What I Read in May

June 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

NOÖ Journal #14. A labor of love located here in the Happy Valley edited by literary dynamo Mike Young (Look! Look! Feathers), who gave me a copy at AWP. The magazine is back after an apparent hiatus, with no issue put out in 2012. New features include an expanded review section by the folks at Vouched Books and “20 Good Books: A Reading Journal of 2012,” in which the editor shares where he read each title along with his impressions. (“Read this after losing a lot to the artificial intelligence in a tennis video game my friend Mark bought me for my birthday.”)

The selections (fiction and poetry) are fun and a little showoffy, featuring confident writers not afraid to coin their own adjectives to strike the right note. My favorite story is “Neon God From the Top Turnbuckle,” by Gene Kwak, about a young man who falls in love with an antiabortion activist:

Bessie and company are pro-agony, seems to me, as the sounds they let loose are somewhere between flagellation of the ear and the Holy Spirit barely curtailed by their bodies. Eyes roll back in heads, people sink to knees, white knuckles grasp grass and rip tufts free as if they held an earth-aimed grudge. The songs and sermons they shout have all the typical Biblical buzzwords, and I fish lip along, no sound out but for a quick lip quiver or two to mock movement. They know the words by heart, but I never got the liner notes. One of them twitches and tweaks, a frothed mouth away from being considered for a binding white coat.

Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris. One of the first subjects we addressed in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop I just completed was point of view, and the advantages and limits of each (first person, third limited, third omniscient, and second person, the standard of which was set and perhaps ruined by Bright Lights, Big City). The instructor drew our attention to Ferris’s novel, part of the wave of office fiction that came out a few years ago (along with Ed Park’s Personal Days, if I recall correctly). Then We Came to the End is written in the unique perspective of first-person plural. I knew we had a copy lying around somewhere, so I took a look.

The novel revisits all the old office tropes (as seen in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, plus the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club) as a Chicago ad firm goes through a wave of downsizing—the politics and paranoia, idleness (from lack of work) and people directing their energies toward undercutting one another. If there is one difference, it might be that Ferris’s characters seem to like their work, for the most part, enough so that the elements of the company and its workers are not operating solely at odds, and the expected absurdity of one’s feeling meaningless is limited.

Toward this end, the third-person plural makes perfect sense. (Apparently it’s also used in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which I haven’t read.) Anyone familiar with office culture knows the prevalence of the ‘we’ pronoun in company missives, to convey the harmony of direction in the stream. In a Q & A at the back of the book, Ferris calls this “the corporate we” (instead of the “royal we”), but this still suggests a decisionmaker’s vantage point, which is not what the book presents; to me it feels more like a proletarian we.

The effect is that there is essentially no protagonist, no one for the circle to close in on. Each character is essentially secondary, and there is no order of priority of whom to root for. They want what you can expect they want: something more meaningful than what their occupations provide, but without sacrificing the stability (both economic and social) that they have come to rely on through work. Among the individual crises visited are a couple of embittered and unstable employees relieved of their duties, one in denial and refusing to leave, one ultimately presenting a danger in a way that is diffused harmlessly. There is also a cancer scare, an extramarital interoffice affair resulting in a pregnancy, an aspiring novelist, a mother grieving her kidnapped and murdered daughter, and office furniture switcherooed without permission (and every piece with a serial number). The shreds are all kind of balled together like a wad of paper at the end.

Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!, by Bob Harris. A memoir by one of the game show’s more memorable contestants. Already an established humorist and speechwriter, Harris won $58,000 plus two Camaros as a five-time undefeated champion in 1997. Even though he didn’t win the Tournament of Champions that year, his affability paid off in the ratings, and so he was invited back for two subsequent reunion tournaments, during which he won more money.

Much like past books by champions Chuck Forrest and Michael Dupée, Harris’s book offers glimmers of advice for would-be players—in particular, “Jedi mastery” of the signaling button (it is NOT a buzzer), cramming devices, mnemonics and other tricks of memory and association. But it is also a tender love letter to the family, friends, and the ex-girlfriends who put up with Harris’s snowballing game-show obsession with varied levels of patience. At times, the sentiment that comes through is tempered by guilt, like when Harris writes of the family he has left behind in his wintry home city of Cleveland, particularly for the sister who never went to college and whose autoimmune disorder has no apparent treatment.

Along the way, Harris develops close friendships with many other recognizable Jeopardy! champs, including Frank Spangenberg and Dan Melia. Between appearances, he takes trips to the sites of six of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The book is an enjoyable read; Harris detours away from any risk of a champion’s gloating by turning everything back to the shared wonder of knowledge and learning.

Full disclosure: I am currently “swimming in the pool,” as they say, waiting for the chance to appear on the show myself after auditioning in early May. Prisoner of Trebekistan came recommended from a number of fellow Jeopardy! enthusiasts.

Young Man With a Horn, Dorothy Baker. Another NYRB Classic, originally published in 1938 and billed as the first jazz novel. it is based on the “artistry—though not the life—of Bix Biederbecke,” though much of the plot lines up with Biederbecke’s life anyway—a young white aspiring pianist meets a black drummer through his job at a bowling alley, and eventually other musicians, until his untimely death at the height of his career as a cornettist playing at the top New York clubs.

The novel’s opening line makes you think tensions of race and class will be prominent: “In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes.“ These words come from the first-person narrator, a male, who, like that cowboy in The Big Lebowski, identifies himself so infrequently throughout the novel that you forget that this story is being told by a person with a narrow point of view. Baker somehow avoids letting Rick follow down the predictable, sinister paths of drugs, drink, and distraction. It’s all about the horn. The book is 172 pages long and we don’t meet a love interest for Rick, or any significant female character for that matter, until page 126, and she’s a perfectly clean grad student from Yale. The dreamy drummer friend from the bowling alley falls out of the picture once he takes up with his own band.

But I liked the book. Its smooth sentence rhythms were well suited for its subject. And with the hole-in-the-wall narrator Baker allows herself moments of explication for jazz novices:

This playing style is worth some going into. Jeff’s band didn’t play from music, though they could all read music. They had two styles of playing, known to the present trade as Memphis style or New Orleans style. The difference between the two is something like the difference between the two styles of chow mein: in one you get the noodles and the sauce served separately, and in the other sauce and noodles are mixed before they are served.

And ratchets up the glee at the right moments:

“Let’s go get us some peanuts, then,” Smoke said. “We ain’t had any of them yet, have we?”

But there wasn’t any peanut place and Smoke went on talking and talking, saying boy, did you wow them! Did you wowm there at Galba’s.

“Wow who?”

Rick couldn’t seem to remember anything about it, but that was one part of the night that Smoke knew everything about. They’d got into Louie Galba’s place, a little sixth-floor salon with a platform no bigger than six feet square with a studio piano on it and a set of traps and Louie Galba sitting on a kitchen chair balanced right on the edge of the platform playing a trumpet while some woman sang a slow song. When the song was finished, Louie came over and set them all up a drink, and then everybody set everybody else up two or three more and Jeff told Louie that Rick was in New York to play trumpet. “Go on, then,” Louie said, “play mine for a while.”

“I guess I might have been sort of tight,” Rick said.

“Funny you didn’t seem tight,” Smoke said. “To bad you can’t remember, because you sure did wowm.”

“I like this town,” Rick said. “Too bad we can’t find you a peanut wagon though. Place this size.”


Speaking of NYRB Classics, I also read Renata Adler’s just-re-released Speedboat (the subject of a lot of buzz lately), but I’ll hold off on writing about that until next month when I can do so alongside its partner in crime Pitch Dark.


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