One of the first books I presented on this blog was Last Night At The Lobster. I put forward the O'Nan title because it is well-written, dealt wonderfully with subject of the month (Love), and in a way I wanted to put it beside other works not normally believed to be company of O'Nan's.
As a best selling author O'Nan's resonance with American readers cannot be doubted. What can be doubted, and always with some passive aggressive nuances, is whether he is a "literary writer."
This is BS, of course. O'Nan writes "straight" and with little stylistic flare. His prose is accessible and above all clear. He is easy to read. This is a good thing because he has much to say.
O'Nan writes of the everyman. He writes of them in a way that is without anything resembling self-consciousness. There is no declaration of the need to write this kind of story. The declaration is in the telling. Basically, while being a technically astute writer, O'Nan does not allow his artifice to take the main stage. It would be wrong of him to do so. His characters are too real for artificial construction.
This week I reviewed (click here to read) Songs For The Missing, a heartbreaking and terribly uncomfortable book. Eighteen year-old Kim Larsen goes missing in the waning days of the summer before college. The bureaucracy of justice and the hollowed out lives of her parents awoke a sincere frustration in this reader.
O'Nan writes of the real. More should do likewise.
James Ellroy is the most interesting writer living. I also think he is the best living American novelist.
I'll let that soak in and offend those who will be quick to point to other names.
There are others that write more important books. There are others who are better stylists (though very few). There are even those who plot better page-turners than James Ellroy (though his triple narrative device is as clever as it can get).
There just isn't anyone else who does it all as well as he does.
My belief is based off of a series of measures. James Ellroy is a kooky, paranoid conservative who is best known as a writer of genre fiction. While "crime fiction" has always produced great writers few of them have been considered the best in their country or world. Leonardo Sciascia of Sicily is perhaps the exception.
The measures though... James Ellroy is above all a stylist, whose obsession with language calls to mind names like Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and to a lesser extend Andre Malraux. Men who wrote "straight" stories wrestling with cultural and societal themes as diverse as death, cultural disconnects and the relevance of the masculine in society. Like these writers Ellroy achieves innovation in style through parred down terse prose that above all is not fearful of indulgence.
Unlike other terse prose practitioners James Ellroy is willing to include whimsical asides, whether through hipster musings or the specialized cant of the CIA in the 1960's. All weighed, he spends more time thinking about individual words than many writers spend on entire paragraphs. I know I can't support that claim. I just feel its the case.
That's the other thing to measure too. The total lack of political correctness. Though beneath the surface there is a definite political conservatism to his writing, and he has called himself the "White Knight of the far right" he is fair in his political dealings. He hands people their asses no matter the politics at work. If the person was a fake or a criminal then they're a fake or a criminal. No matter the affiliations. If the person was a racist then the language they speak will be riddled with base derogatives. He pulls no punches. The language is as it would be no matter the potential offense.
Then there is the fact that the man is a very literate writer. I mean, on Tuesday potentially his highest octane novel is being released with a title derived from an A.E. Housman poem. Dig?
Basically James Ellroy performs at a high level on so many fronts. He writes highly stylized works that both thrill and in the case of his USA Underground Trilogy (the final act of which drops on Tuesday of this week) he writes important, scarily exigent lessons for the naive political bystander.
He is a gifted stylist and a relevant writer who aims for the everyman as an audience. I might be a liberal minded person, but I also like good writing. Especially when it takes on the bigger demons in the world.
Again, here is the link to my review of the final book in the trilogy, Blood's A Rover.
I want to take a moment to comment on a paranoia I have. Yes. One of those weeks.
I refuse to get flu shots. Ever since the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, when there was a shortage of flu vaccines, the flu shot has been a household term. From the local to the national news, flu shots are reported this time every year. I don't remember them ever being as evident in our daily information feed before, despite having been around for decades.
Something about the whole thing strikes me as being contrived. Now please, I am not the type to name agencies (CIA, FBI) and motives (brain control to enforce an eventual alien agenda) for the prominence of flu vaccines (genetic recoding serum) on our national news (New World Order indoctrination program 1B). I am however a little leery of the media harbingers, the numbers games and fatality statistics surrounding the H1N1 (swine flu) that will apparently wreak havoc this upcoming season.
You do know that I am kidding about the serum part, right? It is actually a heterogeneous solution composed of tiny robots designed to alter pituitary functions. Get serious.
So all joking aside, I was slow to respond to a recent email I received promoting a new blog/novel dealing with a apocalyptic year in New York City brought about by a mutated strain of the swine flu. Still, the promoter who contacted me is someone who has always put me on to interesting and important projects. Thanks Yana, for the heads up.
Then some sobering news hit me. On the morning news they reported that school absences have skyrocketed since a healthy student became ill and died withing a mere three days. The cause? H1N1. No more flu jokes.
So I gave my attention to this new project.
