BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.

I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era

David Letterman Kayaking

David Letterman on CBS’s Battle of Network Stars, 1978

Based on a passing recommendation by Marc Maron on his podcast, I just read I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  It’s a juicy group biography about the late 1970s/ early 1980s scene that developed around Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. and the emergence of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis, along with some now comparatively lesser-known figures, like Letterman’s best friend George Miller, whose 2003 funeral begins the story, and Elayne Boosler, who is a key figure in the development of female stand-up — I wrote about her in re: the book We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen a while ago.  (Interesting parallel between the two book titles – a lot of killing & dying in stand-up.)  Another significant lesser-known player in the narrative is a guy named Steve Lubetkin, a comic who was Richard Lewis’s best friend and whose tragic arc of disappointment provides a throughline for the book.

Letterman and Leno both come across as, along with Richard Pryor (whom they all worship) and Robin Williams, probably the most talented of the bunch, also standing out for their sobriety (neither one did drugs, un-coincidentally) and their generally hard-working, stable qualities.  Letterman especially is depicted as a mensch who is universally liked and respected by his peers, which was a little bit of a surprise given how well-known he is today for his prickly qualities; there’s a joke in the book about how he is known for his loyalty to old friends, and for the fact that he had not made a new friend since 1979 when his career started to take off.  There are some charming photos of Letterman and various others in uniform in 1979 on the Comedy Store “Bombers” basketball team that would play pickup games at the Van Nuys YMCA.

I had not realized how close Letterman and Leno had been.  “They quickly formed a mutual admiration society, watching and learning from one another.  Night after night at the Comedy Store, when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.  Their fellow comics came to think of them almost as a team, connected by an ampersand like Abbott & Costello.”  That changed later.

The second half of the book is about the labor dispute that erupted when all the comics in Mitzi Shore’s stable asked her to consider paying  a token payment (as little as $5 per set was first proposed, as gas money!) for their shows.  The concept was always that the Comedy Store was a “showcase” where comics could work on their acts and gain visibility, and thus did not need to be paid.  This stopped making as much sense when the club was grossing thousands of dollars a night, and some of the performers who had not managed to land lucrative gigs elsewhere were still sleeping in their cars because they did not earn a penny.  The strikers eventually triumph, more or less, but the book depicts the strike as a necessary and just cause that nevertheless marked the end of an era of camaraderie and relative innocence in the scene.  Letterman comments at the end, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people, because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”

One shocker for me was that Gary Shandling was part of the small group of comics who sided with management against the working comics who went on strike.  “Gary Shandling was the scion of a family with manufacturing holdings and decidedly antiunion views. He had not shared the struggling comic experience.”  Once he crossed the picket line, Mitzi Shore rewarded him with a regular standup gig that he hadn’t previously been able to attain.  “Regarding Gary Shandling, the only strikebreaker who went on to achieve bona fide stardom, [one of the main strike organizers Tom] Dreesan said [years later], ‘I wish him all the success in the world.  He’s a funny guy as a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don’t have any respect for him.'”

Very disappointed about Shandling’s role in this!

Teju Cole’s Superfluous Man: *Open City*

I  loved Teju Cole’s Open City–  it’s the best new novel I’ve read in quite a while. Everyone cites W.G. Sebald, and yes, it definitely recalls him in its wandering, melancholy, essayistic qualities (no photos, though, too bad!), and the impression it conveys of a permeable boundary between the fictional and the autobiographical– although the tone is lighter and the voice more (albeit ambivalently) American than in Sebald’s work, immersed in the media-saturated everyday of the 21st century U.S.

It would be a great novel to teach as a test case in an introduction to critical theory; it has a lot to say about mourning and melancholy, memorialization, repression, urban space, race, class, and identity, violence, whiteness, empathy, migration, nationalism. And about classical music (Mahler plays a key role) and literature, and psychiatry and medicine: its Nigerian narrator Julius is a psychiatric intern at what seems to be Columbia University, working on a research project about affect and depression in the elderly. This may all sound heavy-handed or a bit much, but these topics emerge naturally within the thought process of a narrator who simply happens to be educated, intellectually curious and interested in philosophy, theory, and such.  (Also in humbler topics like bedbugs.) The episode in which Julius, on a visit to Brussels, befriends a politically-radical Moroccan named Farouq also reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. James Wood comments about the passage in which Farouq explains how his academic advisors failed his dissertation on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space that it is “one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.”  Nicholas Dames in N&1, similarly, counts Cole as a member of a new “Theory Generation” of novelists for whom critical theory is taken for granted as part of the intellectual atmosphere: “what allies [Sam] Lipsyte’s Milo, Cole’s Julius, and [Ben] Lerner’s Adam …is how fundamentally diagnostic they are. Theory has taught them to treat the world as a set of deceptive signs; they doubt, reflexively, the communications of others.” [I love those novels too, btw: Sam Lipsyte's The Ask and Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station.] Julius reads, among other books, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and once back in New York, he sends a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to Farouq as a sort of guilt offering; Farouq is one of several less-privileged interlocutors who inspire guilty responses from the psychiatrist-in-training Julius, who struggles in locating himself in relation to “blackness,” class, and Africanness. The question of whom he calls “brother,” and vice versa, recurs throughout.

