Archive for the ‘Reading Note’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Where to Find My Library
10 January 2013

Thursday, January 10th, 2013


Mr Morgan’s Library  

The last essay in James Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff, concerns his late father-in-law’s library, which it fell to his charge to pack. I read the essay with bulging interest, as the disposal of my library is much on my mind these days. It’s not that the end seems nigh. What has dawned is the realization that nobody will be interested in possessing my collection of books as such. It will be as individual volumes that the books dissolve into the used-book universe. I am learning not to regret this, learning, that is, what my library really is, and where it actually exists.

Two of Wood’s anecdotes — neither about his father-in-law — stuck with me when I put the book down. One of them I had heard before. It was something that happened to Frank Kermode when, toward the end of his life, he moved house, and the boxes of books that he wished to keep were mistaken, on the sidewalk, for rubbish, and carted away, leaving him “with a great deal of literary theory,” Wood writes.

The story once seemed horrifying to me, and now seems almost wonderful. To be abruptly lightened like that, so that one’s descendants might not be lingeringly burdened!

It still seems horrifying to me, because poor Kermode was still alive. The other anecdote presents Susan Sontag in a now=familiar blaze of insecurity. I won’t repeat it entire; here’s the end:

… and it seemed strange of her not to comprehend what I intended to say, which was simply that, like her essays [Sontag's point], her library was also more intelligent than she was.

I understand what Wood means to say here, but I would put it differently, probably because his essay sparked my mind on to what I think is a better grasp of the matter. I would say that anyone’s collection of books is more intelligent than its owner. But I would insist that the library itself, the library within that collection, is centered in the mind the person who has read the books in it, and held on to a memory as well as to the book.

That is why my library will not survive me, even if someone begs to take the whole lot, even if someone goes so far as to replicate the blue room in a museum. To anyone but myself, the collection will be just that, books on a shelf. What binds those books into a library is the web of connections in my head, some of them quite conscious, others all but unavailable. This had already been intimated to me by the work that I’ve been doing on culling the books, but I lacked the manner of expressing it.

My misgivings about personal libraries were awakened several years ago by a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum. In the grandiose library, I was peering at the spines through the grilles. It was all rubbish. Old travel books, I recall, or old translations of things. The books might have been valuable as objects, but their contents would be of no interest to anyone but a scholar, and, as such, ought to be uploaded into the clouds for permanent and universal access. It is not a library at all, but a collection put together for the greater glory of J P Morgan. It is hard to imagine him reading much of it. To put it another way, I should like to know of what books Morgan’s true library consisted. That would be interesting to know. (I do hope to leave behind a book list!) The library itself, however, died with Morgan.  

***

Scouting the Internet for reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I felt a bit foolish getting so excited by a book that came out last spring. I know why I shouldn’t have read it then. I was in the depth of my English commitment, reading one Elizabeth Taylor after another, and then, as i recall, reading and rereading Alan Hollingshurst. I was also loosening the compulsion to read all the new reviews. The mere appearance of “halftime” in a book’s title would have steered me away.

I don’t think that you’ll find me compiling ten-best-of-the-year lists of anything, but I have to say that it was the way Ben Fountain’s novel kept coming up on other people’s lists that concentrated my attention. The decisive pointer was Laura Miller’s rather harsh list of five books that she couldn’t pick up or get through. One of them was Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, the “other” Iraq novel of 2012. Miller compared it unfavorably to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The buzz had piled up in my mind. That, too, was part of my library; it still is. And, now that I’ve written it down, what is it? An annotation to my book list, I suppose.

Gotham Diary:
Words Fail
9 January 2013

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

As if sorrow is the true reality? Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory.

I allowed myself to make marginal squiggles in my copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk only twice. The second time, at the other end of the book (the above appears on page 11), I wanted to note Ben Fountain’s capture of something that I saw a lot of when I was young but was too repelled to try to describe: “the sure and liquid style that comes of long success.” I would go a bit further, and say that the style is produced by the success; it is really all that success really brings. The notion that this style is liquid seems particularly important: success is not achievement.

But, getting back to the other passage, it is the novel in a nutshell. The question is never answered; the belief remains a working hypothesis. It is tragic and not tragic at the same time, in the manner of the epic poems. A dark glory suffuses the long hangover that Billy Lynn never manages to shake in the space of a long Thanksgiving Day at the Texas Stadium, outside of Dallas. The noble parentage and physical magnificence of the heroes of Homer and Virgil is replaced, in equal measure, by great native intelligence and a tenacious spiritual resistance to the bitterness of irony. Other aspects of the epics appear more straightforwardly. There are games, and there are battles; there are goddesses and trophies. There are adventures in foreign lands: although Billy never leaves the stadium grounds, nothing could be more exotic than the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room — an other-worldly visit fleshed out with a truly jawdropping look at the “small airplane hangar” where the team’s equipment is housed. (This chapter, “XXL,” is one of several free-standing monuments in the novel.) Billy Lynn shares something else with the Iliad: it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

At the same time, this is an up-to-date denunciation of the “nightmare of superabundance” that seems to hold much of the United States in thrall. The pointlessness of the war in Iraq is taken for granted; Fountain, a former lawyer in his fifties, takes full advantage of the perspective of the Obama Administration. The heroics of Bravo Squad (as Billy’s team is misnamed by the embedded Fox News crew that captures Billy’s heroism on film) are sketched in a few, spare strokes; Fountain does not presume to write at length about what he has not seen. What he has seen, as a Dallas resident, is the shape of his countrymen, and on this point we are reminded not of antique conflicts but of the spacebound colony of former earthlings in WALL*E. While sipping an illicit beer, Billy appraises the crowds in the stadium concourse, and wonders, as a soldier ostensibly fighting on their behalf, what they’re thinking. His companion, Mango, brings him down to earth with the observation that they’re thinking about their bets on the game.

Billy nods. That sounds about right. He doesn’t blame them for such pedestrian thoughts, and yet, and yet … the war makes him wish for a little more than the loose jaw and dull stare of the well-fed ruminant. Oh my people, my fellow Americans! See the world with prophet’s eyes! Virtually everyone is wearing Cowboys gear of some kind or another, parkas and caps stamped with the blue star logo, oversized jerseys, hoodies, scarves of silver and blue dangly earrings or other forms of team bling, some have little Cowboys helmets painted on their cheeks. Billy finds this touching, how earnestly they show devotion to their team. The women display more aptitude for game-day style than the men, who lumber around with Cowboys jerseys hanging past their coattails and their pants bagged around the heels of their boots, a fatal foreshortening of the vertical line that makes them look like a bunch of hulking twelve-year-olds.

The rich are in better shape physically, but their women are demented.

Never do Americans sound so much like a bunch of drunks as when celebrating the end of their national anthem. In the midst of all the boozy clapping and cheering perhaps a dozen middle-aged women converge on Billy. For a second it seems they’ll tear him limb from limb, their eyes are cranking those crazy lights and there is nothing they wouldn’t do for America, torture, nukes, worldwide collateral damage, for the sake of God and country they are down for it all. “Isn’t it wonderful?” the realtress cries as she holds him tight. “Don’t you love it? Doesn’t it make you just so proud?”

Just the opposite: terrified and ashamed.  

***

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is haunted by the ghost of Bravo Squad’s dead comrade, known to us only as Shroom, and about whom all we know is that he was a serious Zen Buddhist. Although Fountain never says as much, it is clear that Shroom has renounced this world — has freed himself from attachment to it. This freedom, coupled by the generosity with which he imparts his wisdom to Billy, is the force of Billy’s wartime education. We don’t see much of Shroom, or even hear many of the things that he said. His rank is not entirely clear; at least one reviewer identified him as a sergeant. (I don’t.) But Billy longs for him as much as any loved-on can be longed for. There was nothing carnal about their relationship, except for an exalted, unerotic kiss. Rather, Shroom was the first person to wake up Billy’s inner student. The wisdom that Billy manifests in the novel is perhaps implausible to some degree or other, but Billy himself is entirely unaware of it; he sees and feels only his own ignorance. Fountain presents the friendship with a brilliant obliquity: Shroom belongs to Billy more than he belongs to the novel. Billy gets to be our hero.

This gives the Victory Tour, and the day in Irving that we spend with Billy, a very strong sense of awakening, more a birth than a rebirth. For the first time, Billy sees what bothers him about his homeland, instead of feeling it dumbly. Tossing balls with the other Bravos before the game begins, Billy has a typical epiphany.

And if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make up more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of “play,” and then there are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other.

This is astonishing stuff, and even though there is almost nothing in this novel’s subject matter to interest me, the structure and the finish made every page gleam with genuine excitement.

Gotham Diary:
Birthday
1 January 2013

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

On the drive down to Alphabet City this afternoon — we were going to enjoy a slice of Will’s birthday cake — I noticed that my notebook wasn’t where it belonged, and I still haven’t found it. I’d been writing a lot of notes lately, and meaning to type them up in some form or other, but I hadn’t developed the habit of that, and now the notebook has disappeared. I went to the tavern where I had lunch yesterday, but it wasn’t there. That’s where I made the last entry, which I can still recall: “I have not the sort of mind that believes that the details of lesser arrangements cannot be worked out until the world has been grasped in full.” I remember thinking that this was a very awkward of expressing myself, but I couldn’t think of a better way on the spot. I find that I can’t do much better now. I also made a note remarking on the difference between male and female piety (or piousness) in Colm Tóibín’s work. I was reading a collection of essays about the writer, and I was just finishing a piece about The Heather Blazing, a sort of translation, into the terms of constitutional philosophy, of that novel’s story.

Earlier, I finished The Testament of Mary, a fierce little book (81 pages) that might well have bulked out a collection of short stories, in the way that “The Street” concludes The Empty Family, but that deserves to be published by itself, because its subject is very bold, and the writing strong and spare. We have the last word, as it were, of the figure known to Roman Catholics as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ — but Tóibín’s Mary would have none of that. If she adored her son, it was only because she was his mother. She certainly didn’t approve of his behavior. “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.” Mary has been taken away to Ephesus, for her own protection, but also for the protection of the story that some of those misfits want to tell about her son, who is never named. Her version of the story, which does not please them, is extremely concentrated. When a cousin with a Latin name comes to her warn her that her son is attracting the attention of the authorities and that she had better persuade him to retire to a more private way of life, Mary makes her way to a wedding in Cana, where it seems that Lazarus has just been raised from the dead. “What have I to do with thee?” her son rebukes her, before returning to Jerusalem to make more of a spectacle of himself. Soon she is standing at the foot of the cross on which the Romans and the rabbis have crucified him. And she realizes that she is in danger herself even before she is told as much.

It is not just the shock of the completely contrarian telling of the Gospel story that makes The Testament of Mary arresting. Even more than that, I’d say, is the force of the encounter with the unswerving piety and formidable discretion of one of Tóibín’s older women, one of his mothers. Or one of the mothers of the Republican rebels from which his characters often descend. I can’t say more without spoiling the book’s darkest secret, which Mary has lived with in pain for many years and which she feels she must now share. But I thought often of Eilis Lacey’s mother (in Brooklyn), and the mother in “A Priest in the Family,” from Mothers and Sons. These women carry terrible weights, but they honor their sorrow by refusing to discuss it. They shun heroics, but with an heroic fervor. They are not like men. Whether they are weaker or stronger than men it is impossible to say, and no one captures that particular ambiguity better than Colm Tóibín.

Late last night, after the caviar and champagne and lobster but no room for dessert — and Radio Days, of course — after Kathleen had gone to sleep and I’d fooled around a bit with the old Daily Blague, I pulled down The Empty Family, Tóibín’s most recent collection of stories, and began reading “The Pearl Fishers.” I still don’t know what bearing this has on The Testament of Mary; the woman in the story, a fiery debater of conservative issues, is anything but reticent — she is very much not one of the “Tóibín women” I’ve been thinking about. It may be the hunch that Tóibín’s grasp of a certain kind of Irishwoman proceeds from his experience of the things that make gay men and straight mutually difficult to understand, a subject that, off the top of my head, anyway, I think he has yet to take on as a writer. (It may well not interest him at all.)

Now that I’ve typed up that final note, I had better figure out a better way of putting it. What was I trying to say?

***

Before lighting the candles for Will’s cake, Megan explained that she had bought the big one, the fat numeral “3,” last summer. (There were also three little candles, and Will blew them all out, if not in one go.) She had the foresight to do so after having no luck, last New Year’s Day, finding a a “2.” It was doubly impossible then, because there are two 2s in “2012,” but Will’s age will always coincide, not just with the New Year, but with the actual year being welcomed in. 

