Polemics and Fiction

One idea George Saunders brings up in A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is the notion that fiction is a damned poor vehicle for an author to make philosophical or political arguments. While certainly an author’s ideas and tastes and Utopias will spill into creative work, the characters have to drive the abstractions into the story, not the other way around.

So, in the Tolstoy presented by Saunders, the idea of the saintly serf shows up twice — this is a Tolstoy trope. The servant is depicted as humble, ready to please, and beatific. But also, as Saunders remarks, there’s an element of the idiot here, that the serf is a sucker. Tolstoy doesn’t try to write around that. It’s just there for the reader to decide.

It takes a lot of humility to write that way and it also calls into question the purpose of fiction which is not, as some suspect, to teach the reader how to live a good, moral, productive or even happy life. Around the time I read the Saunders book I also read Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by art historian Alexander Nemerov. I can’t find the exact quote but in it, the purpose of art is described as depicting what it’s like to be alive at a certain place and time. I suppose this would be the artist’s place and time, even if they paint something from the past or future, just as we view historic or science fiction as representative of the time it was created, rather than its fictional setting.

Either way, the accurate depiction of life in a time and place is just too complicated for polemic and if artists forever have to struggle with their most honest work existing in tension with their most fervent ideas.

Saunders & Gogol

I’m reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in The Rain where the celebrated author and fiction writing teacher takes us through stories by Chekhov, Tugenev, Tolstoy and Gogol and I have to admit that for days I’ve been dying to get to his discussion of Gogol’s story “The Nose” because Saunders’ fiction — inventive and absurd, reminds me much more of Gogol than the other writers. I almost wish he’d included Dosoevski’s “The Double” in the mix, for the same reasons.

One thing that occurs is that the master missed a slight detail in his discussion of “The Nose.” In the story, a social-climbing collegiate assessor named Kovalyov wakes to find that his nose has left his face in the night. The Nose then gallivants around the city, earning itself professional and social promotions until it is eventually caught by the police and returned to its owner, where it only reluctantly and after some time, rejoins his face. We’re left to imagine how the nose accomplished this. It seems, as times, to have arms, legs and a face and to be human sized and at other times it’s an ordinary nose. There’s a dreamlike quality to the narrative but an insistence by the narrator that though the story is strange and, well, doesn’t pass the smell test, that things like this happen to people all the time.

This is part of Saunders’ thesis as well — that the state of confusion and absurdity Gogol describes is really closer to the psychological state of our individual interactions with reality than the more objective renderings of Gogol’s contemporaries. We also get this sense readifn Kafka or (some of) Phillip Roth and of reading Saunders.

So, here’s the tiny thing I think Saunders missed: Kovayov goes to the newspaper to take out an advertisement offering a reward for the return of his proboscis. The newspaper clerk refuses on the grounds that such an odd notice might ruin the reputaton of the paper. The clerk also explains:

“A civil servant came in, just as you have, bringing a note, was billed two rubles seventy-three kopecks, and all the advertisement consisted of was that a black-coated poodle had run away. Doesn’t seem to amount to much, does it now? But it turned out to be a libel. This so-called poodle was treasurer of I don’t recall what institution.”

It’s just a bit of internal logic in Gogol that Saunders didn’t remark on but that I think backs up the contention of Gogol’s narrator — strange things happen.

This is a fabulous book. It really gets you reading the stories closely.

The Rise of Amazon and Regional Inequality

Today I wrote a review of Fulfillment for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s a meticulously reported story about how Amazon grew to behemoth proportions, taking advantage of the concentrations of wealth within specific American regions over the last two decades.

I’ll leave the review to the review and will instead wonder here what it means for a book like this to be published in an age where it will depend on Amazon for its distribution and success.

When I was writing this review, I went back into my Amazon history to find the first book I’d ordered from the service, which was back in 2000. It was a small press book written by my friend, true crime author and memoirist John Gilmore. I ordered from of Amazon because it was not readily available at the book stores I frequented at the time in Albuquerque.

It was a big change for me to order a book that way. In those days, if a book I wanted wasn’t in stock, I asked the store to order it for me and would generally receive it within a week, unless the book were rare or part of a a very small press run, which would take longer. Well, Amazon ended that relationship with book shops for me.

Years later I would go to Amazon, not a book shop, to pre-order Hapworth 16, the legendary JD Salinger story that was set to be published by a boutique press. I waited and waited but ther book never emerged, Salinger had canceled its publication.

Funny thing, though, the story had been available online at The New Yorker‘s archives and that’s how I eventually read it. I do wish I had the nice, promised edition, but I did get the story.

