Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review, "The Idiot," by Elif Batuman




Book Review

Elif Batuman
The Idiot
New York: Penguin Press, 2017

The Idiot is a debut novel by a young writer who promises to do big things in the future. Apparently the title, borrowed from Dostoevsky, refers to the main character and narrator of the story, Selin Karadag (the g is silent), who is a young woman from New Jersey of Turkish background (like the author herself). Far from being an idiot, Selin—in this novel prominently featuring words and languages—is highly intelligent. At age eighteen, as she enters Harvard University, she already speaks English and Turkish fluently, has a passable knowledge of Spanish. Over the course of the book she studies, as well, Russian and Hungarian. Her quest for new words is insatiable.

Furthermore, by the end of the action she appears to have read through practically the whole canon of Western literature. Among the multitude of books she is mentioned to be reading or have read are Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary. Late in the novel (359) she casually picks up the monumental, and very dense Magic Mountain and goes at it in her spare time. Almost as if you could tackle Thomas Mann’s difficult text with an apple in one hand and a Scotch in the other.

This is a tale of adolescence and a kind of Bildungsroman. It features one year (age 18-19) in the life of a future writer. Early on (58) Selin contemplates writing a short story—featuring a courtyard with “a pink hotel, Albinoni, ashes, and being unable to leave.” That same paragraph continues, “I was an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person . . . . In my story, the characters would be stuck there for a long time, for a real, legitimate reason—like a sickness. The hotel would be somewhere far away, like Japan. The hotel management would be sorry that Albinoni’s Adagio was piped into the halls and lobby for such a long time, but it would be a deep-rooted technical problem and difficult to fix.”

So one thing this novel is about is writing fiction, learning to write. Selin ends up casually entering one of her stories in a campus competition and wins. The third-place winner has written the tale of “a woman who had night sweats and then found out her grandmother had been in the Holocaust”(165). The second-place winner told the story of “a man who woke up one morning to find that his head had been replaced by a gigantic butt . . . . Why were we all so bad at writing stories? When would we get better?” Why indeed? Ah, that is the question. The Great American Short-Story Boondoggle. More on this later.

The Idiot turns out to be a strange sort of modern-day epistolary novel, since the main plot features an e-mail exchange between Selin and a gangling and rather screwed-up Hungarian grad student, Ivan. She meets him in Russian class, but for practically the whole school year they communicate not face to face, but by e-mail. In fact, these characters are a bit ahead of their time. The action of the book is set twenty years ago, before young people began communicating through gadgets rather than face to face.

“Ivan and I had settled into a rhythm: he would take a week to write to me, and then I would force myself to wait a week before writing back. This already felt like a huge waste of time. Then eight days went by and he didn’t write, and then it was ten days, and I was sure he was never going to write me again, and I was in despair. Finally he sent a message. The subject line said crazy, which I found encouraging because that was how I felt. But when I opened the e-mail, it was only one line: My thesis is due in two weeks—I will write to you then” (125).

Unfortunately for the reader, Ivan, who, though a hater of words, is afflicted with the disease of logorrhea, tends to write much longer e-mails. Here is an example. “You’re right about the poet—and how right you are. Poets are liars, obsessed with cereal. They try to hammer the atom back to Fruit Loops, life back to paradise, and love back to nonexistent simplicity. You’re right—they shouldn’t do that. It isn’t possible, and they shouldn’t pretend” (151).

Such is the love story at the center of the plot. Nothing much happens in the book, which consists of reams of episodes strung together. Selin lives out her new life on the Harvard campus, reads, studies, volunteers to teach ESL and math, eats at the school cafeteria, goes out running, chats with her friend Svetlana—from Serbia and one of the liveliest secondary characters in a book teeming with secondary characters. At the end of the school year she goes to Hungary to teach English in Hungarian villages, mainly because Ivan is Hungarian and he will be in his native country over the summer. The plot progresses much as it has in the Harvard episodes. Selin in Hungary meets a wide variety of characters, tries to teach English, feels like a fish out of water, agonizes over her love for Ivan.

