March 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
For no reason other than coincidence, three recent books I have read have touched on the subject of death and grief in modern and interesting ways. Or maybe calling it coincidence is a lie. A good amount of my own writing lately has been about parents and grief, and the physical and emotional residue that a parent’s death leaves for the next generation.
Each book has a death in its center, the vortex around which the book propels. In one book the deceased is a father; in another, a wife; and in the third, a close friend. I enjoyed all three to varying degrees.
Michael Kimball’s Big Ray came up during my Catapult Fiction Workshop in response to a story I had posted there, and that book happened to be sitting on my nightstand at the time, so I moved it up in the queue.
In Big Ray, the residue comes from the complicated relationship between Danny, the narrator, and the title character, his recently deceased father. Ray is a large man who can slide toward cruelty with heartless ease. Following his divorce from Danny’s mother, he stops taking care of himself, growing morbidly obese and gambling away his retirement savings.
The story is told in vignettes, with no real dialogue to speak of; little by little a life is sketched in, one of a man whose presence, it becomes apparent, could eat up all of the energy in the room. As Danny adds in more flashes of memory, some chilling realizations come to light. It’s an honest indicator of how death often causes us to regard our relationship with a person in wide angle for the first time.
My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn’t want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard it would make me seize up. The gesture must have made him look like a good father, but I wouldn’t be able to move or talk or even scream out in pain.
There aren’t a lot of happy memories in Big Ray, but there are a lot of occurrences that shift the burden of the relationship onto the much more mindful Danny; it is as though he is retracing a path wondering where, if at all, things might have changed for the better. The reflections turn up a lament not for the father that Danny lost but for the one he never got to have.
Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door is a celebration of the bumps and stretches of a friendship between two strong personalities, the author and the novelist Denise Gess (Good Deeds), that grew when both were struggling to establish themselves as writers, as well as his relationship with his former lover, a poet known here as M.
Gess battled recurring cancer for much of her adult life and succumbed in 2009. Because she and Lisicky are both writers, meeting when he is a grad student at Rutgers and she’s a teaching assistant, already with a novel, their relationship, when not maneuvering around sickness, builds precariously on encouragement, envy and confession, resentment, and forgiveness. Lisicky handles ably what is essentially the responsibility of writing for two voices. From the tone of the email correspondence they exchange, the heaviness of their sighs, the prolonged silences, the reader is let in on the high plane on which these two personalities coexisted.
The correspondence allows us to hear from Gess in her own words, for which it is clear she had a gift of projecting intimacy. Both share the writer’s playful, teasing code. In spite of illness, Gess carries on a string of affairs, including one with a married man known here as Famous Writer, which positions her as a passionate giver and unapologetic taker in contrast to the author’s cautiously treaded marriage to M. She finds the energy to get up and dance on the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008; when she talks to another writer, her face brightens “as if promises and little deals are being passed back and forth.” She and the narrator cook a meal together, “a fifty-fifty thing, and the fact that we can move, without bumping or getting in each other’s way, seems like a beautiful thing.” Her heart sinks when her editor hates her second book and she can’t hide her bitterness when the author gets accepted into an exclusive writer’s conference, during which Lisicky writes, “But at every turn I’m thinking about Denise. Not just what I’ll reports back to her, but what I’ll withhold from her: I don’t want her to think I’m having too good a time.” There are misbehaviors, breaks in the spell, and efforts to mend without the embarrassment of full apology.
The third book, Tom McAllister’s The Young Widower’s Handbook, might be the most straightforward of the group. It also has the most modern sensibility, as it approaches grief from the angle of performance—the feeling that, in this day and age, we cannot even take on the task of hurting and healing without tinging the process with some kind of irony.
Framed as a road novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook follows a young man named Hunter Cady, whose wife has suddenly passed away. It happens when Hunter and Kait were still feeling out their dreams, finding traction. After Kait’s body is cremated and the insurance check cashed, Hunter finds himself alone in a new silence:
When he opens his eyes, he see thousands of ghosts in his home, each one a vision of Kait at a different stage of their shared life; they crowd into the house shoulder-to-shoulder and some are cooking and some are sleeping and some are dancing and some are hanging pictures and everywhere around him there are Kaits. Kait in the wallpaper and bubbling in the water supply and buzzing in the wiring in the walls. He calls out to her but she doesn’t respond. His voice sounds like it is underwater.