When asked how old he was, Will replied that he was “only three.” My sentiment exactly — it seems that he has been around forever! We see him far too often to register any but the smallest changes, and he seems always to be in the process of becoming more himself: he has always been Will. I always wonder if people who say that “they grow up so fast” are really paying attention.  

Gotham Diary:
Game Over
21 December 2012

Friday, December 21st, 2012

First of all, I hate to lose. I hate to put effort into something only to come away without having achieved something discrete — “having played well” is no reward at all; it’s simply what one tries to do.

Second, I don’t have the time. I try to incorporate as much play into my work as possible, but I am never not working, even when I am daydreaming.

But it is also true that I’m put off by people — some people, anyway — who like to play games, especially puzzling and difficult and perhaps even frightening games. They can’t help nursing a hope that the game is more than a game, that, if you play it just so, portals to another, more interesting world will open before you. Of course, this belief also underpins ritual observances. I’m very much not interested in other, more interesting worlds. I can’t conceive the possibility. Where is this world going?

Robin Sloan’s new novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is peopled almost entirely with men and women who have lost interest in my question, or who wish to short-circuit it somehow. (The only characters who seems to be fully committed to this world are an archeology grad student and the vernacular administrator of a massive storage facility in Las Vegas.) It is difficult for me to engage with their sense of mission.

There are the black-robed members of the Unbroken Spine, a secret society devoted to unlocking the secrets of Aldo Manuzio’s Codex vitae (a fictional book). Manuzio, known also as Manutius, was the greatest of the publishers of incunabula in fifteenth-century Venice; his device, the dolphin and the anchor, appeared on Doubleday paperbacks when I was a boy. The brotherhood believe that Aldo discovered the secret of immortality, and encoded it in the Codex vitae, leaving the “key” to his favorite font designer, Griffo Gerritszoon (also fictional, from what I can make out). Gerritszoon hides the key, and the brotherhood has attempted to decode the Codex without it, for centuries and to no avail. Now the Unbroken Spine is torn apart by a disagreement about whether to bring computer power to bear on the project, and this inspires a rebel action to enlist the resources of Google itself. Thus a modern struggle overlays the ancient puzzle. The result is an atmosphere of exciting vagueness, in which a small band of plucky heroes, allied with the rebel, chase down the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They do so with much less sweat and heavy breathing than the questors in The Rule of Four, the page-turner from 2004 written by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, which exploited the hermetic text of the quite actual Hypnerotomania Pomphilii, published in 1499 — not by Aldo.

Sloan is clearly more interested in the clash of cultures that rends the Unbroken Spine than in the composition of a literary masterpiece. (It is arguable that he sees the literary masterpiece as no less a mirage than the secrete of Aldo’s immortality.) “We have new capabilities now,” writes Clay, Sloan’s narrative stand-in on the last page, “— strange powers we’re still getting used to.” To underscore the suggestion that his boyhood dreams in the reality of dungeons and dragons, the very next sentence refers to (yet another fictional tale) The Dragon-Song Chronicles: “The mountains are a message from Aldrag the Wyrm-Father.” As it happens, this second statement makes sense: a brilliant member of the Unbroken Spine hit upon the location of Gerritszoon’s key and encoded it, natch, in a childrens’ adventure long familiar to Clay. The answer was in his possession all the time, ages before he even knew that there was a question. So it is with all of us, Sloan might argue — and I would agree. The manual to our strange new powers lies within us, and with those powers we shall update it. Bravo!

But the tone of Mr Penumbra is at odds with this humanist message of deep reflection and aching wisdom. It is too breezy to comprehend the long and often wearisome work of gleaning nuggets of gold from moldy old books. There is more than a suggestion that Google will, somehow, someday, do the hard work for us — but that can never be. The hard work is never that of data retrieval, arduous as it might be. The hard work is good old-fashioned human thinking, which is something that we don’t begin to understand but must nevertheless do, over and over, as well as we can. In a Times review that begins on a favorable note, Roxane Gay concludes by charging Sloan with making too much use of “convenience.”

Instead, the book suffers from an excess of convenience — for every problem, a clever solution. Need to copy a text in a heavily guarded, secret library? There’s a portable cardboard scanner, Grumble­Gear 3000, built using instructions from the Internet. Have a complex problem requiring super computing power? Command the resources of Google. We are supposed to accept these conveniences because Clay is resourceful, but at times the ease with which the plot unfolds strains credulity. Though there are setbacks, he and his friends are never set too far back. They never have to suffer a world without answers. Instead they are afforded the satisfaction of unsolved mysteries as another obsolesced technology. Sloan effortlessly marries new ideas with old without realizing that all too often, the cleverness overwhelms the story.

I wouldn’t go that far. Given Sloan’s reluctance to burnish his novel with a more lustrous and suggestive finish, I’m glad that the conveniences bring the tale to a brisk and satisfying resolution. (Indeed, for the book that it is, Mr Penumbra is a few pages too long, especially in the middle.) Robin Sloan has surely done us the convenience of reframing the contest between books and computers as an alliance. Now it’s time for someone more exhaustive — someone like his archeology student — to develop the picture.

***

In the early dawn, our sleep was disturbed by a loud flapping, very much like the luffing of a sail on a windy day. In the dim light (and through our limiting plastic tarps), I couldn’t see what it was, but now I can: the tarp on the bedroom window next door has come loose. I don’t know if anybody is living there at the moment; the unit has a long history of subtenants. (No trouble to us, I’m happy to say. The only difficulty I had was with a man who liked to make calls on his mobile from the balcony in balmy weather, when the windows were all open.. There was not a corner in our apartment in which he could not be heard. I finally had to tell him as much, trying not to shout from our half of the balcony, and that was the end of that.) But from the way the tarp is flapping, I’d say that the tape came loose. Now: what is to be done?  

Gotham Diary:
Forty Years New
13 December 2012

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Last night,  after dinner, I pulled down a book that I’ve been meaning to revisit, Frances FitzGerald’s Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. The book came out in 1972, and was covered with awards. I read it the next year, after it came out in paper. I read it very quickly, apparently. In those days, I wrote the date of acquisition on the front flyleaf, and the date of consumption on the inside back cover. It’s hard to believe that I had time to do anything but read this book between 27 September and 1 October 1973. Certainly I didn’t notice that my marriage was about to end. That would happen at Thanksgiving, when (as I recall it, anyway) a discussion of where to spend the holiday — with which parents — spiraled into something much more grave. I was twenty-five years old, and when I read the FitzGerald, Megan was not even one yet. Ever since, though, Fire in the Lake has stood prominently on my bookshelves, its Imperial yellow background making it very easy to spot.

Fire in the Lake was the first book that I read that could, it seemed to me then, have been written by a man. I had been waiting for such a book, because I believed that women’s minds were as good as men’s. But few women expressed themselves with the understated authoritative swagger that distinguished the alpha-male writer. I see that now, that that’s what it was, the elusive quality that was possessed by men only — by very few men, but men only — “understated authoritative swagger.” It was a kind of sex appeal, really, but nobody would have seen it that way in those days; aside from Cary Grant and Elvis, men weren’t supposed to have sex appeal. This was a sex appeal that led to dens, not to bedrooms. With the texture of tweed and the fragrance of pipe tobacco, it was not a good look for women. Frances FitzGerald trumped it with formidable good looks and patrician nonchalance. The look, I mean. She certainly had the understated authoritative swagger down pat.

The first chapter of Fire in the Lake hums with it. “States of Mind” is a model essay about the fundamentally antithetical worldviews of traditional Vietnamese and Americans in the postwar world. It demonstrates, with the grace of a Euclidean proof, that there was really nothing that the United States could do for Vietnam in the latter’s struggle for a post-colonial identity — if, that is, the Americans remained incapable of grasping the ways in which those worldviews differed. FitzGerald shows the folly of dismissing Confucian civics as primitive or passé, at the same time that she shows how Ho Chi Minh adapted Marxism to fit and fill the dimensions of a Confucian society (an achievement never attempted by Mao). She never scolds the Americans for neo-imperial ambition or exceptionalist egotism. She has no pacifist agenda. She simply lays out a cogent analysis that makes it easy for us to see that the impossibility of a practical alliance between the government of the United States and the people of Vietnam.

It is, startlingly, a cognitive analysis, a kind of mapping out of fundamental preconceptions that has become much more familiar today.

It was this very coherency of man and society that was to Westerners trhe most bewildering and unsympathetic aspect of the Vietnamese — Communists, Buddhists, and Catholics alike. … While generally admiring of the North Vietnamese leader, [Ho's biographer Jean] Lacouture could not get over the suspicion that he was “playing a part,” that he was, to put it more harshly, insincere. Lacouture was right in a sense. But the very terms he chose to describe Ho Chi Minh showed exactly how Westerners and Vietnamese differ in their view of the function of the individual. To Westerners, of course, “sincerity” means the accord between a man’s words or actions and his inner feelings. But to Vietnamese, for whom man is not an independent “character” but a series of relationships, “sincerity” is the accord between a man’s behavior and what is expected of him: it is faithfulness not to the inner man, but to the social role. The social role, in other words, is the man. To many Vietnamese, therefore, Ho Chi Minh was perfectly sincere, since he always acted in the “correct” manner, no matter what effort it cost him. And it was the very consistency of his performance that gave them confidence that he would carry the revolution out in the manner he indicated. Ironically enough, because of this very intimate relation of man to society, it was precisely those Vietnamese military men, such as Nguyen Cao Ky, who had no notion of a political system and who did not therefore “hide their feelings” or practice the Confucian “self-control,” who seemed to Westerners the most likable, if not the men most fit for the job of government.

This could be an example of inadvertent misconception taken from a book like Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong or Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance. FitzGerald is also brilliant about the nature of revolution in Confucian society: it is the redress, not necessarily violent, of macrocosmic disorder, the correction of imbalances between all the levels of being (family, state, heavens) and the restoration of fertility. Its manifestation in society is the final, not the initial step. FitzGerald quotes a story about Confucius that establishes an identity between revolution and recognition. It explains the speed, baffling to Westerners, with which many Vietnamese switched allegiance, often multiple times.

Sadly, my copy of Fire in the Lake began to fall apart before I finished the first chapter, and I have to decide between replacing it, with another book, and supplementing it, with a Kindle edition. I do so like reading it as a book. But if I replace it, I’ll have to throw the old copy away.

Gotham Diary:
This Is It
12 December 2012

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012


Can I blame the utter inertia that seizes me this morning on an extraordinarily good book? Probably not. But I’m here to say that Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram For the King, poses the risk of a literary form of sunstroke to anyone rash enough to read it in one sitting. Which is, nevertheless, how it ought to be read, the first time.

As I took in the story of Alan Clay, an American salesman in Saudi Arabia, I felt, as intimately as I would feel the temperature of the water in a swimming pool, that I was reading a book that both Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace had wanted to write, but could not, because their typing fingers helplessly transformed vernacular speech into something more sophisticated and complex. Alan Clay’s story is sophisticated and complex — this is a very big present in a very small package — but the language in which Eggers tells it is apparently artless, nearly flat. What gives it life is a muted but biting sarcasm. Here is Adam catching himself out at rationalizing his failure to set aside enough money for his daughter’s college education.

Now he was lying. She didn’t deserve that. She’d done nothing wrong. And, yet, the economy was this, the world was that, these schools were overpriced, ridiculously overpriced — my God, did they simply pull a tuition number out of the wind and then add ten percent? — but still. Had he planned better, had he not been so incompetent, he would have whatever she needed. He had twenty years to save $200k. How hard was that? It was ten thousand a year. Much less assuming any kind of interest on the money. All he had to do was save $60k and leave it alone. But he didn’t leave it alone. He played with it. He invested it, invested it in himself and others. He thought he could make the $200k at will, in any given year. How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?

The better part off the text is either reflective material in Alan’s inner voice or minimally reported dialogue.

— There’s a party at the embassy tonight.
— The Danish embassy?
— Yes, and it will be bacchanalian.
— I’m already drunk. That moonshine.
— That’s good. You’ll fit in. Will you come?

It will be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to write the simplest letter that this unadorned style is not easily achieved, but nevertheless it reads easily — too easily, we uneasily feel, to account for its power, the source of which is hidden among the plain words. By the same token, we don’t have to put any work into imagining Saudi Arabia: to Alan, it is very much the cliché of glitz, sand, and veils familiar to any well-informed reader.

***

The question at the end of the first passage is not offered as an excuse for not saving money; the subject has shifted slightly. The question explains why Adam is both desperate and deflated — and in Saudi Arabia. The world that has lost interest in Alan is a world made by Alan and others like him.

