Sunday, May 13, 2007

Writers and the Books they Wrote that Irritated Me


On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most over rated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning in dated and contrived hip argot was embarrassing to read through.
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Underworld was easily one of the best and most important American novels of the last fifty years, and the care and mastery of his writing is a quality the talented but frequently expulsive Jonathan Franzen should pay attention to. The Corrections, Franzen's most recent attempt to join William Gaddis as fabled practitioner of the Big Novel, is an epic that conspicuously hadn't completed the editing and revising process; some of the sentences, similes and metaphors are so hamstrung and haphazardly constructed that you wonder if a blue pencil was taken to his manuscript at all. A shame, because Franzen is a good prose writer, as you can witness in either Strong Motion, his previous novel, or in his collection of essays and journalism How to Be Alone.
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I have a great aversion to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, an obese scale-breaker that ought to have been chopped into a series of novels, ala Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. There's certainly the material. I have a sneaking suspicion that the book has been used more as either a weapon or varies kinds of braces and blocks than as book to be read. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the one book I would claim to be morally offensive; offensive for it's wretchedness as a novel, offensive for the valorization of selfishness and insisting that the base quality is actually a virtue.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis. I would be willing to accept the defense that Ellis’s quickie squib is in fact a satire of consumerism, a literary bit of photo realism if there was compelling art here. There isn't, however, and the defense falls apart. Ellis writes as if he had to submit this against a deadline, and he'd wasted his considerable lead time by living off his hefty advance. Ellis does a good job of diagnosing the narcissism of the eighties, but that by itself does nothing for either our understanding or empathy.

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You Shall Know Our Velocity by David Eggers irritated me no end, a rapidly written novel about two young men trying to fly all over the world in a week's time in order to give away $32,000. A good idea for a screwball comedy, but as a novelist Eggers exhibits that same rhythm and pitch he showed A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius, breathless and stammering. A bag of noise, essentially, not unlike watching a string of bad stand- up comics on pot luck night.
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I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe is another of that author's attempts to revive the Dickens/Anthony Trollope social novel, a college comedy, of sorts, where the bright but sheltered title character arrives at a modern college where the ways of the student body is anything but academic. I Am Charlotte Simmons is only the latest in Tom Wolfe's failing attempts to assert his relevance in American literature as a novelist. It's a lost cause, really, because the very talent that made his non-fiction work, for the most part, such wonderfully acidic and last portraits of a consumer culture is the same things that make his fiction elephantine bores. Supreme inspection of ticks and toilet can elevate personality pieces to the stage of writing art, but it produces flat characters, static situations, and rather desperate stretches of over writing to compensate for undeniable inertia. Wolfe seems to want to assume the position of the late William Gaddis in being America's greatest comic social novelist, but the distinction between the two writers is crucial; Gaddis was a virtuoso with language, dialogue and character, and was more than able to make use of copious research in his fiction in ways that made his fiction's famous complexity actually worth sussing through. Gaddis's The Recognitions is precisely the complex New York comic novel of art, commerce, greed and religion that Wolfe is incapable of writing Wolfe lost his punch years ago, producing two-dimensional doorstoppers as novels and angry-dog rants as essays in his most recent efforts, and Simmons has the kind of over-writing found in once-hip writers trying to establish their relevance. He sounds shrill and angry here. Wolfe insists that he's culturally conservative, yet isn't ready to make like John Dos Passos and tone down his writing; something in him desires to remain "edgy", or at least wants to be thought of as beings so. On the one hand he produces literary manifestos denouncing academic and experimental novelists who've forsaken their calling to produce moral fiction, and on the other he produces ham-handed vulgarity under the guise of satire with I Am Charlotte Simmons. He seems unaware that his novels are as bad as Brett Easton Ellis's, and his rationale for writing fiction the way he does is just as thin.
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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 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, and 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 wit's end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic psychologies get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get. Zombie 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 publishes another novel that will be gripping and unnerving.

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. 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 cliché 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, and 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.

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It's been said that John Updike is able to write extremely well about nothing what so ever, less to do with the sort of hyper-realism of Robbe-Grillet or the purposeful taxonomies of David Foster Wallace than the plain old conceit of being in love your own voice. There is no theoretical edge to Updike's unceasing albeit elegant wordiness. It's a habit formed from deadlines, I guess, having to write a long and coherently in short spurts. He has published a minimum of one book a year since his first book The Poorhouse Fair was published in 1958, and like any artists who is as prolific over a long period--Wood Allen and JC Oates fans take note--there will be the inevitable productions that are ambitious but under constructed, dull, repetitive of past success, what have you.

