Thursday, September 30, 2004

T.C. Boyle And The Art Of Surviving Critical Reviews

Aye, carumba -- I am spending a heap of time on this site! In fact, Identity Theory will now be added to my list of Intoxicants, thanks chiefly to Robert Birnbaum's rambling and, yes, intoxicating interviews.

I was re-introduced to IT via this interview with author T.C. Boyle. Boyle's latest novel, The Inner Circle, seems to be receiving the standard-issue T.C.-Boyle-Novel-Review-Template -- to wit: "Boyle is unquestionably a virtuoso of the short story, but this novel left me feeling a little cold..." There are some exceptions -- Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain somehow managed to dodge that critical enfilade -- but to be honest, I'm not at all confident that I could review his novels any more sympathetically. The only Boyle novel on my shelf is The Road To Wellville, which I purchased because of the nifty "cereal box" packaging of the original paperback release. I think I read the first half of the novel, before losing interest.

I wonder what sort of toll reviews like that take on an author. Boyle has his devoted followers, and is by now that rarity among contemporary fiction writers, a wealthy public figure, so he's clearly got whatever it takes to not give a damn. But still -- the critics never vary. Wouldn't this prompt a guy like him to think, Well, these novels do take a lot of my time and energy. The short stories are an obvious cash cow, with Esquire and The New Yorker sending me cheques, alongside Viking every time I publish a collection. Besides, Alice Munroe and Mavis Gallant don't bother with the novel. Why should I?

Birnbaum's interview gives us some insight into how Boyle thinks and works. And perhaps it's to everyone's advantage that he keeps writing at such a furious pace. In the meantime, I've picked up a copy of After The Plague, and can attest with the unwashed critical masses that Boyle is indeed a virtuoso of the short story.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Comments? Anyone? Bueller?

For those of you who have a direct site-feed, thank you for your patience. The "comments" are up and running now, so if anyone wants to get the ball rolling on something that doesn't yet have the option, say the word and I will republish it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Double the pleasure, double the fun...

Notice the "day-gig" to your right: my other blog, where I drop the pretentious web-persona and deal with less heady issues, like child-care, cooking, housework, etc. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but I do make a mean salsa.

Fixed (More Or Less) Between Three Points Of View

"American literature was taught as a collection of sincerities, which was quite wrong. Thoreau was thought to be a very great man - I regarded him as just a bum, like the kids of the 1960s." Paul Fussell, profiled by The Guardian, here. Link thanks to ALD.

"Piece in
Whole Earth Review by Anne Lamott about the death of her five-month-old boy. She allowed her three-year-old son to see the body, etc. Americans are so experimental." A notation in Brian Eno's 1995 diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices.

I've now mentioned three names who inspire in me a great many ideas: Brian Eno, Anne Lamott, and Paul Fussell. Thoreau is in there, too, but I haven't read much of him, so I'll avoid comment, except to confess that because Fussell holds him in disdain, my knee-jerk reaction is toward suspicion. Consider it a second-generation "critical" response. Clearly, the people who engage our imaginations have tremendous residual power.

The lynchpin in these three names is Anne Lamott. This summer I read Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith, a book that is as difficult to categorize as it is to put down. At times it comes across as a mad memoir; at other times, it reads like a collection of poetic sermons. When I finished, I felt as if I'd read a confessional - this woman confesses to everything, even a faith in God that seems weak, shallow and anti-intellectual. Who could possibly take pride in such an enterprise as "faith" after reading this?

Writing like hers clearly sets Fussell's teeth on edge. And I've taken some comfort from his writing over the years, because every word has been fueled by a fury and shame that came with soldiering as an American for the Allies in World War II. In the profile above, he smirks that there isn't a political party in existence that wants him, because they know he won't hesitate to flame them, along with their opponent - another trait that endears me to him. My hunch is he isn't so much put off by sincerities as he is by false pieties, which have a way of spelling out a great deal of trouble for a great many people.

His critical acumen is the sort I hold in a reverence that is, perhaps, to my own detriment. For all his imperial bile, I'd say he has something in common with Lamott: a sorrow over his own humanity. In his own angry way, he is as confessional as Lamott.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this (you might want to come back in a few days to see if I've "improved" this entry), but I find myself drawn to Lamott's notion of faith as something a person simply can't take pride in - it's impossible to do so, in fact: if you're proud of it, it ain't faith. At the core of "faith's" character is an increasing recognition of one's own weakness, with an attendant recognition of the larger power of forgiveness, grace ... love.

As for Eno, you dont have to read much of his diary to realize that his comment, "Americans are so experimental," is an understated expression of awe. Eno prizes experimentation in every arena of life. The diary is gruff, engaging, ego-ridden, stimulating, and (incredibly) inspirational.

Hmm - "Tri-une" stimulation, perhaps...