Reading The Idiot is something like being on the Tower of Babel. Amidst a babble of languages from all over the world—among students mentioned at Harvard are Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbs, etc., etc., etc. On page 228 the reader is astonished to come upon Bill and Robin, native-born Americans. Given the people Selin communicates with at Harvard, it appears that such persons are in short supply. She does have a black American roommate Angela (along with her Korean/American roommate Hannah), and a friend Ralph, but Angela is barely featured in the novel’s scenes, and Ralph is a nerd.

“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions” (330). Well yes, but Tolstoy’s characters, even secondary characters, even his dog and horse characters, are always perfectly rounded. In Elif Batuman’s novel pedestrian, undeveloped characters are the norm. A cloud of ennui hangs over the action. Here is a line that sums up much of what goes on in the book: “We spent the next two hours doing the kinds of pointless things we always did” (183). Luckily, the novel has a sense of humor, and that helps. But not enough.

Mentioned once (123) is Selin’s high school friend, Hema, whose name, read as Cyrillic, means “Ain’t got nary” in Ukrainian. Sometimes you kind of wish you could take a break from this amalgam of languages and nationalities and drop in, say, on a student at the University of Alabama named Mary Beth Jones, who has never heard of the great writers whom Selin has read, who would be baffled by almost everything Selin discusses, including the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and who is interested, largely, in boyfriends and business administration. 

As for the foreign students at Harvard, the book is set in 1995-1996, and I find myself wondering where the money came from to send Serbs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians abroad to study. After all, the early nineties—with the collapse of the Soviet Empire—were economically chaotic all over Eastern Europe, but the book shows little sign of the chaos—even in the parts set in Hungary.

On and on goes the epistolary passionless “romance,” between Selin and Ivan, neither of whom have any interest in sex. Adding to the surrealistic nature of that relationship is the fact that it is modelled on the story in a Russian reader, “Nina in Siberia,” which the two are assigned in their Russian class. At one point Selin mentions that “I had the uncanny sensation that this conversation had been prefigured by the story of Nina: Nina who had pretended to study the locomotion of reindeer, and whom physics kept pushing east” (160-61). 

The Ivan of the Russian reader ends up marrying someone else, which is probably what Selin’s Hungarian Ivan will end up doing as well. In class, while the two students are getting practice in spoken Russian by playing out scenes from the reader, Ivan blurts out, “I have a wife. And it’s not you” (79). The two main characters of The Idiot spend the whole book dancing around one another like two timid boxers, each afraid not only of fists, but even of a clinch.

By midway in the book the reader is looking for ways to escape from The Tower. At the end of Part One Selin appears to have finally broken off the weird epistolary romance, and the reader heaves a sigh of relief. But alas, early into Part Two Hungarian Ivan steps right back into the book, and we have to put up with him all the way through. Various ancillary characters—a Harvard psychiatrist, Selin’s friends, Ivan’s friends—express their negative opinions about the way Ivan strings Selin along. He has another semi-girlfriend, a fact he does not conceal from Selin. “I have a girlfriend whom I only sometimes love. I do think about you a lot. My love for you is for the person writing your letters” (133). Everything with Ivan is “semi,” not fully realized. But then, in maintaining the e-mail correspondence, Selin herself, dubious of passion and carnality, is equally at fault.

The Idiot is a love story about first love (at least Selin’s first love), but it is a passionless love between two confused lovers. Selin is certainly no idiot; on the contrary. But she is meek, unsure of herself, bogged down in adolescence, terrified of her sexuality. The biggest problem with the book is that probably precious few readers will want to journey through four hundred pages of Selin’s insipid life. Given the episodic nature of events, the piling up of nonessential scenes, the book would be better, say, at three hundred pages, not four hundred. A plethora of scenes could be omitted. A good place to begin the cuts would be with scenes involving Selin’s casual acquaintance Ralph, whose presence in the book serves little purpose.

The novel has a certain quirkiness to its action, almost a kind of surrealism, as if we are in some kind of absurdist play. Here are sample passages:

“The French director had died tragically, by falling off a barstool. ‘They say it might have been a suicide,’ Svetlana said.”
“At one point she laughed so violently that she dislocated her jaw. You could see it was something that happened to her regularly. She was in a lot of pain, but we couldn’t tell at first because her jaw was stuck in a laughing position.”
“Saint Istvan’s right hand was in a box somewhere. The Chain Bridge had been reconstructed after each world war. The sculptor of the lion statue was said to have drowned himself out of shame because the lions didn’t have tongues—though others said that if you looked closely in their mouths, you could see the tongues right there.”
“He had just started a new job in an office run by his father, having been fired from his previous position for biting a man’s ear.”