Back when I was learning to shop the Amazon way, I was concerned about the Barnes & Noble behemoth smothering small book shops with character and community ties out of business. Now, we worry about Barnes & Noble’s surival.

The Reading Writing Update

And, somehow a week’s gone by since my last post. I realize this website is shouting into the wind. Maybe it’s shouting at a wind that’s going the other way. I haven’t earned much of an audience, I guess. It’s difficult. There are many voices out there. Too many that I want to follow that aren’t my own, so I sympathize.

I picked up Drew Magary’s The Postmortal as a Bookbub bargain. I’m a bit over halfway through. It moves quickly, is funny and thoughtful, just like Magary’s journalism. I’ll write about it when I finished but can easily recommend it now.

I’m also slowly (pacing myself on purposes) reading a book I’ll be reviewing for a literary magazine. It’s experimental and very good.

The stacks in my office and by the bed include: Mimesis, Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Age of Innocence, Venus on the Half-Shell, Goblin Market and Cutting for Stone. All are in various states of progress, some are rereads, some I’m leafing through for ideas.

The Killers (Hemingway)

I popped open a collection of Hemingway short stories today for the oddest of reasons. Something about the name of retire pro wrestler Ole Anderson was bothering me and there it was, in “The Killers,” a Nick Adams story about two hitmen who are lying in wait to kill a former prizefighter who had, it’s suggested, double-crossed some one influential in Chicago.

The fight’s name? Ole Andreson, described as a “big swede.” I can’t help but wonder if the professional wrestler, whose given name is Alan Robert Rogowski, took the name Ole Anderson from this story, when he became part of wrestling’s worked “Anderson Family” alongside Arn and Gene Anderson as the “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” and later as a member of Ric Flair’s “Four Horsemen” stable.

But Ole looks a lot like I expect Hemingway’s character did:

Inspired by Hemingway?

It’s a good story, too. Holds up well after all these years and reads a bit like a David Mamet script or a pugilistic Waiting for Godot.

Reread: Slaughterhouse Five

It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.

So it goes!

Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.

That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.

from vonnegutdocumentary.com

Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:

  • The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
  • The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
  • Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
  • Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
  • There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
  • Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
  • His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.

He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

Wolf’s Credo

Missing Cafe Loup.

WOLF’S CREDO

Respect the elders
Teach the young
Cooperate with the pack

Play when you can
Hunt when you must
Rest in between

Share your affections
Voice your feelings
Leave your mark.

Women at War

Global citizen, actor, writer and spoken word artist Lanna Joffrey first encountered Valiant Women in War and Exile by Sally Hayton-Keeva in the 1990s. The book has stuck with her ever since as she’s developed it into an ensemble play for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the New York International Fringe Festival, among other venues. Joffrey’s script was recently published by NoPassport Press and I was glad to have read it over the weekend. It’s a stunner.

Reminiscences of war, whether by men or women, can easily become victim narratives (and in many cases, they should be). But these are tales of warriors, witting and unwitting from throughout the 20th century. Because the official combat armies of the time have been largely male, “War speaks in a male voice to all of us,” as Joffrey quotes Keeva in the early pages. But war is a human cruelty and we risk misunderstanding it by ignoring the perspectives of women or by relegating their voices to those of observers of war rather than as participants, perpetrators, rebels and activists. These characters have impressive and infectious agency that pull the reader through these vivid and compelling stories.

NoPassport Press

Through the show we meet survivors of Turkey’s genocide against Armenia experience how the lack of consequences for it led to Nazi Germany. We meet Catholic and Protestant women furing Ireland’s “troubles,” as well as interned Japanese Americans, surivivors of Hiroshima, a flight attendant who brought U.S. soldiers to Viet Nam and a Moscow woman who became a sniper to avenge herself against the Nazis.

I’m mixing up the chronology, but that’s sort of the point — these voices from a century of war remind us of the sheer senselessness of it all. We’re pscyhologically compelled to divide wars into good and bad, just or unjust, but the experience of taking all of this history in together washes away all rationalizations. It’s not just that war is cruel (we know that) or that the innocent suffer greatly (we know that too) but that people are forever changed by these experiences and we’ve found no way to offer them any remediation other than to listen.

The script moves at a rapid pace. Based on real interviews conducted by Hayton-Keeva and expertly dramatized by Joffrey, Valiant reminds me a bit of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf because the effect of the work is built on a chorus of strong voices.

A Triumphant View of the Internet

There’s no shortage of takes about how Internet culture is ruining real world culture. I’m sure I’ve written my share. The Game: A Digital Turning Point by Alessandro Baricco (translated from Italian by Clarisssa Botsford) takes a strong opposing view and it convinces. I can never go back to my skeptical and lazy quick takes, having read this argument by an Italian novelist, sreenwriter, playwright, essayist and creative writing instructor. Everything about Baricco would lead you to assume he’d harshly critique online culture and yet, he sees salvation in it.