Eventually Hunter settles on an action plan: to take Kait’s ashes with him on a cross-country road trip, visiting all of the destinations they had talked about visiting together. The book then becomes a road trip novel, with Hunter encountering eccentrics along the way, and though it risks becoming one of those overstretched narratives in which a young, troubled character shirks his responsibilities, it rings true by avoiding easy solution and letting a sense of memory and emotional obligation be the driving force. Hunter takes selfies with the urn and posts them on social media, his friends reacting initially with support, then concern. Kait’s family grows impatient. Apart from his parents, who are limited in their willingness to empathize, Hunter has no sounding board: no bro-buddy or brother who can lure him toward an unserious perspective. We realize by the end that such a character wouldn’t have belonged because Kait was Hunter’s best friend.
What rings particularly true about The Young Widower’s Handbook is the expectation of behavior foisted upon us when someone close to us dies, when you feel others watching your every move. It it has wise observations regarding how we grieve in the Internet age, when there’s this perceived responsibility to show others that we are okay when we are not, or following the path of progress that is expected of us. Grief is idiosyncratic; frustratingly, no two routes are the same, which clashes with the impulses of those around us to guide our consolations along what is standard and predictable. There’s somehow this impression that we are violating the sanctity of another soul if we attempt to do something that makes our grief personal and ours.
March 17, 2017 § Leave a comment
I don’t do much writing about my day job here, but I’m particularly excited about the release this week of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by my good friend and colleague, Kory Stamper.
I’ve known Kory since I began working as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer almost 16 years ago. (In fact, for a long time her cubicle was in such close proximity to mine that we’d send snarky emails to each other whenever we’d be privy to the too-loud conversations about our neighbor’s medical appointments.) She is not only one of the best there is at what we do, she excels at putting into words the convoluted mental exercises that come with trying to pin down an ever-shifting language in a way that makes sense.
(Disclaimer: I’m quoted in the book a handful of times.)
You can read one excerpt of the book at Longreads and another at Slate, as well as a thoughtful review by Megan Garber in The Atlantic.
March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
At the New York Times, an informative look at the career of Paula Fox, who has died at the age of 93. A writer of books for adults and children, she was best known for Desperate Characters, a novel that had been out of print when it was picked up in a library at Yaddo by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it in a 1996 Harper’s essay. I wrote about the book here.
A number of Fox’s novels were subsequently re-released after Desperate Characters, including The Western Coast, for which the introduction was provided by another of my favorite writers, Frederick Busch. That one is now on my wish list. I was also intrigued by the bit of trivia that Fox was briefly the sister-in-law of Clement Greenberg.
January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
“I’m sure it was an elegant scream,” he said. She muzzled a laugh into his shoulder. Lovers a few times, they made a comfortable shape. “A New York scream.”
“It takes nerve for anything to occupy that much space,” she said into his chest.
“Sculpture, you mean.”
“Ha. Yes. And limousines, and airports.”
I’m delighted to have a new story, “Real Property,” up at JMWW today. It’s about museum sculptures and terror and new homes in sketchy neighborhoods. Many thanks go out to editor Jen Michalski for giving this piece a cozy home as well as for her sharp editorial insights.
January 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
Swallowed By the Cold, Jensen Beach. This collection of interlinked stories is set in Sweden, where the author has lived. The stories are not only made alive by evoking a strong sense of place, they evoke enough of the country’s own past—such as the country’s involvement in The Winter War in Finland in 1939 or the attack on Stockholm by the Soviet Union in World War II–to make clear that the book partly wants to be about Swedish identity.
Though the stories are linked, the characters seem to ache through a loneliness, knowing who their neighbors are but not reaching them as people. The death of one of them in a bicycle accident radiates out to a number of the stories:
“Lisa,” Helle said, “is that the man with one arm?” The tennis player with only one arm?” They both laughed and then Peter joined in, laughing and saying, “You never told me about him, you never told me about him!” at Helle repeatedly, as though he were happy to have missed out on the joke.
The Door, Magda Szabó. I hadn’t heard of Magda Szabó (1917-2007) before her work was reissued by NYRB Classics, but apparently she was a pretty big deal in her native Hungary. The Door was first published in 1987 and continues the European theme of class discrepancy and the struggle to communicate across divides. The narrator, named Magda, is a writer and academic, perhaps as well known as Magda Szabó was in real life. She had been silenced during the Communist regime, but its fall has led to new opportunities, and she and her husband hire a housekeeper named Emerence, who lives in a cottage near their home. The door to this cottage is the referenced in the title; Magda and other visitors are allowed on the porch, but absolutely nobody is allowed inside.
