Sunday, November 12, 2006

Oates, DeLillo, DF Wallace: some quick notes


Joyce Carol Oates is not my favorite writer, but for all the repetition of her themes of fragile women being imperiled by evil masculine forces they masochistically desire, she does occasionally publish something both compelling and well written. I have read ten of her over 200 published novels, and stare at the remainder the way a drunk might obsess over the unopened bottles left in a beer truck.I detested "Beasts" and "The Falls" since she exercises her familiar dreads in contrasting lengths, the first book a slender novella, the latter a literal brick, both books sounding rushed, fevered, breathless, as first drafts of novels usually do. Or a finished Oates novel, for that matter. She does get it right sometimes, as she did with "Black Water" and "Tattoo Girl"; with the right configuration, her usual wits-end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get. She merits a bit of respect, although you wish she'd stop trying to win the Nobel Prize so obviously with her tool-and-dye production and take longer to write a novel a reader didn't have to rationalize about.

Editors hold much less sway in the preparation of a book, it seems. It's not just a matter of writers who write quickly getting away with redundant excess and awkward passages, such as Oates and Stephen King. Those who take their time also seem to avoid the more severe markings of the editor's blue pencil, as in the case with Jonathan Franzen.

Even though I half way enjoyed The Corrections, I was embarrassed by many parts where the good, meticulously controlled prose just stopped as if it were exhausted after a long work out and suddenly went lax and slapdash and cliche glutted. This is a tendency in writers who feel that every sentence they compose is required to sum up the human condition, and a good editor would have handed the work in progress in a conference with the author with a discussion about how to make the writing even better, punchier, less hackneyed. I would love to see Infinite Jest broken up into a series of novels in the manner of Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, a project that would force Wallace to rid the work of the twenty page foot notes and furnish comprehensible arcs from one book to the next. It would make an interesting set of ideas about he nature of addiction readable to people other than fringy grad school sorts.

I think Richard Ford is a extraordinarily gifted prose writer whose control of his style is rare in this time of flashy virtuosos , ala Franzen and DF Wallace or Rick Moody, whose good excesses run neck-and-neck with their considerable assets. Ford, in his The Sports Writer, Indepence Day, and certainly in this collection of Multitude of Sins, understands his strengths in language and advances , seemingly, only those virtues in his work. He obviously understands the lessons of Hemingway , and wisely chooses not imitate: rather, the words are well chosen. For the more poetic language of similes and metaphor, The Cheever influence is clear; the imagery to describe the detail make those details resonate profoundly, as in the last story "Abyss", without killing the tale with a language that's too rich for the good of the writing.

Beasts
, yet another new one from Joyce Carol Oates, is short novella about an impressionable young poetess surrendering to a catastrophic seduction by her amoral, decadence-spouting writing professor. Oates doing what she does best, inhabiting a mind on the verge of a breakdown, giving us a personality that translates experience whose every instance portends disaster. She is not my favorite writer, but this one is convincingly creepy.

Cultivating Delight
by Diane Ackerman is a wonderful series of meditations , anecdotes, and lyric essays based on her deep observation of her expansive, personal garden in Ithaca , NY. She is a fine writer who has a dual sense of the poetic and the scientific, and her ability to employ both sensibilities on the same subject results in surprising insights.

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobels. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth, is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plot lines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some predetermined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. Nice work, great work, magic. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world,where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherant and supremely foriegn. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs , in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn.

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whose hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately "Underworld" sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed, our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incomprehensibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that neve existed. The book haunts me even as I re-read it.


Zombie
by Joyce Carol Oates is a rather potent little psychodrama, and it's the kind of writing Oates excels at. She gets to the heart of the fringe personality better than anyone I can think of. The Tattooed Girl, from 2003, is likewise a well shaped melodrama. She depicts the thinking of women who allow themselves to be beaten and killed with seemingly scary exactitude. Oates can also be a bore, evident in We Were Mulvaneys and The Falls. My fascination with her continues, though, since it's impossible to tell when she publish another novel that will be gripping and unnerving