American Fever: A Tale of Romance and Pestilence by Peter Christian Hall is a very clever work of fiction. It lives in a somewhat Borgesian middle ground between informational flu blogging and novel. Incidentally, the "flu blog" is a real term and there really is a sub-genre of blogging dedicated to covering the spread of neo-influenza(s). That last one might be my own term.
In daily serialized installments Mr. Hall is slowly revealing a novel of apocalyptic implication. The plot parallels a potential reality: A blogger in NYC stays "online" and somehow alive during a total collapse of society brought on by an evolved version of the the swine flu. The novel is not dryly noirish or overly scientific as these endeavors often are. The protagonist is a blogger, though sans underwear attire and mom's basement. Hall is careful to include a love-story component and plenty of diverse character development. This is not to say that science is not one of the chief components. It is the vehicle for the novel's chief innovation.
The novel calls to mind a superb but underappreciated novel by the equally underappreciated author, Jack Womack. The vision of a violent future born of societal decay and a combination of inefficient bureaucracy and outright malfeasance is perhaps best on display in Womack's Random Acts Of Senseless Violence. The echoes between Womack and Hall are similar. The socio-political foundations for such a situation apparently are the same. Both writer's portray a lazy people befuddled by a government whose deception knows little limitation and whose certainty is perpetually unfounded. What I personally find most unnerving about the two books is that neither were written during the dark years of the Bush presidency. Womack's book was written during the Clinton years and obviously Hall's serialized novel is occurring right now, in the Obama years.
Why delineate? Well, recently we Americans tend to want to put all of our societal evils securely within the lidded box of 2000-2008. The observations made by these two writers are not macro ones. They are not as much about the flagrant offense but rather the slow erosion that allows the opportunity for staggering crimes to be perpetrated.
I work in the plant trade these days. When not working on the myriad of book related projects I'm working on I spend my time caring for plants in a greenhouse. With plants it is almost always the sick one, the over or under watered one, the one that does not get enough sunlight or the one that is malnourished; it is these plants that develop aphids, scales or mealybugs. You get the metaphor, no doubt, and the last thing I want to do on the eve of my thirtieth birthday is to channel Chauncey the Gardner. My heart just couldn't take that right now.
The disease is therefore successful because of a systemic deficiency. In the case of Hall's book the disease metaphor is naturally a double layered one.
Double metaphor or not, the writing's aim and the driving point of Hall's serialized novel is not the thing that makes it important. While there is certainly an exigence of subject matter and a studied portrait of the U.S. now/as it has been, these are not the strong suits of the book. Those observations are important but also derivative. Hall has been a contributor to magazines like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. He is a keen social observer. He is no heavyweight however. Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard have had more important things to say along those lines. The striking aspect, the part that is innovative, has more to do with a long dead king of Sweden than it does a cultural milieu.
One of the better and more substantiated components to the unifier of Sweden, King Gustav Vasa, was his clever use of propaganda. More interesting than being a very early propagandist was the fact that Vasa was a ground breaker in the application of printing. No, he didn't invent the printing press. Guttenberg would do that a century or so later. What Vasa did was use existing printing technologies to create impermanent works for immediate consumption. Informational tracts and pamphlets about how swell Vasa is and how great a king he'd make. Propaganda.
Propaganda had existed for years. Papal pretenders would commission clandestine scribes to alter and expand the family codices to include potential miracles and noble heritages that were dubious at best. A codex (a term now used only to mean a hand bound, paginated text) however, was a great undertaking that often spanned generations. They were costly and typically such a work would only circulate amongst the wealthy. If you were using it as a work of propaganda then you would only be able to influence the bishopric or nobility that you sought favor from. Useful, no doubt, but what about the people?
Vasa produced a consumer-friendly message that would have been incredibly impressive to a literate public that thought of books as articles of extreme monetary value. Vasa used the immediate, if somewhat quickly dated, format instead of the long-ranged but much more narrowly disseminated one. History lesson being over (and hopefully somewhat accurate - long day at work today) we arrive at what Mr. Hall is doing with his plague novel.
Hypertext links take the novel's reader to current articles about the spread of our real-world flu epidemic. I'm talking about links to medical centers and Newsweek articles. An e-commerce component to the website allows readers to purchase gloves and breathing masks. Hall's yarn about a dystopic future (albeit a rather immediate future) is spun before a backdrop of news, nonfiction and the market for the accoutrements of flu survivalism.
The blending of fiction and nonfiction is impressively achieved. The most fascinating aspect of this innovative work is the change that occurs in how the "truth" is conveyed. One of the more difficult concepts a bookseller confronts is that of, "I want to read something true. What is true about fiction?" The statement usually is limited to the first and more declarative half. A good bookseller never lets the glove fall unchallenged. The statement, one I find to be incredibly ignorant, always reminded me of the opening line of Francis Bacon's essay On Truth.
"What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."
