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 overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning of dated and contrived hip argot was embarrassing to read through. 

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 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

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 than either a weapon or varies kinds of braces and blocks than as a book to be read. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the one book I would claim to be morally offensive; offensive for its 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. 

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 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. 

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 are 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 door stoppers 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. 

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 workout 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. 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 footnotes and furnish comprehensible arcs from one book to the next. It would make an interesting set of ideas about the nature of addiction readable to people other than fringe grad school sorts. 


It's been said that John Updike can write extremely well about nothing whatsoever, less to do with the sort of hyperrealism of Robbe-Grillet or the purposeful taxonomies of David Foster Wallace than the plain old conceit of being to love your 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 are 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 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. 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. 

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 spectacular 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. 

Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to John Cheever by some critics. Moody, however, doesn't come to close to Cheever's achievement. 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 a busted water main. All 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 rushing 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. 

I've spent a reading lifetime berating Ayn Rand and her work, and I've been given the "it has some good ideas" counterargument, 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 stockbroker 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 Übermensch 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 mind fucker whose basic concern was controlling her little world and its inhabitants with the ironic promise of that she might lead them to greater freedom. 

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 apart from 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.


  1. Anonymous1:42 AM PDT

    "The Fountainhead...offensive for it's wretchedness as a novel, offensive for the vaporization of selfishness and insisting that the base quality is actually a virtue." Is this your "passionate and well-tuned indictment?"

  2. Note, first off, that the line should read as "valorization", not "vaporization". It's a phrase to be repaired.

    Otherwise, it's a concise and spot-on (I think) description of Rand's graceless prose and swell-headed romanticism. Do you like the novel?

  3. Good to discover your blog, which drew my admiration because you take on some of my favorite targets for--preaching to the choir?--the same basic reasons. In essence, Wolfe is Norman Mailer in a suit, a suit, by the way, lifted from Mark Twain.

    Bravo also for your appropriate dismissal of Ayn Rand and your attack on the but-her-ideas-are-good argument used by some critics who are otherwise disdainful of her atrocious politics and even more atrocious prose style. Newt Gingrich with a wig.

    I've linked to you and will certainly check in with some regularity.

  4. Anonymous2:16 AM PDT

    Yes, I thought it was an effective vehicle for her ideas. I'm more interested in your indictment of selfishness than in a strictly literary criticism (she was writing in her second language, after all).

  5. Literary criticism is what I'm trained in, and it is a method which gives entree to other areas of concern, be their philosophical, moral, ethical, spiritual.

    Nabokov also wrote in English as a second language, as did Joseph Conrad and V.S.Naipaul. They are generally regarded as masters of English prose style. It wouldn't surprise me that Rand's writing in Russian wouldn't be anymore fluid or graceful.

    I've little problem with "enlightened self interest", a general concept where one pursues their own agenda with it in mind that their goal is not just to fulfil their own wants and needs but also benefit others in doing so. One "does well by doing good" when they realize that their
    rights are coherent and effectively applicable in larger social and cultural contexts. Rand lops off the "enlightened" part and effectively tries to make an intellectual defense for adults, males for the most part, to act like three years olds and essentially demand that the world bow to their self-defined genius and all the pulverizing engineering it takes for said genius to be foisted on the community. It's a childish view, the mewlings of King Baby, and it is, frankly, solipsistic to a degree that approaches a species of mental illness. Of course, that's just my opinion, and I may be wrong. But I doubt it. I've written another rant here you can read if you're interested in my further fumings against Rand and her insults to Literature. I suspect that you'll find the remarks redundant, but no more so than Rand's thin pretensions to both art and moral conscious.

  6. Thanks for the comments , Shelly. I'm always glad when someone finds this blog and bothers to remark on my musings, whether yay or nay. Beats sitting in the wilderness alone and unheard.

    I used to admire Wolfe and consider his books like Electric Kool aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff unassailable masterpieces of literary journalism, but somewhere in the eighties he began to assert himself as novelist, social critic and literary theorist to degrees that were perilously close-minded and presumptive to being correct, without criticism. I figure he was jealous of Mailer's accomplishments as both journalist and novelist, resented his position as a social critic people read whether they agreed with him or not, and engaged in a game of catch-up. His novels are rather jacked-up affairs--busy, noisy, ambitious and impatient with with craft--that have given us straw men and women in variations of comic bad faith whose fates are oddly predictable; one feels this to be a man who is learning to dress himself at long last, trying on everything in the closet looking for a suit that fits. Nothing he's done in fiction quite "fits". I am a Mailer partisan, though, and I've been a fan of his fiction for decades. Simply put, Wolfe is trying to breath life into the stylings of Fielding, and Dickens, while Mailer is inventing new narrative styles based on the efforts of others who influenced. There's more to the position , but let's just say that I regard Mailer as the more interesting and innovative of the two writers.