Read the whole book and you learn about all kinds of words in all world languages. “The words for eggplant, bean, chickpea, and sour cherry were the same in Serbo-Croatian as in Turkish” (41). “Turkish, he said, was the only language that could express that there was indeed not much difference between a latrine and Ivan’s paternal aunt. It was full of Hungarian words, like for handcuffs and beard” (105). “The street looked empty but was full of words: ‘puddle,’ ‘mud,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘chocolate wrapper,’ ‘gum,’ ‘gum wrapper’” (338). In Hungarian the words for hello and goodbye are the same. So that the Beatles song in Hungarian would go like this: “Hello, hello, hello, I don’t know why you say hello, I say hello.”

The epigraph to The Idiot should be a famous line from the Russian poet, Tyutchev: “Any word when uttered is a lie.” Words are something of a snare, especially for the Hungarian friend Ivan, who prefers largely abstractions, being of the opinion that nothing concrete can really be pinned down and words are not to be trusted. In the long e-mail correspondence between Selin and Ivan he frequently rails against words, while Selin, the budding writer loves words. At one point he asks, “Is there a way to escape the triviality-dungeon of conversations?” (115). Well, he has found that way in his relationship with Selin. We are halfway through the book before they have anything resembling a real conversation, and even then it is one-sided. Ivan blathers on and Selin, trapped in her prison of timidity, can’t think of anything to say.

In what could be the climax of the novel, the long awaited real conversation between the two central characters finally arrives (381-87). Since both characters are reluctant to converse, however, they don’t really get anywhere again here. The reader feels like grabbing and shaking the both of them. At the end of the book Selin herself has lost her love of words: “When I got back to school in the fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in the philosophy of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all”(423).

d

Although Elif Batuman has published only two books, both very recently, she has already made it big time in the Eastern Literary Establishment. Many American writers would give their right writing hand to be where she already is. Ms. Batuman has a literary agent in the most prestigious agency in New York. She has hotshot editors on high, and her books are reviewed at the highest levels: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, etc. No matter how good or bad her next novel is, it will without doubt be favorably reviewed at the same high levels. That’s the way the game works, after you are accepted into the in crowd.

So what Ms. Batuman needs to do at this point is stop listening to the hotshot establishment agents and editors and write something that is real literature. Unlike so many modern American writers, those who have come out of creative writing programs, she has taken the time to read the great writers; she knows what literature is. For her first novel I can imagine the agent telling her, “Stick to the timeworn pattern, don’t get far away from realism, describe the everyday life of a girl who resembles yourself. Write ‘domestic literary fiction,’ for this is what sells in America. Don’t get too cute in your first published work. Nobody needs too much creativity.” So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her days at Harvard. Okay, she has listened to that spiel once, but now that she is in with the in crowd, she can write whatever she likes. She should.

Elif Batuman is aware of the vast wasteland that is the creative writing industry in the U.S. How do I know? Because in her nonfiction work, The Possessed (something of a companion work to The Idiot), she expresses strong opinions about that puerile industry. Just beginning her creative life, she drops in on a writing workshop on Cape Cod, where the lead guru tells her, “If you want to be an academic, go to graduate school; if you want to be a writer come here.” The implication is that you need not even read and discuss the great writers of the past. Instead you sit around reading and critiquing short stories by pedestrian writers who have read, largely, other pedestrian writers. 

Creative writing instructors, even those who have won awards, are often hopelessly boring, tedious and uninspired writers themselves, perpetuating the gruesome genre of “domestic literary realism.” How did they win the awards? Because the prizes are given out by other hopelessly mind-numbing writer/judges who write the same crap.

“For many years, I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n + I magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod” (The Possessed, 18-19).

“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft.’ . . . . I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.”

This critique of the modern American short story goes on for two more pages and concludes as follows: “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things” (21-22). Domestic literary realism. Urggh.

