2010

Jul 10

Reality Hunger, by David Shields

I picked this book up because it’s mentioned in an online correspondence between Jonathan Lethem (one of my very favorite authors, although I’m finding Chronic Town tough to get through and David Gates. They both clearly admire the work as a way of helping them think about their own writing, and the way that writing is changing.

It’s a funny sort of book — really a collection of about 800 numbered passages, some of which are only 3 or 4 words, some which stretch to 3 or 4 pages. Some of them are Shield’s own writing, lots of them are cribbed from other authors.

His main point is that the novel is dead. More particularly, that the constraints of the novel mean that they’re so predictable and artificial — so awkward and divorced from the pace and intensity and authenticity of modern life — that they’re uniformly unchallenging and interesting for him. More fundamentally, he argues that all writing is fiction. Non-fiction, history, memoir, novels, poems, essays, etc – that they are all a construct of a mix of human memories. He more or less says that Andy Kaufman was right — that everything blurs. He cites a variety of examples of the trend, including some Eggers’ work and some of Frey’s. (In his view, Stephen Frey should have gone back on Oprah, not to take his beating by self-important critics, but rather to help people understand this idea):

“When Frey, LeRoy, Defonseca, Seltzer, Rosenblat, Wilkomirski, et al. wrote their books, of course they made things up. Who doesn’t? Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir; who’s going to care? I don’t want to defend Frey per se—he’s a terrible writer—but the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The whole huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.

I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping.

He doesn’t really argue that novels will actually disappear — more that they are occupying a less and less central place in our culture.

I highlighted more passages in this book than I have in a really long time, even though I don’t really like the premise — but I know that Shields is correct about single-author long form work receding in importance, and very quickly.

Anyway, I think this is a really important piece of work for anyone who’s interested in where writing is headed at the moment. It’s a little sad to me, but really probably isn’t good or bad, just a reflection of today’s fragmented, multi-media, always synthetic culture.

One of my favorite set of passages:

To think with any seriousness is to doubt. Thought is indistinguishable from doubt. To be alive is to be uncertain. I’ll take doubt. The essayist argues with himself, and the essayist argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. The very purpose of the genre is to provide a vehicle for essaying.

When we are not sure, we are alive.

I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant, conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.

One of the last little observations is this: “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”
That’s profound, I think, and there’s a lot in this book that’s already changed how I think about writing, about reading, and about remembering.
Highly recommended if you care about these things and are willing to work through some challenging material.

Jul 10

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, by Steve Almond

I have a weakness for Steve Almond’s non-fiction work. I loved Candy Freak, a fantastic book in which Almond writes about a huge variety of candy-related histories.

In his latest book, he talks about his life as a rock critic, and more importantly, as a Drooling Fanatic. He talks about all sorts of music that he’s loved, bands that he’s hung out with. He talks about how powerful music is — says when he hears “Sunday Bloody Sunday” he’s about ready to join the IRA; how listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” makes him want to drink beer and shoot things, along with some less charitable emotions.

Skewers lots of really awful music, like this:

“I said before that there is no objectively “bad” music. I must now amend that statement. In so doing, let me cite Duke Ellington, who once famously declared that “there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. And by bad music I mean specifically the song ‘(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa’ by Toto.” Ellington died two years before Toto formed as a band, which speaks to his prescience.”

and later in that chapter:

“What makes “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa” so bad? Mostly, it’s the lyrics. Also, the instrumentation, the vocals, and that virulent jazz-lite melody, which, despite the manifest wretchedness of everything I’ve just mentioned, means that you are no doubt conjuring the song even as you read this—those hypnotic banks of synthesizer and phony “tribal”-sounding drums—and without at all meaning to, sort of … grooving to “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa,” sort of digging it, sort of bathing in the buttery memory of sixth grade or tenth grade and hand jobs and lip gloss and really actually kind of remembering, or rediscovering, how much you love “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa” even as you’re hating yourself for this love. It’s complicated.”

That’s comedy gold right there. Leads right up to him talking about his early dating life, where he really, really liked a woman until they went to her house and she was so excited to put on Air Supply’s Greatest Hits, whereupon he immediately wanted to stop seeing her. But then considered that that make him shallow. And then decided to break up anyway.

Great book. Highly recommended.

Jul 10

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

This book reminded me a LOT of Stephen King’s The Stand. Some sort of vampire-creating virus gets loose, destroying the earth, people head to Las Vegas, that type of thing.

And coming in at nearly 800 pages, the length is a lot like The Stand, too.

But even with that, and maybe it’s the oxycodone talking, but I really enjoyed it. The time scope is actually longer than King’s work, and the writing is more character-driven and interesting.

Fun book for summer reading.

Jul 10

These Children Who Come at You with Knives, by Jim Knipfel

Billed as a book of modern fairy tales, I found this book pretty middling. The writing style did feel a lot like fairy tales, and the stories themselves were really quirky, but I just didn’t enjoy them very much at all.