Another novelist who came to mind was Walter Kirn, and, behind him, Kazuo Ishiguro and Franz Kafka. These writers would all have bent Alan’s story beyond straightforward naturalism. The wonder of Hologram is that it packs the same dread, the same sense of impalpable doom, without invoking mysterious influences. As a businessman doing what the other businessmen have appeared to be doing, Alan has taken part in the absurd dismemberment of the American economy, and presided over his own bankruptcy. He has responded to the threat of suffocating bureaucracy in ways that make it more suffocating. His response to regulation has been reckless relocation. As Alan’s agony and redemption unfold beside the Red Sea, it becomes clear that China is now the number one country, thanks to a lot of help from the prior incumbent. You can make this stuff up, but how much more satisfying when you don’t have to. 

The tragedy, if any, is America’s, not Alan Clay’s. True, it does seem likely, at the beginning of the book, that Alan will come to a bad end. His situation is too precarious for any degree of confidence. His finances are in worse than disarray, and his neck is disfigured by a growth that, when he comes up from denial, Alan feels sure must be cancer. At first, his participation in the presentation that has brought his sales team to Jeddah is ineffectual. The atmosphere of the first half of Hologram is that of a Last Con.

But, just as Eggers doesn’t have to invent the horror story of American business in the age of financialization, neither does he have to invent the dangerous absurdities of life in Saudi Arabia. As Alan strays from the corridors in which visitors to the KSA can reasonably expect to be safe, he is revived by a series of thrilling adventures. He becomes attentive and competent — and lucky. The shapeless fifty-four year old whom we meet on the opening page becomes, in the second half of the book, more recognizable as George Clooney. It would be wrong to say that A Hologram For the King has a conventionally happy ending, but it would be right to say that its hero is unquestionably robust at the finish.   

On every page, I felt: I’ve read this story before. I’ve seen the movie, many times. But this is the best. This is it.   

Gotham Diary:
The Brunetti Gang
1 August July 2012

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Reading The Anonymous Venetian, the third novel in Donna Leon’s series of Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, was a great treat. We didn’t know about Donna Leon way back in 1994, when it appeared, but I think that we were about to find out, because we read the fifth novel, Acqua Alta, when it was new. One of Kathleen’s clients made the recommendation, and I recall that at that time the books were not easy to find in this country. If I’ve read the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, I’ve largely forgotten it, which is good, because I’m thinking of reading all twenty books in order, perhaps this fall, perhaps next year.

Leon is not the first mystery writer to populate a multi-book series with an appealing supporting cast (although I wish I could think of someone besides P D James who has done it), but the recurring characters are the principal attraction for me. I look forward to spending time with Brunetti’s family — his vivid, brilliant wife, Paola, a professor of English literature at the university, and a worshiper at the flame of The Master; his son, Raffi, and his daughter, Chiara; and, very occasionally, Paola’s aristocratic parents. When at home, these people eat very well, but they also chatter and argue and sometimes even sulk. Then there is Signorina Elettra Zorzi, introduced in The Anonymous Venetian (I didn’t know that). What a woman of mystery! (Why has she taken a huge pay cut to work for the police?) And what a deadpan comic! (“The fact that his appointment is with his lawyer is one I do not feel myself at liberty to reveal.”) A few of the books have disappointed me not because the mysteries were so-so but because Signorina Elettra hardly appeared in them. Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta is not someone you would want to know, but you probably do know someone just like him, and can marvel at Brunetti’s mastery at manipulating his boss’s outsized but tender vanity. It is a truly Sisyphean task, because even when Brunetti gets what he wants, the Vice-Questore is still in command, still the sort of hollow man who seems to monopolize positions of command in our bureaucratic world.

Another figure introduced in The Anonymous Venetian is Officer Scarpa. This seems to be a first appearance, anyway, because Brunetti’s encounter with him is “stony” but not inimical, as encounters are in later books, when Scarpa becomes a kind of Satan in uniform, dedicated to thwarting Brunetti’s investigations (or so it seems to Brunetti). “Scarpa” is close to “Scarpia,” a connection that the author must certainly have wanted her readers to make. If the name “Scarpia” means nothing to you, then no harm done; you won’t be perplexed. But if you know it, and can’t help hearing the monster’s blasphemous outburst during the Te Deum, “Tosca, you make me forget God!” in act one of Puccini’s opera, then a resonance surrounds Scarpa — his lesser capacity signified by letter missing from his name.

That is the sort of thing that makes the Brunetti books so engaging: they’re opened up at every turn by tacit references to a world of culture and thought, to serious questions about faith and meaning. When Brunetti flies from the room of his demented mother (whom he nevertheless visits faithfully), he is reassured by the nun that the old lady is always happy to see him. “And once she senses that it’s you, Dottore, she’s really quite happy.”

This was a lie. Brunetti knew it, and Suor’ Immacolata knew it. Her faith told her it was a sin to lie, and yet she told this lie to Brunetti and his brother each and every week. Later, on her knees, she prayed to be forgiven for a sin she could not help committing and knew she would commit again. In the winter, after she prayed and before she slept, she would open the window of her room and remove from her bed the single blanket she was allowed. But, each week, she told the same lie.

(I would have suggested that Camus change his title, to The Grace of Sisyphus.)     

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Fleet Street History
24 July 2012

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

All that sobbing over Mozart the other night left me feeling pretty rubbishy yesterday — the weather didn’t help — so I spent the day reading, and, penitentially, reading a book that has lingered in my pile for months. As long as I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, I would at least clear the deck of a dust-catcher. I also hoped that I would learn something about the background of modern Syria from James Barr’s A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, but I didn’t; the Alawites (who seem to be at the bottom of the Syrian problem) are mentioned only once, early on.

Actually, background is missing overall from this book, which begins where there ought to have been an ending, in the wake of World War I. The Ottoman Empire (which was falling apart at its core, in palaces along the Bosphorus) had sided with Germany and Austria in that conflict, and this presented Britain and France with an irresistible temptation that they ought to have known would only bring tears and trouble. What might be done with the Levant and with Mesopotamia, the largely Arab provinces to the south of Turkey?

Barr is happy to tell us what was done, when, and by whom, but his account of events in the Middle East lacks coherence until you grasp that Barr, a former journalist with the Daily Telegraph, is reporting on a game played by bitter enemies. It would be wrong to say that “Britain” and “France” were the enemies, but they did sponsor the teams. The object of the game was to thwart the opponent’s projects in the region, and, if possible, to drive them out of it altogether. The British appeared to win when the French departed from Syria and the Lebanon in 1945, but, at least in Barr’s view, this was not the end of the game, which continued until the British were driven from Palestine by Zionist terrorists — backed by a vengeful France. What made this game more interesting than most such conflicts — a nifty handicap — was that Brtain and France were ostensibly allies throughout the period under discussion.

The book’s colorful tone is somewhat tendentious: the British are alternately naive and grandiose, while the French are snakes. Long before I got to the end, I was wondering what the other side of the story would sound like. I decided that it would sound much the same, only with the attributes reversed. Nothing could conceal the fundamental lunacy.

For the British, the object was to maintain maritime channels between England and India (and beyond). This meant controlling the Suez Canal; it also meant exploiting Iraq’s oil. After 1919, the British ought to have looked in the mirror and asked themselves why they were still maintaining an empire. In 1945, with the empire obviously about to shut down, trying to govern Palestine made no sense at all. But Britain had become a world power on the back of its far-flung possessions, and did not want to hear that what empire had given, it would also take away.

The French, it must be said, were even more deluded. They were still trying to build an empire in the Twentieth Century. Barr writes about “a small but thick-skinned group of imperialists, the Comité de l’Asie Française,” whose secretary general,

an aristocratic diplomat named Robert de Caix, reached for the history books to make his case. He argued that France had a “hereditary” right to Syria and Palestine because it was “the land of the Crusades … where Western activity has been so French-dominated since the beginning of the Middle Ages that all Europeans who live there are still called ‘Franks’.”

You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

There is, of course, another story that goes untold, a story that puts the Arabs, the Turks, and the Persians in the foreground. That’s the story that I think we need to hear. Barr’s subtitle is almost laughably nonsensical, since his book shows how truly incapable Britain and France were of shaping anything ithe Middle East. It is not impossible to imagine a region that would be just as troubled as today’s is without either the French or the British having shown up to do much more than buy oil.

As it was, Britain and France were the principal parties to the Peace of Versailles, a pact comprised of nightmarish follies that was founded on the humiliation of Germany (which was not a party at all). Almost everything that James Barr writes about was an unintended consequence of that Peace. His book certainly shows how little like true allies the British and the Frednch were prepared to act.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Exiguous
20 June 2012

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The other night, waiting for dinner, I embarked on a reading of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction by opening her 1935 novel, A House and Its Head. This has recently been republished, with an afterword by Francine Prose, by NYRB. I wanted to start with something that I hadn’t read before, not that I’ve read very much. I’d like to rediscover her, if that’s possible, in light of Elizabeth Taylor’s enthusiasm.

I made my way through the first chapter without two much effort. We are introduced to the Edgeworths, in a fashion that strikes me (in my limited knowledge) as typical of Compton-Burnett, at the beginning of a meal, in this case breakfast on Christmas Day, 1885. Duncan is the irritating paterfamilias; I can’t tell yet how much of a tyrant he is, even if he does toss someone’s present, a book whose atheistical subject-matter offends him, onto the fire. Ellen, vaguely, is his wife. Two daughters, each on the other side of twenty, are Nance and Sibyl. Nance demonstrates a certain outspokenness. Their cousin, Grant, is their father’s heir, so far as the estate’s entail go; I believe that he is something of a reprobate.

It is not until the second chapter (which I didn’t finish) that we meet the butler, a woman called Bethia. Her position is explained in a paragraph of one sentence: “The family income had lessened with the depression of the land, and the house was run on women servants.” Bethia’s appearance is preceded by a plethora of new characters, who gather outside the church after morning service. i think that I’m going to need a diagram. There is Oscar, the (unbelieving) vicar, his mother, Gretchen Jeckyll (did ICB know Gertrude Jeckyll?), his sister, Cassandra, who is still governess to the Edgeworth girls and who still lives in their house, although she must have spirited out for the holiday in order to miss breakfast in the first chapter. There is the local doctor, Fabian Smollett, and his “cousin and wife,” Florence. Then there’s the Burtenshaw contingent: Alexander, his daughter, Rosamund (a provider of religious tracts), and his niece, Beatrice Fellowes, who is “more generally seen as cousin to his daughter.” Finally, Mr and Mrs Bode, and their children Almeric and Dulcia. Almeric and Dulcia! What is Compton-Burnett thinking? You have to work out who everyone is — I wouldn’t swear to it that Florence is the doctor’s wife — and in the end the novelist’s descriptions of each new face have melted into a puddle of not very helpful terms. Take Rosamund’s “high, set colour.” What’s that supposed to mean?

And the things they all say: platitudes and commonplaces with razor-sharp frankness.

Dulcia entered this room in a hearty manner.

“We are fortunate to have something to fill up Christmas afternoon. It is an occasion which seems to partake of the nature of an anticlimax. We know it will anyhow not do that today.”

“I believe we have offered ourselves,” muttered Almeric.

You must be fiendishly attentive. If you miss “this room” and read it as “the room” instead, you’ll miss that the scene has changed from the dining room to the schoolroom, and you’ll wonder why Duncan, who shortly before Dulcia’s arrival (in the schoolroom) made a trenchant remark, is suddenly complaining, from the next room, about the noise being made by the young people.

It all reads like A rebours, as reconceived by Edward Gorey in The Curious Sofa.

I read on through the fourth chapter. Nothing happens; Ellen dies. That’s one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks, to make non-events of things like death. It seems that Ellen has been wasting away, and that no one in the family has noticed. (Duncan’s disregard for Ellen is marked from the very beginning.) I suppose that you imperceivably waste away in 1885; certainly nobody expects Dr Smollett to do much of anything, beyond officiating, as if death were a ritual to be overseen by a medical man instead of a priest. Duncan is ghastly, grudging his wife her illness and then simpering with self-condolence. (He will remarry soon, doubtless with a view to displacing Grant as his heir — and solipsistically unaware of running the risk that Grant might displace him.) The other thing that happens, sort of, is the round of Miss Fellowes’s proselytizing visits. The tedium of these occasions is amply demonstrated without, however, burdening the reader with much in the way of Miss Fellowes’s actual message.

That’s another one of Compton-Burnett’s tricks: she conjures the densely dull atmosphere of late-Victorian gentility, not, as you might expect, out of an excess of verbiage, but rather from its opposite, an insufficiency of supply. It is our straining to follow her exiguous clues to the narrative that makes us feel as oppressed as her characters. That’s the essence of her sly modernism, set entirely as it is in the puce twilight of a century that was tired of its own ambition. You’re both alienated from her people, and unable to escape them.

