Friday, December 29, 2006

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I am chauvinist


I've learned that Elif Batuman is a woman. I had assumed, as the post below makes clear, that she was male.

This is not the first time I've done this. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time on the craigslist writers forum and found out that one of the people there I had assumed was male was actually female.

What do the two share? Obviously formidable intelligence. And a certain forcefulness of style.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Two passages

from James Woods's review of Terrorist:

1.Ahmad "is the product of a red-haired American mother, Irish by extraction, and an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the hot muddy fields of the overflowing Nile." (Ah, those Egyptians. This lofty genealogy is an extraordinary example of airy Orientalism, which, because the sentence combines baking and mud, clumsily manages to imply that the ancestors were somehow baked in mud. Egyptian bog people! Does Updike reread his own prose?)

2.This is preposterous, of course--Jack Levy smells of Jewishness!--but more interesting than its preposterousness is the inept way, again, in that last sentence, that Updike surrenders any pretense that he is capturing Ahmad's own manner of thinking, and just sails off, pleasing himself, wreathed in familiar silks.

Later in the review, Woods quotes some dialogue spoken by the Ahmad, the central character and it's awful. Or at least, I thought it was. Strange speech that's distractingly inhuman. Here, I'll reproduce it:

"I think recently my mother has suffered one of her romantic sorrows, for the other night she produced a flurry of interest in me, as if remembering that I was still there. But this mood of hers will pass. We have never communicated much. My father's absence stood between us, and then my faith, which I adopted before entering my teen years. She is a warm-natured woman, and were I a hospital patient I would gladly entrust myself to her care, but I think she has as little talent for motherhood as a cat. Cats let the kittens suckle for a time and then treat them as enemies. I am not yet quite grown enough to be my mother's enemy, but I am mature enough to be an object of indifference."

The posture of the first passage I quote above is that the clumsiness of Updike's writing here is obvious and indisputable. I don't think that's the case. The rhythms of the sentence are such that its easy to miss the slipperiness of meaning in the conditions in which Ahmad's ancestors were "baked." I suspect that Woods is being deliberately literal-minded here in order to feel superior to a much venerated figure. If a reviewer was generally sympathetic toward a novel, would he or she say, "Well, yes, as lovely as this book is, there are a number of distracting slip ups such as..." I suppose its possible, but I doubt it. We are quick to ignore flaws of little significance in our allies and to emphasize them in our enemies. The orientalism is the better point and it should stand on its own. Of course, Updike is more-than-seventy-year old American, so I, personally, forgive him for succumbing to an imperfect, outmoded, and racist trope when it takes as subtle and understated and literary a form as it does here.

The posture of the second passage is that ineptitude is not a relative designation that has to be elaborated and/or argued for. My feeling is that it does. I mean, I think Woods is right to say that Updike is writing over his character, but I have no trouble living with a non-impressionist translation of Ahmad's thinking. If we grant that my comfort with this technique or manner of writing is universally applicable, it hardly seems fair to characterize this moment in Updike's writing as inept. Even if we don't grant that, I think Woods would be disengenuous if he were to say that he was using the word in a narrow, literal way and withheld judgment with respect to the surrounding text. He must know that in a review, the sentence, especially when it contains a bold and confident and distinct judgment, will stand for the book, and to some extent the man.

I feel better about Woods drawing our attention to the quoted dialogue above. In that passage, someone reading the review will have a much better sense of the feeling we'll have while reading the book. In my mind, I imagine a certain detachment and lack of pizazz, a dry earnestness of purpose.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Can you not be more specific?

To an extent, I call bullshit on Elif Batuman, who, in the pages of N + 1 (I know of no better literary journal by the way), bitches at great length about various stylistic commonalities of contemporary short stories--this seen through the lens of 2005's America's Best Short Stories. Bullshit because he never really gets past a few non extensive examples in support of his generalizatoins. Although I shouldn't say bullshit. I should say something more moderate. But that's what I thought as I was reading.