Another book Open City recalled for me, although I read this many years ago and so my recollections of it are pretty vague, was Saul Bellow’s early novel Dangling Man. Like Bellow’s narrator, Julius is a “superfluous man,” a free-floating wanderer in the wartime city, in danger of drifting loose from all social connections.

It’s certainly one of the best, if not the best, “post-9/11″ novels I’ve read, fundamentally concerned with the question of how nations, cities, and individuals mourn, memorialize, and repress trauma. And although it can feel nearly plotless, I’ll say without any spoilers that there is more to the story than may initially appear to be the case, and that Julius emerges, only towards the very end of the book, as a more morally-complex and less “reliable” narrator than he’d previously seemed to be. It’s a novel that looks different in hindsight, so that now I feel I need to go back to reconsider various details that seemed random or happenstance when I first encountered them.

No one gives a shit about your dog: *Difficult Men*

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: from the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  (Is it OK for a title to have two colons?  I don’t think so, personally.)  Though at times it falls into a slightly rote magazine-profile mode, I found this a pretty interesting read.  Some of the juiciest details relate to the weird and often nightmarish qualities of the some of the famous show-runners and head writers behind these shows.

So, for example, a young writer named Todd Kessler is basking in David Chase’s approval as a writer on The Sopranos.  “He became close to the Chase family, often going out to dinner with them;” he co-writes an episode with Chase that is nominated for an Emmy.  Within minutes of getting the call about the Emmy announcement, Chase calls him in and announces that he wants to fire Kessler: “I think you’ve lost the voice of the show.”  Kessler, for whom the show is his entire life at that point, is devastated; Chase ends up giving him a second chance but then fires him for real soon afterward.

A few years later, Kessler wrote the pilot for a new series of his own….The plot revolved around a terrible boss — brilliant but manipulative, vain, imperious, unpredictable — and a young, talented, but impressionable employee who finds herself seduced, repelled, and ultimately both matured and corrupted by coming into her orbit. It was, he said, based on no small part on his experiences working on The Sopranos.  The show was called Damages.

I love the thought that Glenn Close’s character is based on David Chase!

Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner also sounds like a challenging boss.  “Weiner demanded a strict protocol… based on age and experience” in the writers’ room.  There’s a story about a time the legendary screenwriter Frank Pierson started visiting the show’s writers’ room.

One day, [Pierson] was telling a story about his dog, and a young writer made the error of interrupting with a story of his own pet.  “This was somebody who was very low on the totem pole,” Weiner said.  “I literally pulled them aside afterward and said, “No one gives a shit about your dog.” When Pierson was talking, he said, “only I interrupt him.”

addendum: I’ll add that Deadwood’s David Milch comes across as a slightly quite nuts genius/ visionary (which I already knew from a memorable New Yorker profile of him years ago); Six Feet Under‘s Alan Ball and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan as good guys/ reasonable people.

Big-bragadochio and wavelike-swelling and swaggering writings

I did a search on the university library catalogue for the new-ish Red Hook-based thriller Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda and this title (it is the actual title) from 1648, by one John Vicars, is what came up.

Coleman-street conclave visited, and, that grand imposter, the schismaticks cheater in chief (who hath long, slily lurked therein) truly and duly discovered. Containing a most palpable and plain display of Mr. John Goodwin’s self-conviction (under his own hand-writing) and of the notorious heresies, errours, malice, pride, and hypocrisie of this most huge Garagantua, in falsly pretended piety; to the lamentable misleading of his too-too credulous soul-murthered proselytes of Coleman-street & elsewhere. Collected, principally, out of his own big-bragadochio and wavelike-swelling and swaggering writings, full-fraught with six-footed terms, and flashie rhetoricall phrases, far more than solid and sacred truths. And may fitly serve (if it be the Lords will) like Belshazzars hand-writing, on the wall of his conscience, to strike terrour and shame into his own soul, and shamelesse face; and to un-deceive his most miserably cheated and inchanted, or bewitched followers.

I guess this is what I am actually supposed to read?  Sorry, Ivy Pochoda, you will have to wait.

But tell us what you REALLY thought of it, Michiko Kakutani

Wow.  Feels like a moment of self-revelation here: “Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins.”