Of course, you could always put the book down, but for another trick: even without a pulse, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction is electrifying.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Virtual
19 June 2012

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Over the weekend, I read two very strong passages that collided with high impact. The first comes from early in Gillian Flynn’s, Gone Girl, a novel about a very unfortunate marriage. Nick, the husband, has come home, the previous day, to find his house in disarray and his wife unaccountably absent. By page 72, where the following passage appears, it is clear that Nick is no innocent babe, but then it’s also pretty clear that his wife isn’t, or wasn’t, either.

For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense, blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A fucking commercial. You know the awful singsong of the blasé: Seeeen it. I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The second experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies; we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.

This is what I was thinking about, yesterday, when I wrote about the degrading effect of television commercials. It isn’t just advertising, it’s the overwhelming power of modern media generally. I agree with Nick that it’s at least arguable that abuse of the visual cortex has sapped our humanity somewhat. I would go further, to my favorite conundrum, which is that reading, a subversion of vision, has precisely the opposite effect upon the imagination. And Diana Athill would be right there, with her memory of visiting Trinidad & Tobago.

That whole holiday was a joy, not only because it was my introduction to the beauties of tropical seas, shores, and forests, but because I knew the place so well. Of course I had always been aware of how well V S Naipaul and Michael Anthony wrote, but until I had stepped off an aeroplane into the world they were writing about I had not quite understood what good writing can do. There were many moments, walking down a street in Port of Spain, or driving a bumpy road between walls of sugar cane or under coconut palms, when I experienced an uncanny twinger of coming home, which made the whole thing greatly more interesting and moving than even the finest ordinary sightseeing can be.

This reminded me of my walks in Amsterdam last month. As usual when walking, I looked mostly at the pavement. Every now and then, I paused and looked around or ahead. It wasn’t terribly important; like Athill, I wasn’t sightseeing. I can’t point to a specific source of literary inspiration corresponding to Naipaul’s writing about Trinidad, but the atmosphere was clearly charged with the aftermath of words read and savored. I did have a moment that might have seemed to pop out of Nick’s catalogue of disappointments, my “Munt moment,” when I stand on a bridge over the Binnen Amstel and survey the scene that was displayed in a jigsaw puzzle that I worked on years ago. My Amsterdam cliché. I’d have to agree that the puzzle’s image is sharper and clearer, but it leaves out a lot of interesting noise that you have to be there to hear. How did you get there? Where are you headed? Those are just two of countless invisible details of the actual view.

Reading makes us think that we’re seeing things that aren’t there, but that’s not what’s happening. We’re not seeing anything; we’re assembling bits and pieces of images from our memory banks in an attempt to make sense of the words. And when we’ve made sense of the words, we’ve created new memories, thatched out of the words and what old memories they’ve prompted. It feels effortless to the experienced reader, but it is brain work all the same. It’s because of that work that the “real thing,” when we finally encounter it, will seem all the richer for the preparation. For writing tells us something that raw images never can: what it is like to live in a place. Images tend, if anything, to pre-empt that experience. All experience.

So I would say to the Nick Dunne’s of the world: turn off the TV and stop watching clips on the Internet. Cut back, anyway. And give reading a try. Reading about the Mona Lisa or the Pyramids will probably restore some of the freshness. Put your eyes to a better use.

Just two weeks ago, within the space of five days, I sat in a taxi that turned from Houston Street onto the Bowery. In the late afternoon light, the Empire State Building rose up in all of its simple but solid elegance, almost too good to be true, in the windshield. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen it before; it was that I was seeing it now.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Periphery
12 June 2012

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Scouting through a short pile of books on Saturday, I came across one that I’d forgotten about, Colm Tóibín’s collection of essays about the family lives of writers, New Ways to Kill Your Mother. The title is taken from that of the essay on JM Synge.

If a writer were in the business of murdering his family, then the Synges, with their sense of an exalted and lost heritage and a strict adherence to religious doctrine added to dullness, would have been a godsend.

I am not sure that I understand this, especially given Synge’s extended periods of living at home (in the latter part of his short life, ill with lymphoma). I felt a bit unsteady with most of the pieces in the first half of the book, which is dedicated to Irish writers (Yeats, Synge, Beckett; Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry, and Roddy Doyle); I was on surer ground in the second half, headed “Elsewhere,” where the writers are mostly gay (Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Hart Crane, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and James Baldwin). Although of Irish extraction, I find the Emerald Isle a very mysterious place on both sides of the border between north and south. I have some idea of what Irishness is made up of, but I don’t know how the bits interrelate. I can’t imagine what being Irish and Protestant must be like, but at the same time I know that I have no idea of what, until recently, it was like to be Irish and Catholic.

Even when I didn’t quite grasp Tóibín’s talk of murder, though, I was tremendously entertained by his trademark atore of magisterially sifted gossip.      

The story begins in Geneva where, it is said, Borges Senior asked his son, then aged nineteen, if he had ever slept with a woman. When Borges said no, his father arranged “to help the youth negotiate the usual rites of passage to manhood,” as Williamson puts it, by giving him the address of a brothel and telling him that “a woman would be waiting there” at an appointed time. It was, of course, a disaster. Borges Juniior was shocked at the idea that he was sharing a woman with his father. Afterwards, according to Williamson, the adolescent Borges was taken to see a doctor who recommended a change of climate and fresh air and exercise. Williamson’s footnote for this points us to page 50 of María Esther Vázquez’s Borges: Esplendor y Derrota (1996). Vázquez had known Borges well, but this is no excuse for her account of the aftermath of his visit to the brothel. “He had such a terrible crisis that he cried for three successive days; he did not eat nor sleep….he only cried.” She goes on: “With the stoicism of a monk, this healthy young man seemed to give up the necessities of the body to find in literature the only source of satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Even had Vázquez written that Borges cried for merely two days and then rose on the third, I would not believe a word of it.

Does it get better than that, tittle-tattle about artists’ lives? I don’t think so. The joke about rising on the third day is too priceless. The essays on Borges and Cheever especially are replete with a kind of affable, smiling cattiness that is enormously pleasurable.        

Each half of the new book responds to an element of Tóibín’s makeup, but neither to all of him, and only a few of the writers are (or, rather, were) happy about any of it — about being Irish or gay. What everybody shares is marginality, and this interests Tóibín quite as much as family life. Some of the Irish writers, such as Samuel Beckett, were doubly marginal, because they felt a need to escape the conditions of Irish life, thus putting them at a distance from their own families, and no more at peace with them than the run of gay writers from “elsewhere.” And then there’s religion, which generally plays a larger role in the lives of people from the margins of Western culture, troublingly so for writers. But there is no system at work here. There is arguably, a general truth that covers most of Tóibín’s subjects:

What Lorca was doing became for Borges and his friends in Argentina, as it would for writers in every country on the periphery, a working-out of a serious dilemma: whether to adopt a full European Modernist identity or to describe Argentina (or Trinidad or Ireland) in all its colour and exotic variety to the world.

Marginality — writing “on the periphery” — is quite comfortably an aspect of family life. A variation that’s often added to the story is lost grandeur. We’re reminded that John Cheever was “a snob”; indeed, Cheever’s rough detachment from the world around him was so thoroughgoing his that writing was his only reliable connection to other people. Tennessee Williams, in an adjacent essay, comes across as much more “well-adjusted,” which is surprising.

Something else than many of the writers share is fatherlessness of one kind or another. Yeats, for example, supported his father — who kept his distance by living in New York City. Cheever’s father simply failed. Most of Tóibín’s subjects lost their fathers the normal way, to early death. Some of the writers, such as Borges, resolved to outstrip their fathers. Others ran from their mothers. Kathleen Synge and Leonor Borges are two of the memorable moms who managed, remarkably, not to be murdered by their creative sons. Of Edwina Williams, we’re told in a parenthesis that “The mother in [Glass Menagerie] was, according to Williams’s younger brother, so accurately based on their mother that she could have sued.” Few of Tóibín’s writers became fathers themselves, and of them, neither Thomas Mann nor John Cheever could be hailed as a successful parent.

Cheever’s relationship with his children was very close, and mostly difficult, partly because he had nothing much to do all day except lounge around looking at them in a state of half-inebriation and total dissatisfaction. Towards the end of his life, he told colleagues that once, after a row with his wife, he woke to find a message written in lipstick by his daughter on the bathroom mirror: “Dere daddy, don’t leave us.” When it was pointed out that such a scene occurs in his story, “The Chimera,” with the same misspelling, Cheever replied: “Everything I write is autobiographical.” But this was not so. Like a lot of writers, everything he wrote had a basis in autobiography and another in wishful or dreamy thinking. His daughter later denied that the scene took place. “I know how to spell,” Susan Cheever said, “and I think what we wanted was for him to leave us. One thing about my father was he was always there, you could not get rid of him. He worked at home, he ate at home, he drank at home. So ‘don’t leave us’? That was never the fear.”

This anecdote, with its wonderful “lounging around,” goes to the heart of Tóibín’s take on Cheever, which is that he was a sentimental liar about things until he “straightened out” and wrote his best piece of sustained fiction, the overtly queer Falconer.  

New Ways is headed by a wonderful essay that I remember gobbling up when it appeared in the London Review of Books. I believe that it had another title there, something involving aunts. Now it’s called “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother.” It’s a beautiful meditation on Persuasion, and the derelictions of Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris, that trails nicely into Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, and the pervasvie motherlessness shared by so many daughters in Henry James’s novels. As such it makes an elegant counterpoise to the book’s focus on the problem of manliness, which leads Tóibín finally to consideration of “the American Confusion”: “the shame, the lack of pride sons in a society moving onewards and upwards felt at their fathers.”

As a sort of bonus, Tóibín tosses in an intriguing compare-and-contrast piece featuring James Baldwin and Barack Obama. After quoting a passage from Dreams of My Father set in Kenya, Tóibín writes, “This passage displays the differences between Baldwin’s sensibility and that of Obama. Whereas Baldwin sought to make distinctions, Obama always wants to make connections; his urge is to close circles even when they don’t need to be closed or the closure is too neat to be fully trusted.” That passage embodies the wisdom of a writer who has quietly established himself as a major man of letters. 

Gotham Diary:
Men and Their Grossness
4 June 2012

Monday, June 4th, 2012

When I was a kid, “gross” was the term of all-purpose disgust. (“Disapproval” would be a better word, but teenagers do not experience anything so mild or distant or reasonable as disapproval.) For all I know, it’s still current. In the phrase that I’ve quoted for the header, it means something more specific.

“Men and their grossness” comes from a passage in Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, The Sleeping Beauty. Isabella, a widow, is out for the evening with Vinny Tumulty, a friend whom she has expected to ask her to marry him. Instead, he has declared his love for someone else; but he continues to do the offices of a good friend, keeping Isabella company on the eve of an auction at which the contents of her suburban-London home are going to be sold off. (Isabella will continue to live in her seaside house, in a town wonderfully called “Seething.”) Vinny and Isabella dine in Soho. After dinner, Isabella’s heel is caught in a grate, and she notices that the women in the street are staring at Vinny, right through her. Her revulsion comes back to her the next afternoon, when she discovers the rudiments of Vinny’s secret.

She felt a miserable separation and embarrassment with Vinny, having caught him out in what she supposed was something shady and unsavoury. A distaste for men and their grossness put a distance between them which she had felt the evening before in Soho when women had glanced at him from doorways and street-corners. She had once thought him such a fastidious, tender man, and now she saw that she did not know him at all. Over and over she made her explanations for being in Market Swanford and he listened courteously and smiled.

The grossness of men is, I’m pretty sure, the ability, if that’s the word, that men have to enjoy sex without love, or at any rate without the accoutrements that Isabella deems necessary. It ought to be borne in mind that Vinny does nothing to encourage the staring; he is simply a well-built gentleman minding his own business. He also happens to be in the first throes of real love — but not for Isabella. Isabella is a “silly woman” — in the eyes of her creator as well as those of any fellow-character in the novel. She’s endearing, once you realize that the novel is not going to be about her, and she puts her finger on her shortcomings very ably when she reflects, whilst in the company of a woman friend who shares her desperate faith in anti-ageing creams and slimming massages, “For we never grew up.” Men and their grossness, Taylor implies, is something that bothers girls, not women.

Taylor gives us a fine taste of women and their grossness. The penultimate chapter begins with Isabella and her friend, Evalie, trying out a new skin cream.