Anyway, Batuman's--I have no idea who he is, but it's a really good essay, however much I disagree with the points it makes--complaints are that contemporary american short stories are so consistenly full of specificity. I have a problem with this conclusion. The problem is that specificity is, yes, ubiquitous and sort of compulsory, but that doesn't mean its worthless. I can't really speak for anyone but myself, but for whatever miniscule meaning it has, I derive consistent pleasure when a carefully chosen name in a story pricks my imagination into a non-routine mode of narrative consumption. I suppose you can fill a story with unconventional abstractions or generalities, but it would be a different beast from the sorts of short stories--short stories that tell stories--that Batuman praises in the essay. As for conventional abstractions, man, child, sadness, family, doctor, my mind just glides over them, filling in the most conventional images and meanings available in the library of television and newspaper tropes. (It's actually an interesting game to activate one's imagination in response to an abstraction, and flesh out the image on your own; of course, it's more fun when the author meets you half way.)

On the other hand, I acknowledge that the prevelance of the "specificity" technique likely drowns out its effect. Back to the original hand, though, you've got a grotesquely severe baby/bathwater problem when you bring the issue up at length in an essay whose second and third sentences are these:

And yet I think the American short story is dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukacs once wrote of the chivalric romanc, "by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic." Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propogated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between feature sand reviews; and by workshop-based programs and their attendant lilterary journals.

The essay delves in its second half into the psychology that renders the contemporary literary scene , as Batuman sees it, less good and suggests that a fear that the authentic is uninteresting leads authors to hitch their character's lives in primary, first order ways to history, as opposed, I guess you could say, history seen from television or via a pink slip. I think this is true, but isn't it inconsistent with the claim that stories should contain more of the general and less of the local then is the case?

While I'm not sure that contemporary novelists are as ashamed of their profession as Batuman suggests, I am entirely in agreement with his admonition to authors to "write with dignity, not in guilt."

In fact, its greatly encouraging to read such encouragement. But it pissed me of that the essay starts with a Seinfeldian riff on literary pet peeves that Batuman mistakes for an important part of a real problem.

*I should say also that I'm not sure this little blog post was worth writing. The act of putting together a short assesment like Batuman's pretty much guarantess that someone will have problems with it that are not unlike the problems he has with choosing Nissan over "sedan." Of course, it would be foolish to give up on the conversation for such a reason.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Excerpted from novel in progress

I know what I am and it terrifies me. My skin is a bark around my subdermal layers, a bark through which light passes and burns me. I am full of water. I am aging. My age is passing through me. The light and the air are burning me. I cannot believe in my own happiness, my happiness is as the bony branches of the oak tree scraping the window when the wind blows and I can talk about none of this. Or can I? Am I just afraid to?

My mother has rested on the toilet and shat four times today. She is ill. She is eating too many harsh foods, too many cheeses—I hear the sound of her shitting echoing through the house.

David’s dog was eating a corpse yesterday, over on Buckburn Terrace.

In the woods, in the summer, the light, everything you see, is the same for miles. I walked for four hours and the whole time the air smelled the same.

When I visited Will, when I was very young, when my skin and the organs beneath it were not as marked by the sun, we walked down a finger of land—it was more like an arm—that stretched out into the Pacific ocean for seven miles and was famous, or relatively famous, so Will’s guidebook said, for the two herds of a rare breed of Elk that lived on it, and I noticed, it was impossible not to notice, that within every one hundred yards you walked, you passed close to what must have been the average per ten feet of bits of scat—coyote? Fox?—rabbits, crows, falcons, enormous beetles, sand, strange and gnarled bushes. That might have been my first ever desolate moment. The world is full of wondrous things, but we are punished with anxiousness by our incapacity to honor its wonder, to have to speak not of what we see, but of love, and redemption, and honor, and goodness.