Your Professor, Alessandro Baricco

It’s nostalgia for the twentieth century, not online culture, he argues, that is truly dangerous for humanity. He makes this argument as gently as he can:

“I hope people who feel nostalgic don’t get me wrong. The twentieth century was many things, but over and above everything else, it was one of the most horrific hundred years in the history of humankind, perhaps the most horrific. What made it unspeakably devastating was the fact that it wasn’t the result of a failure of civilization or even an expression of brutality: it was the algebraic result of a refined, mature, and wealthy civilization.”

To hammer the point home, he recaps:

“A country that had been the cradle of our ideas of freedom and democracy constructed a weapon so lethal that, for the first time in their history, human beings possessed something they could use to destroy themselves. Finding themselves in a position to use it, they did so without hesitation. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the evil fruits of revolutions, by means of which the twentieth century had dared to dream of better worlds, led to immense suffering, unprecedented acts of violence, and terrifying dictatorships. Is it clear now why the twentieth century is not only the century of Proust but also our nightmare?”

Baricco traces the digital revolution from its origins in the video game Spacewar! (play it here) through the development of the first web pages, online commerce, social mediaand the epoch of big data and artficial intelligence we’re entering now. He structures his book as a topography of this new world — a sister to physical reality where some old elites have been replaced by new elites and some old elites have seen their power distributed among the masses.

Admittedly, some of this argument rhymes with the tech triumphalism of the 1990s, when we some believed the internet would be a great democratizing force. If Wal-Mart was culture’s bogeyman then, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are now.

Baricco is no Utopian. He describes a new world, better by comparison to the blood-soaked one it replaced, though not perfect by any means, or even fair. The digital world is, as Baricco describes, a game with myriad, complex and changing rules. Games have winners and losers. Well-made games do not have obvious and surefire strategies for success. It’s like the stock market — if a strategy existed for producing steady gains with no losses, everybody would utilize it. Well-meaning, well-qualified and hard working people can lose this game, just as they frequently lost all of the games we played before.

A trap for the nostalgic is to insist that pre-digital experiences like seeing a play or symphony in person or reading a physical book or visiting a museum are somehow more real than their digital counterparts. “Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic live at the Musikverein is not the same as watching it online, but for most of humanity it is a choice between nothing and something really quite exciting. It’s not hard to choose,” he writes.

Those of us, and I include myself in this, who feel dislocated from their pre-digital dreams and ambitions would do well to remember that, though it may be harder to publish a book or to produce a play these days, “In its way, the Game showed far greater promise: it opened up all the gates and widened access to theaters, museums, and bookstores. A significant number of new faces started to circulate in places where they had never been seen before.”

Baricco stresses the benefits of open-mindedness and to recognize the futility of stubbornly insisting on old ways of doing things — there is no bulwark against what’s happened, what’s happening or what’s to come. Society will not consent to going back and for good reason. To survive, practitioners of arts and humanities will have to succeed in a game where skills can only be learned by playing.

Interestingly, he recommends that education, which has been sloweest to adapt, needs to change the most. This change, which had been resisted as Baricco wrote, has been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our son, 10 years old, grew up digital. As Baricco recalls his own child trying to interact with a photograph in a newspaper as if it were a touchscreen, we remember our son, around 3 years old, try to swipe the television to another channel and showing visible disgust at a screen so stupid as to ignore a users touch. He has been remote learning entirely since the Pandemic broke in March 2020 and while this arrangement isn’t for everybody, he has thrived.

Of course, he wants to go back to a physical classroom but as I’ve watched him succeed at computer-enabled scholarship, I realize that we can’t, and shouldn’t ever go back to education as it was. Remote learning is a skill and our son’s practice of it means that he can now access the best teachers in any discipline, no matter where he lives and where they do, if they have an online practice. Why settle for the best guitar teacher in town if the best in the country or world is available?

Further, as I watch friends and family in their 40s and 50s earn professional certificates and degrees online, I think that what our remote students are going through now might pay off massively later in life. In March, Google will launch its first low cost, online professional certifications. For a lot of adults, online learning isn’t natural. I dipped my toe in only recently, because of a professor friend posted a lecture series about Kafka’s The Trial to Udemy. I suspect that many seeking the Google certifications will feel some anxiety about it. Today’s remote learners won’t. For them, an online course will have no more or less value than a book does to me when I read it between covers or on the Kindle app.

The Game is a fascinating study, has a refreshing take and I highly recommend it. I can’t do it justice here but hope I caught its flavor.

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