Their faces were caked with a white clay, which, drying, had drawn up their skin beneath so that they could hardly part their lips to speak; from this frightening pallor their discoloured eyes looked mournfully out.

The women are awfully surprised when Isabella’s son, Laurence, walks in unexpectedly.

The vision of those two leprous faces in the greenish gloom, his mother’s absurd confusion, Evalie’s frenzied eyes rolling at him above a piece of red knitting, made Laurence feel the victim of a monstrous joke. He was so thrown-out by the scene that he could not think how he was expected to behave, and from awkwardness walked unsmilingly across the room, forced Isabella to take the little package and said in a cold and angry voice: “Some wedding cake for you.”

Isabella is at first terrified that this is Laurence’s way of telling her that he has gotten married, but the cake is Vinny’s.

Amsterdam/London:
Transit, cont’d
17 May 2012

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

A room with a view it ain’t. If we were one floor higher, we would clear the western wall of the St Pancras Station shed wall — for a fine view of the shed roof, I don’t doubt. Why stay at home, alone in your room?

Until last night, I was a fairly good traveler, but a chain of confidence-draining events steadily reduced me to blubbering helplessness. I’ll skip straight to the last one, which was, in all my years of travel, a first: it took half an hour to get our bags up into the room, and two phone calls were required, including a request to identify them. As we had checked in at 11:10, and Reception was not exactly humming, this lapse was much worse than perplexing. Eventually the young night porter showed up at the door, and we were free to go downstairs for a glass of wine.

Knowing what I know of London topography (I’m cutting back to the penultimate nightmare), I expected a smooth trip along the M4 right onto the Marylebone/Euston Road: voilà! What I did not expect was a meter that climbed and climbed and climbed, soaring straight to a figure equalling the cash in pounds that we were carrying. I also did not expect a detour in the dark, and, knowing what I know of London topography, but no more, I was immediately suspicious of the genial driver — who indeed presently returned us to Westway. I felt foolish for not having taken a train, tired though I was; it’s certainly what I would have done if I’d been alone, somehow. But Kathleen would not have taken a train in any but emergency circumstances, so that cleared my conscience. But I still felt foolish for not having looked into typical taxi fares from Heathrow. This simply wasn’t the time to count on Kathleen to do so.

I’ll save for later any attempt at descriptions of this amazing old place (built as the Midland Grand Hotel, and opened for business c 1873). I’ve seen only two of the sparkling, refreshed halls. The part of the hotel in which we’re lodged is an annexe constructed at some later date, 30s or 40s I should say, although it’s conceivable that it’s altogetheer new. (It’s the deep but narrow lifts that suggests earlier times — to me.)

It’s odd to be doubly in London. I’m so deeply involved with The Swimming Pool Library that it’s shocking to look up and realize that I’m sitting in the city in which it is set. I am slowly learning that to re-read a novel while traveling is to open up its full store of wisdom, however great or small that might be. There are bits here and there in the novel about public-school hazing, and they led, de fil en anguille, to a ”realization” (which can’t be altogether as novel as that word suggests, although it certainly feels so) that my father had no interest in teaching me how the world worked. This disinclination did not reflect dislike, I don’t think, but there was a sense in which only “naturals” interested him; he was very helpful to young men who displayed aptitudes for his lines of life (work, golf, and so on). He would have been more personally helpful to me (he was always instrumentally helpful, certainly) had I shown some inclination to figure things out for myself. But that’s just what I wouldn’t and won’t do, if exposing myself as a rube be a risk. I won’t, in short, be hazed. I believe that I would have had to kill any clot of amiable young men who put me through some mild torture in order to make me one of them.

I never did board a tram in Amsterdam. If I’d stayed another day, I think that I’d have made an outing of doing so, and just climbed on board with a pocket full of euros, relying on the kindness of strangers. Where we were staying, it was not easy to connect to Line 2, as in Nescio’s “alles echt lijn 2, Museumkwartier.” That would be me. But I learned that the 24 will take you to the Muntplein, which is close enough (to the Spui, of course — the center of Amsterdam for me).  

Anyway, I obliged myself to get out of bed in the gloom this morning, even though Kathleen sighed “room service” as she turned over and cuddled deeper into the bedding. I had heard the clerk mention that “breakfast was included,” and this gave a finish of virtue to a stronger desire to be up and about and out of the room. A fine continental breakfast, offering ham and cheese and just about everything except eggs, was laid along the bar in the Booking Hall, where we sat last night with our glasses of wine and talked about Gothic Revivial.

Oh! I did learn one thing in Amsterdam that I had hoped to establish: it’s Nieuw, not Nieuwe, Amsterdam. Where I live, I mean. I don’t know how the server at the hotel restaurant knew this, but she was pretty certain. She was quite wistful about the idea of the city’s still being in Dutch hands. Stand in line, sweetheart! Ik woon in Nieuw Amsterdam.

***

It’s not immediately apparent that Nescio and Alan Hollinghurst share anything in the way of subject matter, but from the distance of my viewpoint they do seem to have something in common, an ostensible self-disgust that in reality masks a tragic disappointment with the fit, or lack of it, between erotic life and civil conventions. It is not, to use Nicholson Baker’s great phrase, part of my carnal circuitry. In Dichtertje (Little Poet), the title character reflects on the “knowing eyes” of modern young ladies (c 1914).

Because he knew perfectly well that they didn’t know a thing, that they burst out in stupid giggles whenever he doffed his hat to them, or just stared at him, stinking of bourgeois-young-lady conceitedness. And still he couldn’t leave them alone. Then he had to flee somewhere where there were no women, and he raged against God and the devil too, and he said that he’d end up as a lunatic at this rate and sit slobbering for years with his mouth hanging open wearing a leather bib without even realizing it. But the next day he would look again, and think: “Mon âme prend son élan vers l’infini.

In the passage that I want to quote from The Swimming Pool Library, the erotico-bourgeois plexus might seem more obscure, but I’ll venture it anyway. The young Charles Nantwich has arrived in Port Said, in 1923, and is being kitted out for darker Africa.

I came to a sort of dead end, a tall, stuffy place like an airing cupboard, a store-room perhaps, with a young boy barefoot, climbing up & down the shelves, checking stock, a pressure-lamp in his raised hand, his black face concentrating, dazzling in the plane of light that he swung about him. I stayed & watched, mesmerised, feeling that nothing else mattered. Down he clambered, his supple child’s body comically bursting out of his khaki cotton uniform. When he saw me he smiled. I smiled back — though I was at the very edge of the field of light, & perhaps he cd not really see me. He kept on smiling — an immense, gentle, jolly smile — not yet a vendor’s smile, nothing calculating in it. He was a pure Negro, from far south evidently, like the people we we are going to, quite different from the crossbred scamps who haunt the quays. I turned & went back, & as I did so he called out, ‘Welcome Port Said, m’sieur’ — in a heartbreaking voice, its boy’s clarity just cracking into manhood.
I was inordinately, unaccountly moved by this — except that I knew it for what it was, a profound call of my nature, answered first at school by Webster, muffled, followed obscurely but inexorably since. Was it merely lust? Was it only baffled tdesire? I knew again, as I had known when a child myself, confronting a man for the first time, that paradox of admiration, or loss of self, of dedication … call it what you like.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me, because I had never admired anyone, ever. The impulse to admire took long to develop in me, but I certainly never felt it as a child. I thought that some people were very lucky; I knew, in my scapegrace way, that I’d been very lucky. There were certainly many times when I’d have been happy to trade my good fortune for someone else’s. But admiration? When I read the Hollinghurst passage, I wondered for a moment if Nantwich were describing an emotion that only fledgling aristocrats feel. But only for a moment.

I remember long, long ago complaining about the pride that John Fowles’s characters seem to take in their disaffection from everyday life. My good manners are hardly invariable, but I’ve always thought that it was an act of rudeness in itself to disdain them, as if one were somehow too intelligent or sensitive or whatnot to observe them, or at least to try. It struck me, twenty-odd years ago, when The Swimming Pool Library was new and I read it the first time, that Will Beckwith, Hollinghurst’s hero, was uncivil in just this way (beneath the gloss of fine manners indeed), and I disliked him for it. Now I’m not so bothered. I suppose that that’s a sign that I’ve stopped growing up, stopped looking to other people to figure out to live — and fuming when the example set by the more attractive ones among them suggests that I’m heading in the wrong direction. With old age comes a certain calm.

As long as you don’t have to go through Heathrow.

Gotham Diary:
Wan
9 May 2012

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Having written quite a lot yesterday, I’m inclined to take it easy today. It is also the case that my mind is fairly blank. All I can think of is packing, connectivity in an Amsterdam hotel, and how easily a concierge’s instructions will get me aboard a streetcar.

I wore my new green pants to lunch yesterday, and I told my friend that I was thinking of taking them to Amsterdam. She recommended against it. “I want to be remembered,” I said. “Well, in that case…”

The other thing that I’m certain to do is to visit Scheltema, or whatever it’s called now (if it’s still there!) and ask for a copy of Nescio’s stories. I’ve had a very hard time with the Amsterdam Stories, because they fly me back so powerfully to my own feckless youth and I don’t want to revisit the period. Again, at lunch yesterday, a pearl of wisdom dropped onto my tongue. I told my friend that I didn’t mind being old, because for so long I was afraid that my youth would never end.

It doesn’t bother me that our Amsterdam hotel, on the Amstelkanaal, lies outside the purview of tourist maps of the city (the DK guide that I picked up stops a few blocks to the north, at Sarphati Park), but I’m somewhat disheartened to note that St Pancras Station Hotel, where we’ll be staying in London for a couple of nights, is always just out of sight, beyond the edge of most Central London maps. Euston Station, next door, usually makes it in. I should note that staying at St Pancras was all my own idea; I’ve wanted to stay there ever since the pile was restored to its Victorian splendor. A case of answered prayers…

***

At bedtime last night, still in the mood, after “The Turn of the Screw,” for something dark and rich, I couldn’t decide between James and Wharton. For a minute. I chose Wharton. I read the first section of “Bunner Sisters” before falling asleep. I read the rest of the story, which is just shy of novella length, this afternoon.

My usual response to reading something wonderful for the first time is dismay: how did it take me so long to get to this? I didn’t have that feeling about “Bunner Sisters,” though; I was grateful to have had it waiting for me. I was wholly engaged by the melodrama, which at first seemed not to be as bad as I feared, but then got much, much worse. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t say anything about it — only a word about Eliza Ann Bunner, from whose point of view it is told (in the third person, happily.)

What’s thrilliing about this unassuming dress-maker is how extravagantly — how just short of extravagantly — Edith Wharton imagines her highly circumscribed life. To some degree, the woman’s life is narrow because she is superstitiously pious. “I always think if we ask for more what we have may be taken from us,” she says to Evelina, the prettier sister, whom she hopes to see married one day. But it’s not all timorousness. Eliza Ann is truly at home in the barely genteel back room that she shares with Evelina, and Wharton takes pains to cleanse her prose of any trailing pity that she might feel for someone so comparatively disadvantaged.

The infrequency of her walks made them the chief events of her life. The mere act of going out from the monastic quiet of the shop into the tumult of the streets filled her with a subdued excitement which great too intense for pleasure as she was swallowed by the engulfing roar of Broadway or Third Avenue, and began to do timid battle with their incessant cross-currents of humanity. After a glance or two into the great show-windows she usually allowed herself to be swept back into the shelter of a side-street, and finally regained her own roof in a state of breathless bewilderment and fatigue; but gradually, as her nerves were soothed by the familiar quiet of the little shop, and the click of Evelina’s pinking machine, certain sights and sounds would detach themselves from the torrent along which she had been swept, and she would devote the rest of the day to a mental reconstruction of the different episodes of her walk, till finally it took shape in her thought as a consecutive and highly-coloured experience, from which, for weeks afterwards, she would detach some fragmentary recollection in the course of her long dialogues with her sister.

The composure of this recollective habit is really enviable. When the story really gets going, Eliza Ann is as dear to you as any character you’ll ever know. This is the sort of bravura call for sympathy that Dickens used to trumpet by the hour, but either too sharp or too flat and in any case always too loud for pleasure. There is enormous sadness in “Bunner Sisters,” but the story resists dismissal as “pathetic” with all of Eliza Ann’s remarkable force of character.

Gotham Diary:
Studied
7 May 2012

Monday, May 7th, 2012

The power of great fictions to change over time — to produce different effects, to revert into more than occaasional unfamiliarity, and to blot up the sense of alteration as thought it were not the case that it is we who have changed, not the texts that we’re re-reading for the third or fourth time over a period of many years — is a fact of life that can’t be taught. I’m in the middle of Henry James’s late novella, The Turn of the Screw, and it’s nothing like what it has been before. For one thing, it’s funny. The humor is altogether inadvertent; I don’t think that I’ve mined a vein of intended comedy. But I find that I’m “reading” The Turn of the Screw as if it had nothing really to do with governesses and remote mansions and wicked ghosts. What I’m seeing instead is the problem of in-laws.