Friday, July 14, 2006

And the hipsters promised me nothing

I dreamt I was outside last night, on a field, in the middle of the night, during some sort of festival. There were pools of light. There were clusters of people and the air was full of smoke, shouting, laughter, distant music, and the smell of alcohol. The people were foreign to me (in a metaphysical sense--I don't know what country this was) , and rough, and I was scared. And someone a noticed me, a very tall, ugly, young man, with a jean jacket, a slight mullet, and a toady, a shorter, skinnier, version of himself. He noticed me and he accosted me. He punched me. He threatened to beat the shit out of me. I evaded him, but he pursued me. It was not a direct chase. I went from place to place and my pursuer would not embarrass himself to the point that he would actually be seen exerting himself in pursuit, but I could feel him keeping his eye out, for me. I never felt safe.

Finally, I approached a gentle, grassy slope, a log cabin outside of which had gathered a small crowd of San Francisco hipsters. San Francisco, I thought. We are of the same tribe. I'm saved.

Or something like that.

I approached them and they welcomed me in a friendly way and we made reciprocal gestures of appreciation. Then I told them about my problem. I had already noticed the tall man in the distance.

And the hipsters promised me nothing. Our bonds did not go very deep.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Oh this old thing?

I was cleaning up and peeling through an old notebook and found this poem or perhaps embryonic song lyrics that I wrote in a fit of stylistic honesty--exposing my adolescent soul and taste in order to get a thought out fluidly and unconstructedly--and found it amusing. The one bit that embarasses me is the word parlay, but I remember sort of following the rhyme and thinking, who cares anyway, if its nonsense...

Strip all language
From before your eyes
Because all you have
Is time and life
And who wants to deny
How much they press
In on you from every side
When all you have to do
Is say yes, I guess
I have to die some day
And all that's left
Is to play
With as much wit, fancy, and delight,
as you can parlay
Or perhaps
Lie down and admit
That what you see has
Lost its luster
Whatever choice you make
Will provoke no answer from above
Or inside


I was thinking on my bus ride home about how when I was a teenager or even in college my favorite thing was to walk into some warm human place out of a cold night in which I had been walking by myself. Friends inside, or maybe my parents, or a girlfriend. Nostrils numb. Woodsmell.

I do miss that.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Obviously, the Coulter comparison texts are up. I am ambivalent. My first impression is that she was obviously drawing from the sources in question. Did she cite them? If not, she's in the wrong. But I'm not going to dig any deeper right now. If she's guilty, I imagine the blogosphere will catch fire. I realize this is sort of an inane post on a momentary thought flickering through my mind. I've created it solely to answer the one below.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ann Coulter

What's strange about this developing Ann Coulter Plagiarizm story (besides the fact that no disputed quotations have surfaced alongside the text they copy, which, come on now, is a very basic and standard convention of the public-figure-plagiarized genre) is that her books are full of what by any reasonable standard, hell by almost any standard, except possibly I'm An Absurb Bastard Drunk Out of My Mind on Opposite Day standards, and even then I'm not sure, we could with an entirely clear confidence and ringing conviction call lies.

I guess the truth is that there's something less contestable and more read-handed about plagiarizm, the context being so easily established, but still . . . come fucking on.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Through the window of the small building he lives in, he sees a blue sky and Mediterranean trees growing from a hill strewn with white rocks. The trees are sinewy, wind-battered things .

By his bed there is a dresser with a candle and a bowl of oatmeal. He regards the oatmeal.

He tried for a while to eat it with a stick, but the spoon was better.

He chuckles, his hands in his lap. He is thinking about the fool who thought of the fool who had chosen the stick, this second fool who brooded over the choice of the stick.

Why, the second fool had plaintively thought, as he lay awake at night on his straw mattress, tickled by the night breeze, can one not see at the first that a spoon is the better choice? Why does one dally with a stick, with oatmeal full of wood fiber and bits of bark and the petty irritation of an inflamed tongue?