The answers are legion. You can point to a cultural didactic element in the writing's of authors like Salman Rushdie, Mark Twain and Geoffrey Chaucer. You can say that Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front demonstrates to all the hardships and conflicting experience of living in a World War One trench. But what is true about Moby Dick?
In many ways Hall's work has a similar factual emphasis as Melville's masterpiece. There is the whaling terms and the pages of nautical terms and definitions, all of which are mirrored exactly in reality as in the book. So it is with Hall's inclusion of studies and pathology of our very real potential H1N1 flue epidemic. The difference, and one that is not necessarily a shocking realization, is that Hall's fiction does not mean like Melville's does. There is no sense of longing in his passages about the developing love story. There is nothing akin to the foreboding gloom of the sermon at the whaler's chapel. Hall's tragedy is born of exposition not allusion.
I believe this is because of the fact that fact plays such a pivotal part in the story. Borges would have loved the idea behind Hall's venture. He of course would have wanted more scandal. Borges would have written it as though the cover-up was underway, and would have cited false websites and apocryphal incidents. He was a dick that way. I wish he were still writing.
Hall however seeks to inform as much as titillate. He may want to "scare you straight" with his cautionary tale but he wants to be able to back it up with podcasts and news clippings. It is very clever and doubly effective. The immediacy of the weblog format makes the pamphlet look decadent and the hypertextual capabilities of the internet forever change the footnote.
These are not new concepts. Nor is Hall the first to do this. He is perhaps the first to couch activism, education and fiction so closely together. It may not sell as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, but the potential for widespread discussion and increased awareness are implicit.
Anyone curious about the future of literature might want to watch Hall's book manifest. Limitations or the lack thereof might be spied in this early attempt at innovation. If nothing else you'll find yourself clicking next page after next page.
One thing is for sure: the possibilities have come a long way since E. Annie Proulx cast aside "twitchy little screens."
Again, here is the link to the novel/blog. Or is it blog/novel?
New Directions is leading the charge to find and publish relevant South American authors. This of course has much to do with the fact that they have benefited from having published the works of Robeto Bolano. This of course means we will all benefit from some wonderful novels and stories that otherwise would have escaped our notice.
Unlike a lot of other publishers who work in the same field as New Directions, ND has always maintained one important piece of street-cred. Namely that they do the and editing foot work. New York Review of Books and even smaller firms like Melville House have benefited from clever editors and directors. The Hans Fallada titles by Melville House are republished translations (see below). NYRB has reissued many of the Pushkin Press' innovative titles and made them available to a US readership that might not have had them otherwise.
Still, kudos are due to New Directions, who have consistently pioneered a front and back list that is truly without bounds.
In this week's Phoenix I review The She-Devil In The Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya.
As Dennis Johnson of Melville House fame pointed out, I was wrong to label the Fallada titles as reprints, which I was mostly mistaken about.
This all hurts a little. Melville House is one of the organizations I created the blog to promote. I'm a big boy though. The tears will subside. The pages will turn regardless of base slander and suffered arrows. And there is always this promotion work to support them still.
We're changing it up a little this month. Instead of the promised focus on relevant books we will instead delve into the hard hitters and hard guys that make up popular fiction's most common denizen: the antihero. In particular we will look at those heroes that stretch thin the appellation of "hero."
The change comes partly because after reading Dave Eggers' Zeitoun I have been thinking again (those that know, know that I think about this stuff) about the situation of heroics in our society. Who and what we term heroic has become a somewhat confused process and akin to the use of the word "genius" it is a term that seems have foundered upon a total lack of specifics.
So on every Thursday (that is the promised day for more "pop" oriented books) of this month I will look at the book and author through the lens of their most questionable hero.
This Thursday we will meet one of literature's baddest badmen: James Ellroy's Pete Bondurant. Procurer, shakedown artist, stone cold assassin with a heart of silver and gold. Whether you're in need of a guy to compromise the reputations of rival politicians or terrorize fishermen in Castro's newly communist Cuba, Pete's your man. Hell, you want to kill JFK? Just leave an offer on the alter.
As I promised a little while back, I will be letting DA readers in on my reviews written elsewhere. This will be a regular Sunday feature, and you need not worry about my failing to post it.
Print papers, unlike personally run blogs, have deadlines and thus fire to keep you timely and professional. Well, as professional as you can be.
The link today is to my review of Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It is Eggers first piece of biography not about himself, and I believe, a great addition to American nonfiction.
Before I explain anything else let me prefigure this by saying that though I truly respect the publishing work and writing of Dave Eggers, there has always been a less serious, overly hipster side to Dave's efforts that has left me... um... confounded will be the polite term.
Not so in this book. This is a mature writer finding not only their stride but a voice full of conviction. This is a good thing, as the subject is the stuff of folk heroics.
It tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American general contractor and family man who lives in New Orleans. The time period is the build up and eventual aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
It is a portrait of failed government, racism and above all: heroism. Enjoy.
There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."