This revelation—that the “best stories” written in the U.S. in 2004 and 2005 are bad stories—should open the eyes of the writing world. But given that the whole writing industry and publishing enterprise prefers to proceed with eyes shut, nothing essentially will be changed. The New Yorker, at least half the time, is publishing this same dreck. So are all the most prestigious literary magazines. It is all, after all, about money, and literary trash sells in American. To the extent that anybody reads literature anymore, the realistic trash is what they read. 

Writers writing literary trash get published, even win awards. In creative writing programs all over the U.S. these writers teach their students to value the same twaddle. After which the students graduate, get positions as creative writing instructors, and perpetuate the problem. The best solution would be to abolish all creative writing departments in every university in the country. Then ban the genre of “domestic literary fiction.”

As is obvious, Elif Batuman is already aware of the Vast Egregious Boondoggle that is the contemporary American short story. I’m sure she is also aware that the people interested in selling books—her agent, her editors, all of the establishment literary world—would prefer that her next novel stay with realistic characters and pedestrian plots. She is in a position now to defy those agents and editors. Write something new, vivid, vital now, Elif. Something ambitious, something with literary panache. Write us a piece of Literature.

While I’m in the process of giving advice, here is a bit more. Time for you to get away from using Dostoevsky’s titles for your books. I wracked my brain to find anything in common between the tone, style, themes of Dostoevsky’s Idiot and yours. The two Idiots just have little in common. 

Your books (gratefully) have none of the melodrama and hysteria of Dostoevsky, none of the frantic pace. They have nice touches of humor, but not his dark humor.


A final message from Fyodor Mikhailovich himself: Елишка, миленькая! Твой первый роман я читал с интересом. Ничего себе, но ты умеешь писать куда лучше. Пиши художественную литературу. Желаю успехов.   Целую. Федя (Elishka My Dear, I read your first novel with interest. Not bad stuff, but you can do a whole lot better. Write some High Art. I wish you success.   Kisses. Fedya)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Forthcoming COMIC NOVEL by U.R. Bowie "ONE TON," Synopsis



U.R. Bowie

One Ton: the True and Heart-Rending Tale of a Fatboy’s Triumph

Brief Synopsis

Tone and modulation taken from Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” with humor over the top, One Ton is a rollicking satire on the state of the world in the twenty-first century. The story focuses primarily on the problem of obesity worldwide, but the novel also satirizes politics and makes many a wry commentary on fallible human nature.

As the action begins, Leland (The Blob) Lebeau, age 22, resident of Waukesha, Wisconsin, has become so fat that he cannot walk anymore. Desperate to lose weight and overcome the agony of obesity, he is grasping at straws. At that moment he is approached by a wheeler-dealer type, P.T. Terwillinger—carny huckster, former assistant to Col. Tom Parker of Elvis fame, the natural son of P.T. Barnum—who promises to get him into showbiz, a career as hunger artist. “Not only will you be skinny, son; you’ll be rich.”

P.T. reinvents what once was a popular tradition in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In those days hunger artists performed before large crowds, doing essentially one thing: starving themselves to see who could go longest without eating. P.T. puts his extensive public relations skills into practice, introducing Leland Lebeau to the world as The Boy Wonder, The Grand Pinguid, and The Artist of the Un-Eat. 

Performing as a kind of freak show in the Barnum and Terwillinger Circus, Leland The Blob travels America, starring in his act of hunger artistry. First bulking his artiste up to a thousand pounds (one half ton), P.T. promises the world that in six months The Boy Wonder will go from 1000 down to 105, thereby being the first man in history to lose nine-tenths of himself.

The concept of hunger artistry catches on with the American people, always ready to embrace a new fad. Leland performs to large crowds all over the country, and soon hunger artistry catches on worldwide. New hunger artists appear in Europe and Asia, competitions are organized between fasting artists. Eventually a Commission on Hungery is established, and the first ever international games in hunger artistry are held in Sochi, Russia. 

After various problems and setbacks, Leland is unable to compete in Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin of Russia, manipulating the rules right and left, coaxes his best artist to the championship. At this point Leland, the originator of modern hunger artistry, is no longer on the cusp of the game, his fire having been stolen by other, better artists.