Toward the End of Time was one of his occasional flings with science fiction and it was dull beyond repair. Licks of Love was rather a quaint and grandiloquent selection of lately composed stories that don't add much to his reputation. The Rabbit quartet, though, is masterful, a genuine American Saga of a man who is the quintessential rudderless citizen who goes through an entire lifetime in which none of his experiences gives any clue to purposes beyond his own disappointments and satisfactions. Updike is brilliant in this sequence, and for this alone I'd guess his reputation as a major writer is safe for generations to come. He's had his share of duds, but an unusually high proportion of his work is masterful, even brilliant. The Rabbit quartet, The Coup, Witches of Eastwick, Brazil, Beck: A Book, The Centaur, Roger's Version. I could go on. It's interesting as well to note the high incidence of experimentation with narrative form and subject matter. Rabbit placed him with this image of being someone comically dwelling on the lapsed virtues of middle aged East Coasters, ala John Cheever, (another writer I prize), but he has been all over the map so far as what he's written about and how he wrote about it. Even though I've cooled on Updike lately--I've been reading him for thirty years--I can't dismiss him nor diminish his accomplishment. He is one of the untouchables. Besides, neurosis is character, and it's hardly a monochromatic shade. It's a trait that comes across in infinitely varied expressions, and we need someone who can artfully exploit their potential.
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I have generally enjoyed and admired the Hemingway I've read, and I think the short stories in In Our Time are among the best by an American author in the 20th Century. That said, The Sun Also Rises was amazing and To Have and to Have Not equally so. At his best, Hemingway really could convey large emotions and subtle movements of mood with very few words. It was a reverse virtuosity that couldn't sustain itself, though, and left him with nothing but self parodied the more he was unwilling to change his style. Old Man in the Sea, among others, are relentlessly dull and full of the kind of self-pity that makes you want to smack him.
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Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to one of my favorites, John Cheever, by many well-meaning critics, but rather than a young writer taking some cues from Cheever's careful and lightly applied poetry and sentiment as regards infidelity, alcoholism, insanity and lurking bi-sexuality, Moody is as effusive as busted water main. All of the previously described elements are there, but without Cheever's wit, irony or craft. None of his grace, either. Moody is one of these young novelists who are in a hurry to cram the world into each paragraph, with the goal being not to persuade the reader to go along with a story but rather to make the telling as intense as possible. This is the kind of ham handed narrative style that is a prose equivalent of an Oliver Stone movie, the uneasy work of an artist obsessed with keeping their "edge". Moody may have kept his edge, suggested by the jittery run-on disasters this rag of a novel lays out, but it's nothing worth sitting down for. Purple America, though, is worth throwing away.
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I've spent a reading lifetime berating Ayn Rand and her work, and I've been given the "it has some good ideas" counter argument, a response that makes me want to search for a brick wall to bash my head against. There's nothing like having a well fed yuppie stock broker or Pilate-addicted trophy mom go flat line on you with that kind of defense after you've delivered a passionate and well-tuned indictment of Rand and her pretensions of philosophical worth. She was, if nothing else, a marketing genius, and knew her audience well, the various "little men" of no particular talent or depth who imagine themselves betrayed by Statist boobery and see themselves as intellectual giants who are fated to rise above the rabble and make their rules. Perversions of Nietzsche, to be sure, but Rand understood that if she presented herself as the quintessential ubermensch she might well gather about her otherwise educated toadies whose need to be bossed about and humiliated in hopes of maybe someday gaining the kind of Roarkian moral imperative to bomb public housing projects because they offended his sense of propriety ( The Fountainhead). Rand was a greasy, amoral mindfucker whose basic concern was controlling her little world and its inhabitants with the ironic promise of that she might lead them to greater freedom.
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I rather like David Eggers in Theory, in so far that his McSweeney's publishing enterprise encourages new writers and marketing that fall outside the conventional corporate habits and style, but I personally am appalled by his writing. I cut him some slack for A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius since it does tell a true story of a hard time in his life, where every bad thing that could happen did happen all the same time. The hastiness of the prose even added to the reading. His fiction, though, is fast talking affair that does not work on any level other than demonstrating Egger's skill at filling monitors with words in short order. You Shall Know Our Velocity was a shaggy dog story told by a crack head. Not good, and singularly annoying.