It is a shame, he’d thought. So much time wasted on an inelegant method of eating.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Pens, paper, religion

So I was commutting to work today and reading Mishima's Thirst for Love and thinking that it was really an astoundingly wonderful book. A rich, living, vibrant novel. I think of my brain as increasingly inert, but this book, which I've read at least twice before, animates it.

I find nature beautiful and many paintings beautiful, but nothing makes me feel whole the way a well-written novel does. I'm reminded of one the aspect of the world I most value, which is the existence of things-in-themselves (apologies if this sounds philosophical or if I'm abusing a philosophical concept). This is why I love trees. They are such strange and absorbing things when you clean out all the language in your mind and let them expose their nature to you, through your eyes. What pleases me about this is that there's nothing transcendent about that perception. When I encounter something artificed in this sort of frame of mind and it manages to be--perhaps its an illusion, perhapse not--as strange and unique as a tree or a city or a mountain or water, I'm filled with a white light of joy. The feeling is never so strong as it is with novels. I think that's because novels are so quotidian. They encourage us to pour out our sense of the ordinary, of unvarnished, prosaic reality, in a way that poetry, or music, which are much more about their own form, do not. This impulse to catalogue the banal is a burden, I think, to many novelists, but when it works, when something important and true, but nonetheless ordinary, is represented in a novel in a convincing fashion, there's a powerful thrill to it.

And this is what I felt on the train this morning. As I was feeling it, I glanced over to my left and there was a man, maybe in his late thirties, scribbling away in a small notebook. He had almost used the thing up. His notebook rested on another book, which was sitting in his lap.

He's obviously a serious writer, I thought. Funny that there would be two of us on the same train so devoted to consuming texts and making new ones.

I went back to Thirst for Love. When we reached my stop, I looked over at the man and saw that the book he had been responding to in his notes was some version of the bible.

My opinion changed. He was now, to me, a totemist, a babbler, somebody hysterically pouring himself into communion with something whose meaning is ultimately sterile, somebody speaking in tongues, but on a page, with a pen.

Of course, it occurred to me that our textual impulses, his to commune with a religious text, mine to feel more real and alive by crafting something sharp and seamless out of the flotsam of my existence, were perhaps the same thing at bottom. The objects with which we had chosen to fullfil our impulses might have been different, but the difference was arbitrary. Anything will make you rapturous if you believe it should.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Crazy Talk is being guest blogged at the moment and, in a long post about writerly categories and Kurt Vonnegut, guest blogger Lance Mannion quotes from a book called A Scream Goes Through the House by Arnold Weinstein and lets it pass with a minimum of objection. Here's the quote:
"My view of art is quite at odds also with the electronic network that stamps our age, because the Internet culture, however capacious it might be, is also largely soulless and solipsistic---informational rathar than experiential---when contrastred with our engagement with art."
This strikes me as shortsighted crazy talk. It's logically shortsighted because the web is a changing thing, so even if it was, at present, perfectly, unarguably soulless, it would be foolish to assume it couldn't gain a soul, whatever that might mean. That's a minor point about inaccuracy.

My instinct tells me Mr. Weinstein is exhibiting an inclination to dislike something that is new and unfamiliar and from which he feels excluded. This is wild and unfair speculation, I know. But his words do seem clueless. They strike me as the equivalent of saying there's no good literature being made in the world when you only read English. But that's another logical point. I guess my real objection is that the difference between a story published on the Internet and a story printed in a book is not one that should be understood as limiting the beauty or meaning of the online version.

In place of the blanket dismissal, I would be much more interested in a discussion of the limits and possibilities of experience and human interaction mediated entirely by means of abstraction, ie words and photos on the Internet.

You could title the discussion, Did You Really Break Up If You Broke Up On Myspace?

I imagine there are teenagers out there who have sketched out the protocols pretty thoroughly.