The relationship between the two women becomes a test of wills, at first coldly professional, and then, after Magda’s husband becomes ill, seeping with an intimacy and a nosiness that seems unavoidable between two strong personalities living in close quarters. Where the novel cashes in is in the moments where their backgrounds rub against one another and Magda’s own bubble comes close to being pierced:
“What is this kitsch?” she asked. “What does it mean? Explain it to me.”
I wracked my brain for a way to explain to her the vices of the innocent, ill-proportioned, cheaply-made little dog.
“Kitsch is when a thing is in some way false, created to provide superficial, trivial pleasure. Kitsch is something imitative, fake, a substitute for the real thing.”
“This dog is fake?” she asked, with rising indignation. “A fraud? Well, hasn’t it got everything – ears, paws, a tail? But it’s all right for you to keep a brass lion’s head on your desk. You think it’s wonderful, and your visitors gush over it, and make knocking noises with it, like idiots, though it doesn’t even have a neck – nothing – just a head, but they go bang bang with it on the stationery cupboard. So the lion, which doesn’t even have a body, is not a fake, but the dog, that’s got everything a dog has, is? Why are you telling me such lies?
Stoner, John Williams. Stoner is one of the more popular and beloved NYRB reissues—The New Yorker, in 2013, called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”—and it’s easy to see why: the prose is lucid with underlying tensions and remorseless in depicting the bumps and derailments in an American life and marriage. It’s also hard not to notice the comments it makes about the suffocating environment of academia. The title character, on track for a career in agronomy, instead takes a liking to literature and becomes an instructor at the University of Missouri. William Stoner is adept at his work and for the most part successful, though he enters into personality clashes with two antagonists, a particularly testing Ph.D. candidate and a calculating department head. His relationship with his wife, meanwhile, turns quickly from one of frolic to one of function and eventually resentment, leading him all too predictably to begin an affair with a student, putting his position and everyone around him at risk.
I suspect it is the convincing jabs at the university culture that gives Stoner its audience of admirers, because any sense of movement in the book is measured out by Stoner’s collapse and moral erosion. But it also demonstrates a balanced ability with language that is fitting to the subject:
But he had room in his office for only a few of his books, and his work on his manuscript was often interrupted because he did not have the necessary texts; moreover one of his office mates, an earnest young man, had the habit of scheduling student conferences in the evenings, and the sibilant, labored conversations carried on across the room distracted him, so that he found it difficult to concentrate. He lost interest in his book; his work slowed and came to a halt. Finally he realized that it had become a refuge, a haven, an excuse to come to this office at night. He read and studied, and at last came to find some comfort, some pleasure, and even a ghost of the old joy in that which he did, a learning toward no particular end.
We Always Treat Women Too Well, Raymond Queneau. Queneau is often identified as one of the co-founders of Oulipo, a school that promotes new and experimental forms in literature, stretching against preset limits. He wrote Zazie in the Metro, which I read several years ago. This comic novel presents a more standard structure, a pulp satire surrounding a hostage-taking at a Dublin post office during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Since it’s a comic novel, the crooks are their own worst enemies, and their plan goes awry when they try to evacuate all of the workers and leave a young woman, Gertie Girdle, who had been in the restroom. Naturally, the all-male cabal of rebels don’t know how to respond to her presence, which she leverages against them.
The absence of any point to the plot leaves the reader searching for something even of a gratuitous pleasure to hang onto, just for traction. There are clublike allusions to modernist writers, particularly Joyce (never mind that it’s set six years before Ulysses was published); there is Three Stooges-like zaniness; there is rape imposed as a joke. In the introduction, John Updike writes, “This farce feels genuinely sexy” because “we are left with an impression of relations between men and women as lawless and predatory.” But the modern reader needs to be nudged in that direction just to have a frame of reference for what Queneau is trying to achieve here.
This bewildering year ends with me having read thirty-seven books, many of them very good. I think I ended up buying more than that number, because my office floor is covered with stacks of books I haven’t cracked. I was glad to go through all five novels of Jean Rhys, even though I never got to write about them in the comprehensive way I intended. I was glad to see Colson Whitehead get the acclaim he has long deserved for The Underground Railroad; it is a tense and thickly layered book that allows imagination to be used to a weapon for processing the ugly and shameful marks of our past, and as a delivery to hope.