I’m reading the novella because I chanced to watch The Innocents a few weeks ago. Jack Clayton’s production, with a script to which Truman Capote contributed, seemed to want to trace Gothic horror back to Freudian roots, and that was clearly something that James could not have compassed. So I thought I’d read the story again. I don’t recall which time it was, but I remember once re-reading The Turn of the Screw in a lather of frustration: it seemed imperative that Edward Gorey be commissioned to illustrate it, but I had no idea how to go about this. (Gorey was very much alive at the time.) That urge has palpably passed; the very idea of illustrating the story itself seems gauche. (And in any case many of Gorey’s little works could be said to “illustrate” Henry James, particularly on the points of children and innocence.) What I’m going for now is the character of the unnamed governess who narrates the tale. James knits character and tale together in such a way that a claim can be made that the governess is a deluded madwoman, so hysterically attached to her little charges that she manufactures devils from whom she cannot protect them. Her story altogether lacks corroborative detail. That she is able to prevail upon the housekeeper, illiterate Mrs Grose, to agree with her hypotheses is nothing remarkable; she, after all, is a lady. And she is a lady in contest with another lady, the only other kind of lady — a fallen lady. This would be Miss Jessel, her predecessor.

Miss Jessel, the new governess learns, abandoned herself to the attentions of Peter Quint, the valet of the rich man to whom the care of little Miles and Flora has devolved. On its face this is an unspeakable mésalliance, almost to the point of outright bestiality. Whether Quint died (in an accident, slipping on an icy patch while drunk) before or after Miss Jessel’s departure from Bly (the great house), I’m not sure; I’m not sure that it matters. Miss Jessel is believed to have died, too. The governess comes to believe that the ghosts of the man and the woman have come back to claim the children. Unless you’re very out of sympathy with James’s writing, his story will flow by without striking any rocky questions about why the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel haven’t better things to do; the governess’s belief in their malignancy is so convinced that it is somewhat beyond convincing: we don’t interrogate the governess — we let Mrs Grose do that, in her half-hearted way. Instead, we let the governess set our teeth chattering with her lurid anxieties.

The great problem in all of Henry James’s fiction is other people’s knowledge. What do other people know — about the things that we know, about us; what plans do they harbor? Writing in a somewhat simpler moral universe, James presented the problem in terms of candor and dishonesty; he appears to have believed that people know what they know, and can share it or not as they choose. (We are today quite sure that this is never the case.) The difference between what I know and what you know is a crack in which the flowers of evil can take root — when it is not a fatal abyss. 

What children know — children of any age, as Maggie Verver’s history reminds us — is an aspect of the larger problem that interested James throughout his career. What Maisie Knew is a tour de force of what we might call disimagination, as James cramps his point of view into the head of a little girl, allowing her no thoughts beyond her tender years. (Such thoughts are the abstractions from which we erect our “understanding.”) In The Awkward Age, knowledge takes on a hymeneal significance; the lack of it is a badge of virginity. Trying to figure out what other people know is hard enough. What children know is of a bafflement!

What distinguishes the governess from other James characters is her impetuous inference of what Miles and Flora “know.” No sooner has a possibility occurred to her than it becomes a sure thing. At the same time, she persists in a sentimental view of childish innocence that was one of the Victorian era’s most insistent daydreams. Mere possession of wicked knowledge does not taint Flora or Miles. In the early stages of being “on to” the children, the governess worries that her attentiveness will tip them off to her suspicions. But not her worry is calmed in the most interesting way.

It would have been easy to get into a sad wild tangle about how much I might betray; but the real account, I feel, of the hours of peace I could still enjoy was that the immediate charm of my companions was a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of the possibility that it was studied. For if it occurred to me that I might occasionally excite suspicion by the little outbreaks of my sharper passion for them, so too I remember asking if I mightn’t see a queerness in the traceable increase of their own demonstrations.

Reading this, I was attacked by the most inconsequent image. I remembered holding my grandson in my arms, and he was studying my face with a view to playing with it, pulling my ears and whatnot. He likes to try to put my glasses on, but until recently it was always with the air of poking an eye out to see what might happen. What this recollection had to do with anything I’ve no idea, but I suddenly understood that the governess was in the position of a mother-in-law, or perhaps a grandmother, who has allowed herself to believe that the relations of her child’s spouse are something less than a good influence on the marriage, on the grandchildren. And the position of the children, Flora and Miles, is exactly that of any perspicacious grandchildren, careful to suppress any intimations of bad influence. In The Turn of the Screw, it is precisely the children’s model behavior that convicts not them but the dreadful Quint and his paramour, Miss Jessel.

These insights, if that’s what they are, don’t make The Turn of the Screw a funny book, but they do raise a smile, because James has so cleverly (whether he knew it or not; unintended masterstrokes are always a risk with cleverness) repackaged a family problem that is as common as dirt in glitteringly scary wrappings.  

***

Perhaps I misspoke about Henry James’s “apparent belief” that people can choose whether or not to say what’s on their mind. It might be better to propose that his characters labor under that hope. Whatever he himself thought, his prose is a manifestation of the difficulties of clear and complete expression. Ultimately, it is impossible; James ends up listing the things that he does not mean to say, and hedging them in with highly nuanced qualifications.

Gotham Diary:
Dyson’s Batch Dump
10 April 2012

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Looking back, I see that George Dyson gives, at the opening of Turing’s Cathedral, his “history of the digital universe, a fair warning of where he’s headed.

At 10:38 PM on March 3, 1953, in a one-story brick building at the end of Olden Lane in Princeton, New Jersey, Italian Norwegian mathematical biologist Nils Aall Barricelli inoculated a 3-kilobyte digital universe with random numbers generated by drawing playing cards from a shuffled deck… “with the aim of verifying the possibility of an evolution similar to that of living organisms taking place in an aritificially created universe.

But only in retrospect. Only much later, in this book that feels so much longer than it is, do we see why a story that seems at times infatuated with the Central European mathematical wizards, largely from Budapest, who were driven to the United States by Hitler’s insanity, and equally infatuated by the place to which they were driven, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton — only near the end do we see why such a story begins with a relatively eccentric figure who spent little time at the IAS and who, were a movie to be made of Turing’s Cathedral, would have to be played by John Tuturro.

As for the title, it’s a shibboleth. Either you get it or you don’t. I expect that a reference to Darwin’s Cathedral, by David Sloan Wilson, but, as I haven’t read that book, I can’t make more sense of it than that. All that’s certain is Turing’s Cathedral is not about Alan Turing.

***

I discern at least three different books within the covers of this one. Three different kinds of books, books having little to do with one another even where nominal subject matter overlaps. The first book is a scrapbook of the early days of the IAS, which, you won’t be surprised to learn, George Dyson grew up, as his father, Freeman, had migrated to Princeton before he was born. We meet a lot of interesting characters and we hear a lot of interesting founding stories, all about the Institute. We meet Alice Rockafellow, who managed the cafeteria. Even when the anecdotes are engaging, the overall tone is that of a rather dreary institutional history, written to the anniversary of something. Individuals flash alive for a moment or two, but IAS itself is just a building — Fuld Hall.

Long before Dyson is done with this story, however, he picks up another one, and proceeds to tell it backwards. This is the story of John von Neumann and the bomb. The bomb was always the thermonuclear device that we call the “hydrogen bomb”; the “atomic bomb” that was dropped on Hiroshima (and then again on Nagasaki), was no more than the detonator of the intended bomb, which could not be designed without the aid of electronic computers. That’s why the story of computers is a postwar story: the blasts that took Japan out of the War suggested that von Neumann and others were on the right track, weapons-wise, and that the government ought to fund the development of the computer that they claimed to need in order to build a proper thermonuclear device. If this thumbnail is mistaken or misleading, it’s no thanks to Dyson, about whom I can only say that the grain of his sense of organization is very unlike my own.  

The third book is about life, self-replication, and who’s in charge, men or computers? Dyson is coy about the nonfictional nature of his ostensible science fiction. He even sets it forth in a bit of dialogue, over lunch with the 91 year-old Edward Teller, to whom he proposes the following:

My own personal theory is that extraterrestial life could be here already … and how would we necessarily know? If there is life in the universe, the form of life that will prove to be most successful at propogating itsself will be digital life; it will adopt a form that is independent of the local chemistry, and migrate from one place to another as in electromagnetic signal, as long as there’s a digital world — a civilization that has discovered the Universal Turing Machine — for it to colonize when it gets there. And thats why von Neumann and you other Martians got us to build all those computers, to create a home for this kind of life.

Teller gnomically urges Dyson to present this as science fiction. You can almost see the other wizards in the room turning their signet rings in a propitious direction. This is where Barricelli comes in. (Do we have something of a record here for the shortest Wikipedia entry?) I suspect that Dyson’s three books would cohere somewhat better on a second reading, but I’m firm about their remaining three different books.

***

I realize that we’ve been having an unseasonably warm spring — Willy, the barber, is worried about temperatures breaking a hundred during May — my junkets to the Shake Shack have not been kissed by atmospheric clemency. Last week, it was windy and freezing, ditto the week before. Today, the air was milder, but it rained. It rained just enough for me to tuck the NYRB inside my jacket whilst continuing stolidly with my lunch.

***

Will Thomas Kinkade’s untimely death catch serious writers about art unprepared? Anyone who has sympathetically toured a collection of Old Master paintings lately will understand instantly that Kinkade’s output was not “art.” But what is it, then? Is it not art because it’s not good enough (a matter of degree — in Kinkade’s enormously lucrative case, of calculated “errors” intended to snare the unsophisticated — or is it not art because it is something else, something that could exist only in an age of affluence, when materials could be wasted without consequence. (The unsophisticated buyers of art, two centuries ago, were few and far between, and highly unlikely to indulge their own native tastes. They’d buy what their nearest betters bought.) In Kinkade’s case, the materials are doubly wasted: the paint and so forth, and then the buyers’ money. No one will want Kinkades in ten or twenty years, because kitsch, like forgery, is stuck to its own time in a way that great painting is not. The paintings, far from rare as it is, will become curiosities in which only a small group of fans will be interested. (Unless, of course, the Idiocracy scenario plays out.)

I’m inclined to the latter view: kitsch as a personal accessory, like an expensive handbag. Hanging over the living room sofa, the painting of a country chapel, lights aglow in the early dusk, is a sign to those granted entry.  In this, I would venture to say (having forgotten everything that I ever knew about semiotics), it is unlike the expensive handbag, about which there will always hang a bit of mystery (why pay so much for a purse, and why that particular sack?). Status markers flirt with the danger of the emperor’s new clothes; sometimes, especially at the low end of the price range, the material value of a status object is nil. Signs are unambiguous (even if there’s more to them than first impression reveals). A Kinkade on the wall says: “We’re pious Americans who maintain family values. Because it would be rude to insist on this point by affixing a literal statement to the wall, we have chosen this painting to convey the message.” As something to look at, a Kinkade can only be a point of departure, a seeder of recollection and wishful thinking that carries the owner/viewer to an inner space.

And can’t precisely the same be said of the work of Damien Hirst, for all that he operates at the very opposite pole of the art market?

Gotham Diary:
Apples and Oranges
9 March 2012

Friday, March 9th, 2012

When, at the end of Amber Dermont’s debut novel, The Starboard Sea, we learn what it was, the terrible thing that the narrator, Jason, did to his best friend Cal, the thing that, unbeknownst to everyone else in the boys’ world of privilege, led Cal to hang himself from a pipe in their prep school dorm room, we wonder if it was so terrible, and we think that perhaps Cal overreacted. But not right away. Our immediate response is to feel swamped by Jason’s guilt and Cal’s despair: it was an awful thing to do, largely because it was meant to be awful. And when the excitement of the discovery subsides, and we get used to knowing what we have waited hundred of pages to find out, we recall that teenagers are never more volatile, reckless, or cruel (just as they are never more ecstatic) than when they feel that they’re in love. For many people, most of them far from the unluckiest, love is the most painful of life’s lessons. Almost everyone pulls through somehow. Dermont has given us, in her novel, the shadow of a boy who didn’t, and her achievement is wonderfully grave.  