But the quote above strikes a nerve with me because I'm interested in the implications of its anti-web sentiment in terms of literature. There's an endless amount of thinking a person could do on that subject, but I'll offer a small observation that I think casts some light on what the meaning of online literature. My sense is that the increasing aesthetic quality of web publishing will go along way towards enabling greater degrees of poetic experience to take place in the conduit running between our glowing screens and our fleshy illuminated heads.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Slate's Pathologically Moronic Take on Preference

This article in Slate argues that lamentations about the death of the independent books are misplaced because the only difference between independents and megastores is that independents have more cachet among uneexceptional people who, nonetheless, want to feel literary. Here's a lengthy quote:

Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest. But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems.

I take issue with the idea that someone's expressed attachment to an independent bookshop is affectation, especially as the writer defines it. I realize Slate's style is "breezy/intellectual" but the writer is essentially calling people who say something along the lines of "I like independents more than I like chains" liars without offering any evidence for it. I could just as easily say that people who write articles positing that a preference for independent bookstores do so only to indicate to others that they belong to a certain tribe do so only to themselves indicate that they belong to the tribe of populist truthtellers who see things as they really are and aren't afraid to do away with sacred cows.

What the author is indirectly doing is calling into question the nature of appeal, but instead of exploring that issue, ie whether the verb "like" means something along the lines of its most common meaning and, if not, what it actually does mean, he presents us with an answer that appears to have been pulled out of thin air.

Politics, journalism, the world wide web

The conflict between the netroots and DLC progressives, which parallels the tension between blog-based and traditional journalism, is too often cast as a conflict between messy upstarts and gray eminences. What nobody comments on is that a reasonable percentage of web-based political action and journalism is that it's in many ways superior to traditional forms of the same.

The medium is superior. Via the web, you have the capacity for meaningful audience feedback, instant access to the record, and the opportunity for any internet-enabled person to contribute.

The reporters are better. Internet journalism is often undertaken, as in the case of Dr. Delong, or Juan Cole, by experts in a given field. While their knowledge is not absolute, they are intimately familiar with the state of play in a given field and are much less likely to fall prey to thoroughly debunked theories and talking points. In addition to the skepticism that reporters are supposed to cherish as their most powerful weapon, bloggers bring to bear a mindset informed by academic rigour.

Web-based reporting is more free of conflicting interests. While bloggers do depend on information that comes free-of-cost from newspapers, they are not in any way beholden to them, to advertisers, or to the institional interests of a given publication. Nor does their livelihood depend on what they say or how they say it.

Internet-based political action is far more transparent than establishment versions. Members of political parties have had far less capacity to influence their party. You could become an activist/professionalize your political involvement, you could write letters, and you could vote.

Web-based debate is, counter-intuitively perhaps, given the stereotypes about angry bloggers, more measured, more thorough, less exclusive, less resource intensive, and more responsive than op-ed debate. It's sort of a low-cost, fast-reacting, and wildly participatory form of peer review. Look at TPM cafe for an example.

So what's really interesting about articles like this from the NY Times is how far out of the loop they are. At the level of his article, he doesn't realize how quickly its shortcomings will be illustrated to millions (?) of readers and, therefore, how easily its message is discredited, which actually increases the message's inaccuracy. Because the message is less potent, it can't go as far as it might have in the past to perpetuate the meme of a "troubled directionless democratic party."

He's also missing the boat at the level of the wider political landscape. Because of the web and its capacity for dissemining information and argument, establishment members of the democratic party are going to be less label to practice politics-as-usual. Simultaneously, the party is more likely to gain political power, in that the Republican party is equally hampered. It is far less able than it has been in the past decade to influence the messages moving back and forth through the national discourse.

The future is by no means certain, but at the very least, there are more reasons than there have been in a while to expect that progressive politics will be both more succesful and more effective than they have been during the time when the myth of the dems-in-disarray was the dominant meme.

Only people with outdated ways of getting information might fail to see it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I like sports, and love basketball, but this bothers me:

Lebron James lifted the young boy, kissed his head and pulled the tiny child close. Cradling the 1-year-old in his rippling arms, Cleveland's star carried his son off the court. It was LeBron Jr.'s turn for a ride.