Never one to say die, the ebullient P.T. takes this low point in the career of his hunger artist and turns it into a high point. He makes a decision to give up on hunger artistry and go in the opposite direction. Leland will now be what P.T. terms an “un-hunger artist,” The Ultimate Artist of the Eat, the first man in the history of the world to attain to 2000 pounds: ONE TON. The rest of the book describes how “un-hungery” catches on all over the world and how Leland Lebeau moves inexorably toward his goal.

As Leland goes on eating more setbacks and vicissitudes overtake him. He plods on, eats on, continues performing in food courts at malls, while un-hungery catches on everywhere. Artists now compete in massive gorging competitions, attaining to unheard-of weights. It soon becomes apparent that to compete at weights surpassing 1500 pounds, an artist must risk his life. Many un-hunger artists die in performance. Others are forced by ill health to retire from the game. A multitude of nations ban the sport of un-hungery, but so fervid are its fans that illegal performances are staged even where banned.

The Grand Pinguid plods on toward his goal of being the biggest man who ever lived. The action culminates at the First Ever Competitions in Un-Hungery, held in Los Angeles in April of 2017. Will Leland be competitive against the best un-hunger artists worldwide? Can he defeat the champion from Saudi Arabia, the Humongous A-rab, and the Russian favorite, Borka the Shoemaker?

Among those featured in the plot of One Ton are Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Many other political figures, as well as showbiz personalities, make cameo appearances in the novel. Among other episodes, the reader is treated to the first phone conversation between “The Trumpster” and “Vlad the Impaler,” shortly after the new American president takes office. Later on The Blob and The Trumpster cross paths, after the President—bored with the tedium of his new job—opts for a side career as professional wrestler, under the name “The Big Orange Pussy Snatcher.”


Both world leaders take a big interest in hungery and un-hungery. They attend the grand international un-hungery games in L.A., as does the Sun of all Suns, the Boy Leader of North Korea, and they are involved in clashes, fireworks, and outrageous nonsense. There are laughs—not just tiny teehees or gentle guffaws, but huge rumbling belly laughs—on practically every page of One Ton. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW, Viet Thanh Nguyen, "The Sympathizer"





BOOK REVIEW

Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer
Grove Press: 2015

Don’t bother reading all the blurbs that go with the paperback edition of this book. Just read the first page; already you know you are in the presence of a talented writer. Here’s how we begin:

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides” (1).

We are not surprised later to learn that the narrator—never named, known only as the Captain—loves Russian novels, for this first paragraph recalls the beginning of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” featuring one of the most perverse split-personality ironist narrators in the history of world literature: “I’m a sick man . . . I’m a spiteful man. Unpleasant is what I am as a man. I think my liver is diseased. But then, I don’t know jack squat about my illness, and probably don’t even know what hurts where. I don’t seek treatment, and never have, although I respect medicine and doctors.”

Although he is not up in your face as forcefully as is Dostoevsky’s narrator, the Captain is in a similar limbo, living the life of in-between—neither fish nor fowl. Early in his career Dostoevsky wrote “The Double,” featuring a man who literally splits into two, and he was by far not the first European writer to air out the theme of the bifurcated psyche. So here we are, in a novel of the twenty-first century, reaching back into a grand tradition in Western literary art: the theme of the split, the two in one. This is the major theme of The Sympathizer.

The Captain was born split in two, and nobody among the Vietnamese who surround him has ever let him forget it. He is “the bastard,” illegitimate son of a Vietnamese mother and a French father, who is a Catholic priest to boot. He is a mixture of the Occident and the Orient. He has lived and studied in the U.S., has an excellent grasp of English and vast insights into American culture. Throughout the novel he seeks a resolution to his bifurcation. He never finds it, and at the end he is just as mixed up and split as he was at the beginning.

The theme is not all-inclusive, but, nonetheless, quite broad. Take Abe, the uncle of the Captain’s Japanese-American mistress (another character living, in her own unique way, with the split). Abe was born Japanese in the U.S., put in an interment camp during W.W. II. After the war, seeking his true identity, he went back to live in Japan, where no one accepted him as Japanese. Neither fish nor fowl.