The premise of this tiresome new novel by the critically acclaimed author Norman Rush sounds as if it had been lifted straight from “The Big Chill”… The result not only lacks that movie’s humor and groovy soundtrack but is also an eye-rollingly awful read.

The novel’s preening, self-absorbed characters natter on endlessly about themselves in exchanges that sound more like outtakes from a dolorous group therapy session than like real conversations among longtime friends. Its title, “Subtle Bodies” — which refers to people’s “true interior selves,” whatever that means — is a perfect predictor of the novel’s solipsistic tone. Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins…

Douglas (who seems to have driven a lawn mower too close to the edge of a ravine) was the leader of the pack. Reminiscent of the charismatic genius figures in Iris Murdoch novels, he was an intellectual guru for the others, though it’s baffling why anyone would look up to such a pompous jerk….

There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Douglas’s philosophy …and more portentous gibberish about his current mysterious work… The other members of this novel’s cast are either as insufferable as Douglas or as flimsy as paper-doll mannequins….

Perhaps Mr. Rush means all this to read as black comedy, but it’s not remotely funny or compelling. In fact, it’s impossible to work up any interest in hearing what these absurdly self-important and poorly drawn characters might have to say as they drone on about themselves…

At one point, Ned says to Nina, “Why are we even talking about this?” It’s a question the reader might well ask about this claustrophobic and totally annoying novel.

I can definitely appreciate an enthusiastic critical pan, but sometimes I wonder if the NYT needs to assign MK a new beat, if only to lower her blood pressure.  Maybe something in the Verlyn Klinkenborg line, appreciating sunsets and birds in the backyard or some such?

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

LoveAffairsOfNathanielP_300dpi

I liked The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (her 1st novel) more than I expected to.  This portrait of a caddish, former-nerd 30-year old Brooklyn freelance writer and his love affairs sounded very Girls-ish, and probably fun but shallow.  But it turned out to be a better novel than that.  Things I liked about it:

  • it offers a vividly detailed, often witty portrayal of a very particular place and time — hipster literary Brooklyn today — inhabited by equally particularized individuals who are also types; Nate and Hannah are quirkily particular, but one also always sees how they’ve been shaped by broad socio-cultural dynamics.  (Odd that she’d be named Hannah given the inevitable comparisons with Girls (whose protagonist is named Hannah Horvath)… But it seems that Waldman’s been working on the novel for a while.  There’s also the great Vampire Weekend song “Hannah Hunt” come to think of it.)
  • It’s good on the gender dynamics, and particularly the balances of power between men and women in the urban dating market (shifting more in the men’s favor by age 30). Waldman implied in an interview that she decided to make the male character the main protagonist as a challenge to herself and (I think she said this?) to ensure that the novel did not become too autobiographical. One does feel that Hannah, Nate’s love interest and one of his girlfriends — a smart, pretty but not gorgeous, witty writer-editor type — must have a lot of the author (and her friends) in her.  And I did feel that this strategy worked well; we sense a lot of personal investment and experience in the depictions, but the novel’s focus in Nate rather than Hannah keeps it from falling into certain autobiographical-novel paths.
  • [That said, probably my one criticism would be that at moments the free-indirect-discourse dipping into Nate's thinking can feel rather broad in its critical perspective: "But did any of it make him an asshole?  He had never promised her anything..." Early on you quickly feel, "yes, this guy is an asshole," and then the novel guides you toward at least limited sympathy for him.]
  • Perhaps along slightly comparable lines to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot [my post about that one], it’s deeply steeped in a longer history of the novel and does some interesting things in updating marriage-plot novelistic conventions for our moment. Here is Waldman’s recent essay on how she stopped being a Richardsonian and learned to appreciate Henry Fielding.  And in this NYT interview she explains how Balzac’s Lost Illusions was a “lodestar” for her own book: “It nails the literary scene in every city, in every time,” she said. “A sense of people being motivated by a mix of idealistic commitment to the arts and love for it and vanity, ego, ambition.” [Oh and I just saw on Waldman's Twitter feed that she's an Elizabeth Gaskell fan and recommends Wives and Daughters.  Yes! -- that might be my pick for the best-but-least-known Victorian novel.]
  • The novel is satirical and brightly amusing about Brooklyn/ NYC literary-world mores, but also has a strong undertow of sadness in its portrayal of relationships and the ways these young men and women use one another, strategize, and develop layers of self-protecting cynicism, irony, and low expectations about romance.
  • It was fun to think about possible models for certain characters– e.g. is Greer Cohen, the sexy & flirtatious recipient of a big advance for her “memoir about my teenage misadventures,” a version of Elizabeth Wurtzel?  (Or am I out of date…)
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