Daddy already gave one to the Cavaliers.

James scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and posted the second triple-double of his first visit to the NBA playoffs, leading Cleveland to an 86-77 win over Detroit on Saturday that cut the Pistons' lead to 2-1 in their second-round series.
Lebron James is a great player. He may well end up being the best pound-for-pound basketball player to we've seen so far. And, one of the reasons I like him most, even though he's one of the most athletic players on the court, he plays in a way that would be effective for anyone, regardless of their speed, strength, etc. He anticipates plays, moves the ball away from pressure, and attacks at the right moment.

But the weird daddy-worship in the AP opening does turn the stomach. Does anyone think that what happened on the court was at all similar to the opening paragraph description of James picking up his kid?

Does he feed Zydrunas Ilgauskas from a bottle?

I can't imagine he does.

So, why the daddy metaphor? Because the writer desires it.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Novels I have finished since March

Miguel Street byVS Naipul
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Best People in The World by Justin Tussing

Friday, May 05, 2006

My grandmother, her condominium, connecticut, winter

I admire my grandmother. She went to Smith college and majored in Latin and she has a very refined way of speaking and she can converse about anything.

She spends most of her time at one end of a couch in her condominium in Ridgefield, Connecticut, which is where I grew up.

She moved there, along with my grandfather, when I was about ten or so. I remember the night they moved. I sat on the carpeted stairs and ate take-out fried chicken out of a bag.

I remember enjoying my life, loving it deeply when I was a child. Whatever that was, it was a beautiful emotion, and very different from the color of the emotions one experiences in adulthood.

The night they moved, the condominium was full of boxes and the odor of boxes and maybe the lights didn't work because we were doing things in the dark, or the halflight.

I don't remember where my grandfather was. Everyone else was coming up and down the stairs--from the entry way to the first floor, from the first floor to the second.

My grandfather died when I was fifteen and it was a blow to our family. We seem to have been diminishing since them.

I moved to California and that disconnected us further. I am happy here, but not without regret.

The condominium is once again full of boxes. My uncle, who lives with my grandmother, collects books and sells them on the internet. He's been doing it for at least five years and the house is now crammed with boxes full of books.

Everyone receives books from him for Christmas. They seem boring at first, but if you look at them for a while, and think about why he chose them, you notice how beautiful they are.

I would like to move back to the east coast and look at the barren trees and all the other sparse brutalities of winter through a large window.

People say they have dreams, by which I think they mean difficult-to-fulfill desires, and I have long thought myself to be free of them, but I'm not. My dream is to consume time in a particular kind of room in connecticut in winter, a quiet place with bookshelves, and books, a carpet, and a tall window. I would be alone much of the time, but my wife and my family would drop in often.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Appreciating What The World Provides

People should converse more about how food tastes differently depending on how you eat it. I don't mean that people don't talk about this, just that they don't talk about it enough.

Critics from England are not interchangeable

Sometimes I get James Wood and Anthony Lane confused, perhaps because they are graceful writers and perhaps because they are singular figures.

I remember reading something David Thompson wrote about Anthony Lane being the most talented film critic on the scene, but a disappointment, in that Lane did not properly venerate the art he writes about. That, at least, was what I thought David Thompson was saying.

To my mind, its more heroic to write about films as if watching a film (and writing about watching a film) were no different from drinking a glass of water, or having a conversation with a stranger at the grocery store, or gossipping with someone, provided a certain degree of energy and talent is devoted to the task. If Anthony Lane, in other words, wrote about film the way James Wood writes about literature, Thompson would have nothing to complain about, but I might.

(Thompson's anxieties about Lane, however, have less to do with the philosophies behind Lane's criticism, than with envy of the veneer of effortlessness that abides in Lane's wit.)

I'm glad James Wood exists, though, and does what he does, because he shows us how important novels are, and how much they can mean.