As the action of the novel begins, we learn that the bi-racial Captain has made one big decision for political oneness. He does not waver between backing the South Vietnamese government, with its American ally, in the war against communism, or backing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese communists. He has chosen communism, and he works to further the cause of communism throughout the whole novel. But the job he has chosen—sleeper agent—forces him to lead a double life, be an actor perpetually playing a role: “sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face” (136). Now he knows how Vladimir Putin must feel. As we shall see, he also shares with Putin some views on American foreign policy.

The Captain’s story is intertwined with that of his two blood brothers, fast friends since childhood. One of them, Bon, whose father was murdered by the communists, is a staunch supporter of the South Vietnamese government. The other, Man, like The Captain, fights to liberate the country from the Americans and South Vietnamese. As the action begins, in 1975, Saigon is about to fall to the North Vietnamese troops, while the Americans and their allies—including Bon, The Captain, and The General, the man whom The Captain works for, and spies against—are in full flight back to the U.S.

A large part of the novel’s action is set in California in the seventies, where the expatriate Vietnamese military men end up, and where they plot to return home and overthrow the communists. The Captain goes on ostensibly working as aide to The General, while sending back coded messages to his handler Man in Vietnam. As the title tells us, he is a communist sympathizer. Then again, he professes sympathy as well for “the enemy”: “I confess that after having spent my whole life in their company I cannot help but sympathize with them, as I do with many others. My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as bastard” (36). Later the General asks him, “Do you know what your problem is?” Like all people who ask that question, he answers it himself: “You’re too sympathetic” (231). As we learn in the final part of the book, the communists who have taken over Vietnam will tell him exactly the same thing.

Then again, the sympathizer is, at many points in the book, not very sympathetic at all. He is personally responsible for the murder of two innocent men in America, and later we learn that he is obliquely responsible for the murder of his own father. As in The Brothers Karamazov—mentioned by name in The Sympathizer—we have the theme of parricide. But even more to the point, Dostoevsky’s final novel airs out the theme of bifurcation and the theme of guilt. It turns out that we are all, to one degree or another, guilty, and that’s what Viet Thanh Nguyen is telling us as well. In the words of Claude, the CIA agent who trains the narrator in interrogation techniques, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues. We’re all innocent on one level and guilty on another. Isn’t that what Original Sin is all about? (103). The Captain’s blood brother Man, handler of his sleeper/spy activities, makes exactly the same point: “Of course men will die . . . . . But they aren’t innocent. Neither are we, my friend. We’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries can never be innocent. We know too much and have done too much” (111).

This is a book about Original Sin, which receives frequent mention by the narrator, who is laden in his own mind with sin: “I was impure, and impurity was all I wanted and all I deserved” (124). Brought up as a Catholic, with his father, the priest, force-feeding him in the dogma of Catholicism as a boy, the Captain—now a professed atheist and communist—can’t totally shuck off his Catholic guilt. The two men he has murdered in the U.S. return to him as ghosts and haunt him on a daily basis.

For a book professing to be about Vietnam the theme of America is dominant. The Captain appears to both love and hate the U.S. simultaneously, and here we have another bifurcation. The whole book reeks with Anti-American thoughts and sentiments.
“America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA, a trifecta of letters outdone later only by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” (29).

Understandably, The Captain cannot forgive the U.S. for coming to Vietnam to, ostensibly, save the country and then killing three million people and leaving, having saved nothing and nobody. Furthermore, he is rankled by the narrative of the war, perpetuated by Hollywood, which tells only of American glory. This is “the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created” (Hollywood; 134).

“Nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence” (218). Here we get into the issue of American exceptionalism and the self-appointed role of America as policeman of the world, which is Vladimir Putin’s primary beef with the U.S. today.

Resident in America, the General’s wife makes clear her opinion of the country that has given her shelter, stressing “the lewdness and the shallowness and the tawdriness Americans love so much” (122). After being given a hero’s welcome in the U.S.A. upon his expulsion from the Soviet Union, the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made a series of such remarks in his speeches, and I have frequently heard Russian immigrants speaking in the same vein. American the Beautiful is often American the Ugly to them. Or America the Stupid. Looking for more endearments? Here are two others (in a book teeming with them): (1) “the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth” (255); (2) “As the crapulent major said, A man doesn’t need balls in this country, Captain. The women all have their own” (91). As a life-long American, I read the plethora of criticisms in The Sympathizer and must admit, alas, their credibility. Even when The Captain asserts that it’s against the law to be unhappy in America. “If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw unhappiness as a moral failure and thought crime” (254). Too true.