    Rand, of course, is a subject that riles me no end. I had a flirtation with Libertarianism while in college and fell in with an Objectivist Study Group. After six months of this stuff, I realize it was a jargon-heavy circle jerk , made my exit and registered as a born again Democrat. It was like getting sober, literally.

  7. Whenever a sufficiently self-aware egoist (Ayn Rand, Dave Sim, Robert Heinlein) writes a book without an editor's hand touching it, they end up with the same voice. Shouting. Because nobody will listen to them.

    Personally, I enjoyed The Fountainhead because it forced me to think. I ended up agreeing with Ms. Rand on owning one's own decisions, while disagreeing on the nature of the evil set against individualism.

    Collectivism is emotion-based, and thus values "us" more than "you and me", which is an identical formulation in logic, but not in emotion.

    Collectivism is set against difference in any and every form, but does not realize that difference is the basis for power and movement.

    As a science fiction fan, the conceptual leap from politics to raw physics startled me as much as Dave Sim's Cerebus startled me with its switch from a Conan parody to an illustrative view of Enlightenment-era politics.

    Dave Sim - another author whose work had very big ideas. I bet he'd be on your list if you've ever read Cerebus.

  8. Some writers who write with a lenient editor hand produce masterpieces and garner readerships--Joyce, Pynchon, Mailer, Thomas Mann. Most don't, however. Writerly genius is rare.

    Reading "The Fountainhead" made me think as well, and my conclusion was that Rand worshipped raw power while disguising as a rationale philosophy. She is, I fear, an enemy of freedom, at least the freedom we have in Democracies.

    "Collectivism" is a buzzword that has no currency and is fairly meaningness given the fall of Communism. I am not advocating socialistic solutions here; I am saying the unconstrained worship of Individualism is as dangerous as the unconstrained "emotionalism"
    you accuse your ill-defined collectivist of being.

    David Sims I do not know, regrets.
    But if he's a science fiction writer, I will not likely read him, since I think SCIFI is better viewed in the movies than suffered through in books.

  9. Anonymous11:12 PM PDT

    hi ted,
    Fray's down, coffee index is up. there may be no stopping me...

    there's a smart and articulate catholic radio host in ann arbor/ detroit MI (recently went national) whose daily show is commentary on many facets of quotidian noise-- politics, literature, current events etc. i like it lots.

    occasionally, he sprees with what seems his favorite topic: movies. a few years ago, i called in his show to express my glee and gratitude. he had just voiced his enduring discomfiture with Citizen Kane, which may be adequately condensed as such: "Citizen Kane. what's with that?"

    i was thrilled to say the least. CK, i had long suspected, was one of those art pieces hijacked or designed to separate the us from the them. with Kane as the litmus test, i was a them, the chaff, the cheap seats.

    Ayn Rand had the same effect of suspicion on me. as a nineteen year old college student, it seems Rand should have electrified me. she did the gaggle of newly deflowered geese i was running the campus with. when, in a class that could have been called, 'stylish dog-paddling of 20th century cesspool' i was assured, 'you'll love this!'

    when i returned to class the following week, i had one question, "what is this shit?"

    i was as amoral as the best of them, but Rand's elevation of the disease seemed ridiculous to me. i was more than suspicious of an instruction book on deconstruction. who needed a free-thinker defining free thinking?

    i have fallen for a few hyped hipsters and a few "step right up, folks" barkers in my life. i couldn't give it up for Rand. that's how her groupies seemed to me-- like the wool was pulled and they were thrilled because it was a radical wool.

    without Rand, i had to devise other ways to appear edgy and nihilistic.

    ted, you validate me. i love that about you.

  10. Hi there, w/c! I just heard from MA. She was in Chicago. She thanks everyone for their concern.

    I like "CK" just fine, but there are better films Wells had filmed, I think, chief among them "A Touch of Evil" and "The Magnificent Ambersons". "CK" has been so absorbed by the cultural machinery that sets up standards and creates canons that it when anyone would cite the film as the last word in film making(in any respect) my Bullshit Detector would sound off. I was relieved to read some critics that were more demanding of Wells the film maker--Duncan Shepard of the San Diego among them. It wasn't that I was proven right about anything, it was just that there were other people who likewise that "CK" , seminal though it may have been, was several shades over rated.

    Rand's work to make her rancid and stagnant mug of selfishness and unstoppable ego gratification palatable as a rational philosophy is the single biggest fraud in 20th century literature, and her fans and followers, who have the earmarkings of cultists, are not folks who will brook any deviation from the partyline that her writings are genius both as art and moral essaying. When I changed my party registration back to Democrat from Liberatarian back in the early eighties, I felt as if I'd detoxed from some horrible drug addiction; once away from the Randians and their prating study groups, I realized how creepy and Stepford Wife-ish these clowns seemed.


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