Books postsSunday December 07, 2008
Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog
What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.
This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”
E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.
I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.
Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.
Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).
Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:
...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.
He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.
I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.
Letters from Norman
Finished reading the political excerpts of Norman Mailer's letters in the Oct. 6 New Yorker (apologies: I've been busy) and it reminded me all over again why I love that old left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He's a late '40s Marxist who despised the Soviet Union, a man who admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, who even contributed to The National Review, but who, at the same time, or later (in '76), wrote, “But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship — Mary, they're puke,” and who wrote, even later (in June '03):
Even if you're a deep-dyed conservative, and Republican, please disabuse yourself of the idea that Bush is a good guy. Please, Sal. It seems to me the best argument you can present is that he's a total, shallow, maniuplative shit, but that he's got the luck of the devil working for him and so his policy may not end up in total disaster...
Or how about this 1987 observation on the nature on Russians and Americans:
There is one difference between Russians and Americans that is crucial: in America we keep running ahead of our guilt. We stay ahead of it by technique, by every trendy step. We’re analyzed, tranquilized, and roboticized, nouvelle cuisine-ized, yuppified, we stay ahead of our anxiety and our great guilt and are able to avoid the issue. The Russians aren’t. They’re marooned in their guilt and there are very few Russians who don’t have a bad conscience because the history of that place for 30 years required one to turn on friends, not overly perhaps, but through acts of omission, not helping friends who run afoul of the authorities. And authority itself kept stalling in its own huge bad conscience. The Russians, I think, live closer to their souls than we do because they’re guilty, and I can’t tell you how moving it is that out of the top bureaucracy itself has come this recognition that they’ve got to change and have a more human government.
My favorite letter may be the one to Don DeLillo in 1988 congratulating him on Libra. Most people can't get past the size of Norman's ego but if they did they'd find a largeness of spirit that few people have:
What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. ... It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.
Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?
Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word "abide" — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, "prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time." It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: "The Dude abides," etc.
A few minutes later I came across this line: "But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase..." Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase."
So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.
Something to be said for blitzkrieg
I spent the morning in bed with Robert Graves. Since I liked I, Cladius so much I borrowed Good-Bye To All That, the autobiography he wrote in his late 20s, from my father, but the last few days were busy ones and I'd lost the thread. I wanted to pick it up again with a bout of sustained reading.
At the moment Graves is in the trenches of northern France. Volunteered. Raring to go. At school he was an iconoclast who didn't get along with the bullying sportsmen but as soon as war was declared he wanted to join the mass. Along with many others. Once they realized what it was they shifted to survival tactics, which might include a “cushie,” or flesh wound, that would take them away from the lines and maybe back home. One wonders about this desire to go to war. It's probably less patriotism than a wish to be where the action is; a wish to be involved in something greater than yourself. Once the action is revealed to be what it is, and the “something” not so great, other instincts take over.
There’s a great vignette about being stationed in Vermelles:
The old Norman church here has been very much broken. What remains of the tower is used as a forward observation post by the Artillery. I counted eight unexploded shells sticking into it. Jenkins and I went in and found the floor littered with rubbish, broken masonry, smashed chairs, ripped canvas pictures... Only a few pieces of stained glass remained fixed in the edges of the windows. I climbed up by way of the altar to the east window, and found a piece about the size of a plate. I gave it to Jenkins. “Souvenir,” I said. When he held it to the light it was St. Peter's hand with the keys of heaven. “I'm sending this home,” he said. As we went out, we met two men of the Munsters. Being Irish Catholics, they thought it sacreligious for Jenkins to be taking the glass away. One of them warned him: “Shouldn't take that, sir, it will bring you no luck.” Jenkins got killed not long after.
Much of the book is like this. Beautiful writing. Worlds contained in a paragraph.
I was reminded of our trip to France last summer and all of the memorials we saw in the small towns. In a church vestibule in Capestang: A la memoire del nos heroes morts pour la France: 1914-1918. Then 120 names. Outside a chuch in Manigod: Aux Enfants de Manigod Morts Pour La France. Then 56 names for World War I and five names for World War II. Something to be said for blitzkrieg.