The achievement is unfortunately qualified by a strategic miscalculation that Dermont is hardly the first to make. If I had an intern, I’d ask for a list of the instances in which I’ve complained that a book would have been much better had it been told in the third person, and not in the first. There are only two occasions for employing the first person in fiction: when the narrator is almost an exclusively an observer, someone who brushes up against the action only just enough to put the reader into the picture, and who never does anything to distract the reader from the principal characters; and when the narrator’s very voice — meaning his or her personality, his or her view of the case — is the story. (What makes Rebecca, which ought to have been just another disposable gothic potboiler, so thrilling is that it rises to both of these occasions not only supremely well but simultaneously.) The Starboard Sea meets neither of these conditions. Jason Prosper is a high-school senior, eighteen going on nineteen. Despite the world of privilege in which he has grown up, he remains a normally, inescapably callow teenager. As a result, he talks about his world — and he talks about it at great length — with a combination of fatuousness and condescension that makes the first half of the novel, before the story really gets going, a slog to read.

Some of the prose lapses might very well have been committed in the third person as well. Dermont’s diction is not the finest; her syntax can be shaky (I found two instances of dangling modifier), but, worse, she is drawn to the bad fine writing that makes nouns out of verbs. “He was trying to make a point about World War I and the Lost Generation,” Jason recounts, sketching a teacher’s frustration, ”and he was stunned when almost no one understood what he was referencing.” Wouldn’t an artless teenager have said that no one knew what he was talking about? (What makes Americans say these things? It can’t be that we have all read too many fucking manuals.) There is a touch of Harlequin exceptionalism —

Many of the girls I considered to be pretty had soft, rounded features. Small eyes, creamy skin. This girl was different. Her features called attention to the high planes of her cheeks and forehead, the sharp angles of her lips and eyes. Unlike Bristin’s or Diana’s faces, which begged and invited “Admire me,” her face had a quiet authority. A frontier quality that said, “I am not to be put on display. I am not here to be looked at.” She stood tall. Had I not seen her crawling through a window, I might have mistaken her for a teacher. Even then, I was certain of her beauty, but I was also certain that a person could miss this about her.

— that is not only wildly exotic in this rich kids’ setting, but strangely belabored, coming from a boy. We might interpret the last sentence as a sign that Jason feels manfully protective of the mysterious girl, but whether or not this point is worth arguing, it turns out that Jason’s sexual satisfactions have been largely homosexual. Make no mistake: The Starboard Sea is no coming-out novel. Jason clearly subscribes to Gore Vidal’s theory that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. The boy he still loves, Cal, the dead boy, comes round to this view, too, but too late, too late to forestall a brutally cruel homosexual act.

And a third-person narrator might have been just as annoying about Jason’s world. The book abounds in throwaway mentions of Dorrian’s and “gin-and-tonic lockjaw” that are little more than exclusive secret handshakes all but intended to intensify the smugness of knowing readers. (A joke on me: when I asked Kathleen if she knew what Head of the Charles meant, she shook her head, but, before I could snort at Dermont’s obscurantism, Kathleen said, “I didn’t know any rowers.”) But there might have been more description and less name-tossing had an older and presumably wiser head been doing the talking. Intelligent children of privilege, at least the ones who aren’t sociopathic, don’t know what to make of their benefits, which may have always been there for them, but which are so palpably not there for most people. They’re insecure about wealth in a way that’s different from the parvenu’s: kids don’t know what it means, for example, to have a full-length portrait of one’s great-grandmother, painted by Sargent no less, in one’s dining room. (Parvenues are all to sure that they do.) Whatever it means, it’s beyond the compass of adolescent understanding. (I’m talking about the teenagers who are bright enough to know that having a Sargent hanging on the walls of one’s home is extraordinary — very much Dermont’s territory.

The tendency to confuse apples and oranges because they’re both colorful ends up undercutting, and almost trivializing, what ought to have been the most riveting angle of the story, which is not why Cal hanged himself. Running in parallel to Jason’s story about Cal, which he dribbles out in suitably suspenseful doses, there is what turns out to be a case of manslaughter, pieced together by Jason in his capacity as amateur detective. Jason believes, understandably but groundlessly, that the death would never have occurred if he had only… been there for her. He concludes that he has let not one but two lovers down. He lets himself off the hook, I’m happy to say, with a vision of his two BFFs watching over him benevolently from their fixture among the stars. But he never grasps the adult differentiation between the bad thing that he did within an attachment of love, and the bad thing that his classmates did in the course of a hazing prank.  

I can’t think why Dermont didn’t see that this was bound to happen, especially if she undertook to make Jason’s voice plausibly adolescent. A friend suggested that there are a lot of writers who see themselves as Peter Pans, capable of entering into and recreating boyish states of mind, but I don’t charge Dermont with delusions of grandeur. I think she felt that her story would be more engrossing if it were told by a brokenhearted lover. I concede that it would have been more work to engage the reader from the perspective of an omniscient observer, but that’s what distinguishes the stories that you never forget — and Dermont does tell one of those — from the novels that you want to read again.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Wandering
5 March 2012

Monday, March 5th, 2012

It will come as no surprise to regular readers to hear that I have never experienced what used to be called “writer’s block.” I say “used to” because it occurs to me that you never hear the phrase anymore. Perhaps it has taken the place of homosexuality as the secret that dare not breathe its name, a shocking personal defect that must never be confessed. However oppressive to sufferers of writer’s block, such a silence would atone for the attention that whining impotent writers used to claim. What’s really surprising is how sorry everyone else felt for blocked writers. Wasn’t there anything that could be done? Yes, it turned out that there was. In fact, there are at least two cures.  

The simpler cure is to acknowledge that you are not a writer, or at least not a writer capable of compassing the thoughts that beguile you. If you are not a writer, then you must find something else to do. If you’re reaching beyond your grasp, then you must find something else within it, and get to work on that. 

It is simpler still to acknowledge that you are a lazy, vain bum. Laziness and vanity, the gentle vices, are opposite sides of the same coin, and both reflect the absence of an active interest in life. The bum who complains of writer’s block expects his book to come to him in the form of “inspiration.” This strange idea is not entirely the bum’s fault. Ancient writers used to justify their work by claiming divine inspiration. God or a muse directed the course of every sentence, the writer doing little more than taking dictation. It’s easy to see why this theory of artistry would appeal to lazy, vain bums.

There are cases that look like writer’s block but aren’t. There’s Wagneritis, for example. This is what you’ve got when you keep realizing that you must go back to the real beginning of your story. If you are Wagner, you know when to stop. Wagner did not go back to the real beginning of his Ring story. He began at from which there were still plenty of backstories to be narrated. He was shrewd enough to distinguish the beginning of his story from the beginning of his drama. Wagner did write gorgeous music, but I do think sometimes that what made him a genius for the ages was his triumph over crippling megalomania. You can’t say that Wagner didn’t get things done.

Then there are the centipedes who have been paralysed by thinking about what they’re doing. Philosophy is not a healthy undertaking generally, but it is particularly injurious to creative writers. Some victims never recover; others, more’s the pity, stuff their philosophizing into their work, where the rest of us have to slog through it.

No, my problem was never writer’s block.

***

As noted over the weekend, I listened to Siegfried on Saturday. I haven’t listened to Wagner much in the past couple of years. Every now and then, Tristan or Die Meistersinger, rarely getting all the way through either, not because of flagging interest but because I had to go do something else before the music was over. I had the feeling that listening to Wagner was an indulgence, perhaps even a guilty pleasure. Beneath the glittering, sumptuous surface, after all, what you’ve got is unwholesome chunks of Schopenhauer. Considering his philosophy, you might think that Schopenhauer ought to have been a blocked writer: why, with such a world view, carry on at all? But carry on is what Schopenhauer miserably did. And as a result of his influence on Wagner, if we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, then what a gloriously upholstered handbasket it is!

Inclined more to duty than to volupté, I’d been listening a lot to Verdi. Verdi never had anything to do with mythology; every one of his operas has all of its feet planted firmly in the real world of human weakness. Verdi’s music contrives to make you feel things, not to imagine them. He rouses your sympathy for virtue and your thirst for justice. He doesn’t make you think about them. That’s, curiously, what Wagner’s swirling sonic orgies do: they make you think. Or at least to brood. Aside from the hero, the goddess who wakes up at the end, and the little forest bird who gives great directions, the figures in Siegfried are brooders, and their brooding is contagious.

Siegfried does as he pleases, but recklessness, while exhilarating, is never wise. The music, especially when no one is singing, is as free as the bird. These are the obviously lively aspects of the opera. But let’s consider the dragon, which is meant to be scary. Let’s register the spell of intense anxiety that opens the second act. Wagner presents these darker elements so richly that you sit back and become aware that you are having a good time. When the Wanderer (Wotan) and Mime play their game of questions, the stakes are cosmic, but cosmic with a mythologizing glimmer that releases you from the need to pay strict attention. If you ask me, Wagner actually encourages one’s mind to wander, and it’s when your mind wanders that the music grips while allowing you to continue wandering, and you slip into Wagner Time, and all of a sudden the whole thing is over.

***

I’ve just spent a half hour checking out reviews of Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn. I read the novel in two big swallows, staying up late one night to finish it. It was a delight to read, especially after Rose Macaulay’s nonpareil The Towers of Trebizond. But I’m reluctant to write about it, because there are too many little cracks in it that suggest trapdoors to other books — references, in other words, that I’m unable to identify. I’m especially puzzled by the children in the wood whose deadly game is just about the novel’s only moving part. Who are they? And why does the author think that he can just drop the murder of one of them? Is it a joke? Is it surreptitious clue, like a symbol in Umberto Eco? And how seriously are we supposed to take the title character’s dishonesty?

Coral Glynn’s readiness to temporize, prevaricate, and withhold might in a society such as ours today be taken as pathological, but Britain in 1950 was very unlike ours today, and a girl like Coral, without family or fortune, must make the most of every opportunity, even if that means wrapping up an employer’s sapphire ring and holding it until, ahem, somebody asks for it. The simple fact is that Cameron has dropped us into a world in which our moral compasses don’t work. We may be in the milieu described by his favorite novelists — Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and Macaulay — but the permissions are altogether different. What Pym and Macaulay could only hint at, in such a way that sophisticate readers alone knew what they were talking about, Cameron is free to discuss as openly as he likes, and if continues to rely on suggestion and innuendo, it’s for the fun of it, not the necessity.

A writer who goes unmentioned in the reviews that I’ve seen, as well as on Cameron’s Web site, is Ivy Compton-Burnett. Perhaps it’s been a while since I’ve read Compton-Burnett, but I was reminded of her on every page of Coral Glynn that was set at Hart House. (John Donne lived at Hart Hall at Oxford — does that mean anything?) A charmless pile in the middle of nowhere, Leicestershire. “There were no other houses within sight, for the meadows often flooded, and the air was damp and considered bad.” One is grateful that books don’t cast off odors. The laconic housekeeper, Mrs Prence, is right out of Compton-Burnett, too. (Or have I encountered her before in Henry James? Come to think of it, are those children revenants from “The Turn of the Screw”?) There’s a dour quality to the characters that embodies the unmentioned bleakness of Britain’s postwar rationing, still in effect in 1950, and behind it is everything heavy and uninvitingly overupholstered that one associates with the Victorians. Coral Glynn is the opposite of nostalgic.

The plot of  Coral Glynn is simple to the point of absent-mindedness. Everything hangs on death. First, Mrs Hart dies. She’s the beastly old lady, afflicted with cancer, whom Coral Glynn, a visiting nurse, has been retained to care for. No sooner is she dead than her son, a middle-aged gent with a limp, asks Coral to marry him. She asks leave to think over his offer, and goes out for a walk. On the walk, she encounters a boy and a girl playing a nasty game. She tells them to stop, but does nothing else about it, and mentions what she has seen to no one. But it’s possible that she has been disturbed by what she has seen into accepting Major Hart’s offer. Why does Coral press for an early wedding? Is she afraid of interference by that former employer, whose ring she still possesses (but at a terrible cost)? Asked by a detective if she saw the children playing in the woods, Coral takes a new friend’s advice and denies it. This is, of course, a mistake. But the upshot is all very unexpected, very untrue to any known genre of fiction, even the absurd. The other shoe does not drop; rather, it evaporates. Meanwhile, Coral has a whole new life in London, and is last seen darting up to Yorkshire in what one imagines to be a sporty car, deeply in love with her second husband. It’s the friend who gave the advice who marries the Major.