Post-note: I'm also digging this blog, courtesy of the Multiple Blowhards.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

God Loves A Misanthrope: The Nine Planets, by Edward Riche

Not only does God love misanthropes, he gleefully saves his choicest torments for them. At least, he does if he's anything like Edward Riche, author of The Nine Planets. Riche's chief protagonist, Marty Deveraux, has a contempt for his surroundings that would render him as incapable of action as the dithering Hamlet, if it weren't for the latent opportunism that launched his career as founder of an "elite" bourgeois private school in St. John's Newfoundland. Occasionally, we also get a peak at the private life of his niece, Cathy, who possesses her own nasty view of life in St. John's. Marty's brother asks him to shepherd the sullen teen, thinking Marty's "professional" experience recommends him for the task. Few characters in this novel even begin to guess at the depth of Martin's loathing toward his charges, which combined with his niece's reciprocal contempt renders him helpless in her presence.

This premise starts to play like an afterthought, as the forces of biology and commerce wreak havoc. It's surprising how much fun is to be had inside the head of a grump who continually miscalculates the trajectory of the various sexual and political conspiracies orbiting a small community. Even Cathy, whose world-weariness lacks the sophistication of experience, is a treat to encounter in these pages, serving as a reminder that the fear that visits us in our early years returns, in Marty's words, "with a vengeance in the middle years, a more mature, more capable incubus." The event that finally drives away this shared demon and draws Marty and Cathy toward each other shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. This is a terrific novel - Edward Riche is a satirist of the first order, a wicked talent, ably demonstrating mastery in a genre where Juniors Buckley and Cheever are still striving.

You can buy The Nine Planets, here.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

"I Wouldn't Worry About Me"

Well, the Prajer family is back, having had a swell camp-o-ree at Lac Phillippe. An excellent provincial campground in the Gatineaus, this locale is less than an hour's drive into Quebec from Ottawa: I highly recommend it to camping-types. I consider the closing weeks of August the optimum time to camp. The grounds aren't nearly as busy as they are in July (though this is not a difficulty in Lac Phillippe, as it is terraced in such a way as to foster a sense of privacy for each individual campsite), and the nights are cool - ideal for sleeping.

Or so one could reasonably expect. Our second night there, I was plagued with dreams of global apocalypse (a popular leitmotiv for my subconscious). At dawn's early light and one coffee later, I figured these had been triggered by a half-dozen articles in magazines I'd brought along, thinking they'd be their usual "lite" fare: GQ, Esquire, The New Yorker. I should have known better. These publications were collectively wringing their hands over the forthcoming election, and Bush was the villain of choice (though I couldn't help thinking Kerry's absence from these pages didn't exactly help his cause). I'm not a fan of Bush, but I don't harbor the degree of fear and loathing (to borrow a phrase) for the man that some people do, so it was a little surprising to find my angst being nourished by the race for the Oval Office.

The last time my animus tied itself to Washington was in the Reagan years, and then as now it was chiefly due to my perception of where I sat as a free agent in The Grand Scheme Of Things. There were other factors, too: during Reagan's reign, I heard numerous accounts from Mennonite congregations in South America (chiefly Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) about what a torment it was to be caught between government "enforcement" agencies, and "the revolutionaries." Regarding the former, many were directly sponsored by Washington; when US funding ceased, cadres of thugs from both sides turned to the drug cartels for their paycheck. Envision how your suburb might be run if the Hell's Angels were in charge. For Mennonites (and coffee farmers, and field laborers) in South America, the story hasn't changed a whit.

At the time of Reagan's tenure, I was a Bible school student, failing most of my courses. It was depressing - not yet free of my adolescent impertinence, I couldn't quite discern the "system" behind the "systematic theology" I was being asked to absorb and articulate. I holed up in my dorm room, turned out the lights and listened to Pink Floyd's "The Wall".

One night, I heard a contrapuntal beat emanating from my dorm advisor's room.

I pulled off my earphones and walked two doors down the hall. "That's Talking Heads," I said. "Life During Wartime - a song about mercenaries." (I didn't know; I'd heard a DJ say this on the radio a year earlier.)

My DA looked at me. "If you say so."

He gave me a tape of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, which took me 10 years to wear into oblivion.

Live! On tape!
Ten years after that, it's difficult to articulate just what a delight it is to see The Name Of This Band finally being released as a CD, with shiny, new production values and over a dozen(!) previously unreleased songs. Back in the day, I chortled at Don't Worry About The Government, a witty little ditty that employed irony with an unpredictably direct force, almost single-handedly inspiring a generation to reach for irony before sincerity. Ah, those were the days.

Twenty years, a wife and two kids later the song has more punch than ever. And yet, how ironic is it that, irony aside, I take the title's sentiment directly to heart?