In real life I visited Iceland and Montreal; in books I visited both of those places (via Halldor Laxness, Jon Gnarr, and Mavis Gallant), along with Jamaica (Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), Hungary (Magda Szabó’s The Door), Sweden (Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold), Bulgaria (Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You) and New York City in the summer of 1977 (Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire). I was warmed by a little novel called Glaciers by Alexis Smith and the chance it allows in the small acts we undertake.
There are books you read for pleasure and books you read for ideas, and one book that filled me to the brim with both was Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. For a domestic book, it reveals so much of what a writer can do in a limited space, even with physically limited characters, tethered either literally to hospital beds or to their responsibilities. Berlin lets her characters share the wisdom they have gleaned from their experience, not explain from the bottom up like so many books do, and so her stories have a depth and subtlety I’ve rarely seen replicated anywhere else.
December 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s not often that you remember the exact point in your life when you learned a word.
In the November 21 New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the deal that almost came to pass between J. D. Salinger and an Emmy Award-winning television director, Peter Tewksbury, to make a movie out of Salinger’s story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” from 1950, which appears in the collection Nine Stories.
As Lepore writes, the eight-thousand-word story attracted interest almost immediately after it was published in The New Yorker:
For a long time, Salinger had the same policy for “Esmé.” A month after the story appeared, “an English film maggot,” as Salinger called him, said he wanted to make a movie out of it; Salinger wasn’t interested. In 1953, “Esmé” was reprinted in Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” a collection whose U.K. edition was titled “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor: And Other Stories.” The following year, the BBC tried to acquire the rights to adapt “Esmé” for a radio drama series hosted by Laurence Olivier. Salinger said no. In 1958, Salinger’s U.K. publisher sold paperback rights to the story collection to a publishing house that issued a cheap pocketbook whose flashy cover pictured Esmé as a dishy blonde, with the tagline “Explosive and Absorbing—A Painful and Pitiable Gallery of Men, Women, Adolescents, and Children.” Salinger never spoke to the publisher again.
If it’s possible for there to be a Salinger trope, the precocious child is it. Lepore quotes the writer from 1955: “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children.” It’s conceivable to argue that the seven Glass children, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of other stories, were a precursor to the reality TV family; they were, after all, known to America as regular contestants of a panel-quiz show. If a Salinger story were to be filmed, the Glass kids would be too-perfect subjects; it’s not hard to picture a treatment along the lines of Whit Stillman or Wes Anderson.
What’s remarkable about the choice to film “Esmé”—as opposed to the cruise-ship-set “Teddy” or “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”—is its containment: it’s essentially about a girl who bugs a stranger in a restaurant. The narrator, stationed in Devon before the D-Day invasion, kills time by ducking into a choir rehearsal, where Esmé is one of the singers:
Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.
Esmé later shows up at the tea shop with her little brother and a caretaker whom the narrator presumes to be their governess. Esmé’s father was killed—she spells out s-l-a-i-n so her brother can’t hear—in North Africa. She wears his oversized army watch on her wrist. The narrative heft is packaged in Esmé’s polished mannerisms and embarrassments around this older man: her “blasé eyes” that “might very possibly have counted the house”; her “clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester”; and her upper-school vocabulary (“Usually, I’m not terribly gregarious,” she confides).
“I’m training myself to be more compassionate,” she tells him. “My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person.”
Upon learning that the narrator is a writer—or at least thinks of himself as one—she requests that he write a story just for her.
“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”
“About what?” I said, leaning forward.
“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”
I remember when I first encountered the word squalor. It was in a newspaper article about a friend’s family, describing the trailer in which they lived. (Not that I really want to get into it here, but he had done something horrible to merit making the news.) I remember looking up squalor and realizing just how damaging my class advantages would be to my understanding of the world. We were by no means rich, but we were safe.
And so then, after going through my late-blooming Salinger phase—we never read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, too full of ideas perhaps—it was jarring to encounter the word uttered from the mouth of this character with her liberty of curiosities. Later, a woman I knew at a job would sign her notes with the closing, “Love and Squalor,” which I thought was pretentious, even though by then I had forgotten what the story was about.