Where does Coral get the nerve to insist upon inviting to her wedding luncheon not only the owner of a dress shop (with whom she has had words) but also the “pansy” from the florist’s who reminds her of her brother (killed in North Africa)? At first, the Major is willing to concede an invitation to the lady, even though she’s in trade, but he balks at the boy from the flower shop. Coral persists; it’s quite strange. Is she daft? It’s as though Fanny Price, first thing after marrying Edmund, refused to leave her chilly old quarters at Mansfield: some things just aren’t done. On a different level of composition, but just as strange, there are the occasional violations of the pitch-perfect prose, which would otherwise, at least to my New Yorker’s ears, pass for the real Brit. The only clinker that comes to mind without a search is “site-specific,” a turn of phrase that I can’t imagine anyone using in a non-military context in the middle of the last century.

“This isn’t a church wedding, Mrs Coppard,” said Coral, who worried that Dolly’s mother’s sentimentality might be site-specific.

The really odd thing about that “worry” is its suggestion that Coral wants Mrs Coppard to cry at her wedding — a desire that it’s difficult to attribute to her. Coral may be mysterious, but we know a few things about her, and one of them is a decided resserve. I don’t mean to suggest that Peter Cameron has written a high parody of Ivy Compton-Burnett, or of any other author, or even of any kind of novel. But he plays with the paints in the palettes of long-dead writers; he doesn’t copy them. “Site-specific” is clearly playful; there’s no way that a writer as painstaking (and fun-having) as Cameron could have committed a solecism of that kind.

In short, the book is, in the most amusing way imaginable, very queer. Even aside from the banked embers of Robin Lofting’s love for the Major, a boyhood passion that Clement Hart may or may not have requited, whatever the two of them did with their clothes off, long ago. It did not strike me that the Clement whom we meet in the novel was suppressing an ardor for physical contact with Robin, or any other homosexual urge; indeed, he seemed eager to marry Coral, on whatever restricted sexual terms, simply for the sake of her pretty company. So Coral Glynn is surely not a novel about a love that couldn’t be written about in 1950. It’s play once again. This sunny display of carefree virtuosity, juxtaposed against the dank gloom of a house too nondescript to describe, is the real mystery of Coral Glynn: how does Peter Cameron bring it off? One doesn’t want to enter the world that he has recreated, but one doesn’t want to stop reading about it, either.

These remarks of mine are, I suspect, more annoying than anything else. I’ve certaintly not set out to write a review. The minute I finished Coral Glynn, I was sure I had been floated across some very thin ice that would undoubtedly crack open if I attempted to report the experience. And how to register my enthusiasm? I’m happy to say that I enjoyed reading Coral Glynn, but it ought to be equally clear that I’m not eager to recommend it to anyone else. I know too many people who hate not being in on a joke. If there is a joke — and that, of course, is the joke of jokes. Peter Cameron is no stranger to experimental fiction, but he has also written Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, an amiable book so accessible that it was marketed, over his objections, as “Young Adult,” which is why so many readers came to it from their adolescent children. He is, in short, a past master. If he’s up to something, he doesn’t have to say. Having only just read the book once, I’m not going to hazzard any guesses.

 

Gotham Diary:
Canada
28 February 2012

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Alice Munro has a new story in this week’s New Yorker. Do you think that she means to present Canada as a land of horror? Every time I read one of her stories, I am so glad that I don’t live in Canada that I am actually glad that I do live in the United States. No other writer has this effect.

Part of it is the landscape, which in her hands appears to have been abandoned for hundreds of years — and for a good reason; you imagine that it must have been one long Wisconsin Death Trip when people lived there. There is the stale, provincial air that hangs about the small towns but about Toronto, too — always a Toronto of fifty years ago.

Then there are the men, the men who matter. They make up the rules and the women have to live with them. The women don’t much mind, because they want to live with the men. Munro’s fiction is shot through with a streak of feminine masochism that precludes revenge no matter how abruptly the oppression is eventually put to an end. In the current story, a gifted and devoted country doctor is revealed to be an impervious autocrat at home who keeps his childless wife in a cage of intimidation. “She was used to holding back until she was sure that my uncle had said all that he meant to say.”

Of course, it would have been quite different, my mother said, if they’d had children.

Imagine that. Children. Getting in Uncle Jasper’s way, whining for a corner of their mother’s attention. Being sick, sulking, messing up the house, wanting food he didn’t like.

Impossible. The house was his, the choice of menus his, the radio and television programs his. Even if he was at his practice next door, or  out on a call, things had to be ready for his approval at any moment.

The representation of children in the second paragraph, as dreary nuisances, is really rather shocking, but you don’t sense that until you look it over a second time. The first time you read the story, “Haven,” you read it through Uncle Jasper’s eyes.

I was braced for “Haven” to be one of the thrilling ghastly stories like “Wenlock Edge,” but no violence of any kind is inflicted on the narrator. The doctor behaves with an odd, almost passive rudeness when he returns from a meeting one night to discover that his wife has been entertaining not only the next-door neighbors but the his own estranged sister, a concert violinist, and the other two members of her trio. His refusal to acknowledge this woman in any way save as a source of wonder that anyone would pay to hear the sort of music that she plays — nothing personal, mind — is also shocking, but, again, only the second time. The first time, you’re just glad that Uncle Jasper doesn’t break anything. 

No doubt I lead a very protected life, but I always find talk of “good and evil” not only overwrought but simplistic. Good people — and Munro won’t permit us to deny that, on balance, Uncle Jasper is a good man — do terrible things, and, what’s worse, they feel good about it, perfectly entitled to behave badly, as Uncle Jasper clearly does at the end of “Haven,” when he imposes his own choice of organist on his sister’s funeral. There’s some question as to just who might object to this maneuver, since the sister herself is presumably beyond caring. But just because there’s no victim, that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been an outrage.   

***

TK

Weekend Note:
Set
20 February 2012

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Yes, I know that it’s Monday. But it’s still a three-day weekend, Presidents’, as it happens. Kathleen has to go to work anyway — the punchline to a joke that I’m not going to spell out is “What else is there to do in Chicago?” — but I shall be brave and manfully resist the pull of weekday duty. I may even go to the movies. The characteristic paradox is that I’m celebrate taking the day off by sitting at the computer at 7:30 in the morning. For the first time in weeks, I’m up before nine, and, more important, writing before breakfast.

***

Perhaps my renewed vigor has something to do with Kathleen’s having found a house to rent on Fire Island in late August and early September. It turns out to be a house so hjidden by trees and shrubberies that we never get a look at it, even though we passed by it every time we walked between last summer’s house and Ocean Beach. We know right where it is. I know better than to regard the arrangement as a complete certainty, but it’s as certain as it can be at this point, and that’s good enough for me. I’ve asked Kathleen to ask the owners for the name of a good barber within walking or taxi distance from the Bay Shore ferry terminal. That way, I won’t have to come back to Manhattan at all, not for an entire month. I’ll walk on the beach every day for four weeks, barring hurricanes and other calamities. Whatever comes to pass months from now, I’m going to make the most of the wind that is filling my sails this morning.

***

Edward St Aubyn was here in town last week. He spoke/read/signed (presumably) at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, his one New York appearance. I didn’t know about it until afterward; I hadn’t been keeping up with Maud Newton. Should I have gone? Ought I to have gone? My interest in these affairs has dropped nearly to zero in recent years. Let me be clear about why: writers’ appearances have come to make me wonder why I didn’t do more, in my youth, to become a writer who makes appearances myself. There are very good reasons why I didn’t, but my vanity is bruised by sitting on the wrong side of the podium. Even worse, I can’t expect authors who acknowledge my raised hand to have an inkling of how lucky they are to have my attention. No matter where I sit, no matter how well-received my question, I’m discontented by my unlisted role in the tea party of life at the Princesse de Guermantes’s.  

As of Wednesday, I had read, just like everybody else, St Aubyn’s Melrose novels but nothing else. Now I’m in the slimmer class of those who have also read one of the author’s two other fictions, both of them written between the third and fourth Melroses. On the Edge is an uncertain book about an ensemble cast on a weekend at the Esalen Institute in California. Parts of it are very funny. Maybe it’s all very funny, but if so, the humor of the New Age metaphysical enquiries that cluster, megalithically, in the middle of the book was lost on me.

In large part, my problem with On the Edge is simply my problem with Crystal Bukowski, who turned out, to my surprise, to be the sympathetic female lead. She may even be the lead. At the start, though, she promises to be a satirical gorgon of psychotherapeutic neediness. Her thoughts about the “hillbilly from hell” (who turns out to be a sweet German) sitting next to her on a San Francisco-bound plane are such that you’ll be glad that she’s not sitting next to you. Her very name seens chosen by that wicked little imp, posing as a Muse, who misleads British writers into temptation when it comes to “amusing” American nomenclature. (Who can forgive or forget Martin Amis’s “Lorne Guyland”?) Is St Aubyn aware that Charles Bukowski was a distinctly anti-New-Age California poet, and too highly seasoned an eponym for comic recycling? And “Crystal”! What a lava lamp of British disdain! How can those of us here in America who read more British fiction than our own not recoil at the introduction, in a novel such as this, of someone called Crystal Bukowski? And yet she is the one, in the end, who attains, if not wisdom, then the calm that attends it.

I don’t mean to fault Edward St Aubyn for the odd miscalculated social cue or implausible accent. That’s really part of the fun. Some readers might tire of the recurrence of solecistic Homeric epithets involving the word “unique,” but as a passionate discriminator of the very unique and the most unique, I giggled like my grandson. Others might take offense from the following grossly exaggerated backstory; I was delighted to read something that made Auntie Mame read like John Updike.

Brooke treated everyone like a servant, which, given that she had thirty of them already, showed a lack of imagination. Her servants, on the other hand, she treated like family, her own family having thrust her among servants throughout her childhood. Brought up in the reputedly gracious south, her parents were given over entirely to alcohol, horses and other rich people who shared their interests. They had not allowed Brooke’s childish cries or lisping enquiries into the meaning of life to mar the elegance of their home. Instead she had been housed with one of the innuerable black families whos unadorned shacks cowered under the fatwood trees, their woodsmoke hanging in the humid air almost as substantially as the membranes of Spanish moss that dangled down to meet it. Brooke had often reflected that she had probably been better off living with Mammy. The riding parties that roamed the plantation in search of the perfect place to have some “special iced tea” as they jokingly called the gallon of cold bourbon to which a tiny splash of tea, one mint leaf and a slice of lemon were apprehensively added by the cook, never trotted down that particular track which led to Mammy’s, its astonishingly orange earth making it look more like a river than a road.

… Returning to Mammy’s in the car [after her father's funeral], Brooke had developed through a clinging ground mist of misery and incomprehension, a revolutionary fury, a suspicion of rich white people that could have borne cross-examination by Malcolm X, and a determiantion to find meaning beyond the familial horizon ringed by stallions and empty bottles, without heading too far in the direction offered by Mammy’s passion for overeating and fainting in church.

This is marvelous stuff, overdone to a turn. There’s an account, not too many pages later, of a mescaline trip that is not only the funniest thing that I’ve ever read about psychedelic psychosis but also (and I speak from experience) by far the most accurate. But then there are Chapters 7 and 10, given over largely to Crystal’s search for enlightenment, and written with an earnest coherence in which ridicule, if it is present at all, plays an extraordinarily recondite part. I felt that this was supposed to be amusing in the way that Aimée Thanatogenous’s career, in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, is amusing, but I wasn’t cracking the code.

If anyone is going to be allowed to teach me how to read a book that I don’t get right off the bat, it is Edward St Aubyn. I’m not going to complain that On the Edge wasn’t the romp that I was looking for. I’m going to withhold further commentary until I’ve read A Clue to the Exit, the other non-Melrose entry in the catalogue, which I understand to be even more openly concerned with the problem of identity. (Identity, for St Aubyn, is what memory is for Proust.) We shall see.

***

 Madness: In an abstracted moment, I ordered The Vault, a new Inspector Wexford mystery by Ruth Rendell, from Amazon in England. It arrived, and spent some time in the pile. I fished it out the other night and began reading. It was late; I was too tired to get very far, and I forgot almost everything that I read. Something about bodies in a pit outside a house in St John’s Wood.

When I picked up the book this morning and started at the beginning, I was seized almost at once with an awful chill: I’d read this before. Well, no, not this book, but this story! I remembered the novel that ended with one of those bodies locked up in the pit — still alive! One of the most horrific endings to one of the best Ruth Rendells (and not an Inspector Wexford book at all): A Sight for Sore Eyes.

Having decided not to make houseroom for old mystery stories, I long ago donated my volumes and volumes of Rendell (& Vine), P D James, Ian Rankin, and so on. I may have held on to A Sight for Sore Eyes; I had only a small paperback copy. But even if I did, it wouldn’t be here at the apartment.

Internet to the rescue: a moment’s Googling confirms my suspicions. (As would the rear of the dust jacket had I bothered to look at it.)