Finally, on page 280, the Captain—on his way out of the country and back to Vietnam—gets around to saying a few good things about the U.S.A. “I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious” (280). Good writing there, but the whole book has sentences like that. Nice.

Then again, the novel is about human bifurcation, so it is only natural that the narrator who hates America also to some degree loves America. In the latter part of the book he arrives back in his homeland, in the company of a group of former South Vietnamese soldiers trying to establish a foothold for a new anti-communist revolution. They are captured by the communists, and now comes the greatest irony in the novel. The sleeper agent, who has worked tirelessly in aid of communism, is not received with open arms. He is stuck into a re-education labor camp, where he is given the opportunity to write a confession, in an effort to purify his soul—badly tainted by Western culture. To do, in effect, the impossible: re-educate himself out of his double nature.

That confession, prepared for the commandant of the camp, comprises the first 307 pages of the book. In the eyes of the communist true believers the Captain’s manuscript is blasphemy. Too many good things, it seems, have been said about the West, too much complexity pervades the pages, no revolutionary slogans have been voiced, even beloved Uncle Ho Chi Minh is mentioned but once. The Captain, so it turns out, is too complicated to be a true revolutionary. True revolutionaries oversimply life’s realities—wiping out all the grays and making them into blacks and whites. But the Captain in his bifurcation is the epitome of gray. Here’s a hypothetical dialogue between him and the commandant.

                --Okay, who are you?
                --Me, myself, and I.
                --Right. You are you yourself and you, but you’re not allowed to be all those. Choose one.
                --But how can I choose between me, myself, and me? If I do that, I won’t be truly me, myself, and I anymore.
                --Choose!
(Actually, it’s somewhat easier for the Captain—but still impossible—he has to choose only between me and myself.)

What is the first thing that the Grand Socialist Revolution always has to do? Kill off the intellectuals, for the Revolution wants people chanting slogans, but certainly not thinking. “I believed in these slogans,” says the Captain, “but I could not bring myself to write them”(318). Not really true. He does not believe in the simpleminded slogans of Socialism. He is too intelligent to be a believer in the revolution, and deep down he senses why the Socialist Revolution never works. Revolutionaries think they know something that is really unknowable: who “the people” are for whom they fight. “Like salmon that instinctively knew when to swim upstream, we all knew who the people were and who were not the people. Anyone who had to be told who the people were was not [could not be] one of the people” (220). The Captain, deep down, is an intellectual, one of those stubborn, reactionary types who will tell you the truth: the whole idea of “the people” is a vast oversimplification and a fraud. Nothing on earth is really black or white; everything is gray. And “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson is quoted as saying (12).

At the end of the book the Captain is put through the same torture methods that the CIA once taught him way back when: sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation. He must learn the error of his ways and be, finally, re-educated to become a true Socialist believer. Of course, the bifurcated man cannot be put back together; he will always be what Dostoevsky’s hero is in “Notes from the Underground”: the man with the disease of hyper-consciousness, he who sees the many sides of any issue, too intelligent for his own good. The main thing he has learned through a lifetime of experience as a sleeper agent is that when the French left, and then when the Americans left, the Vietnamese were not finished with being given the shaft; they began “fucking themselves now,” as the book tells us. Even the narrator’s blood brother Man, the most intelligent character and, at one time, a true believer, ultimately comes to the conclusion that the revolution has failed.

Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, The Captain, for all of his apparent efforts to work his way out of his bifurcation, is the eternal rebel, whose allegations that his doubleness dooms him to an alien life are not that believable. He assumes that, as half breed, marriage has been denied to him for all time. But certainly in America—with his excellent knowledge of English and American mores—he could make a marriage if he wished. Bastardy hardly limits one in the U.S., where huge numbers of children are born out of wedlock, and where The Captain could function well in a miscegenated society. Why does he not consider such a move? Because he loves his loneliness, he adores his status as misfit, he revels in the alienation. Incapable of love for anyone but his now dead mother and his three blood brothers, he has no desire to make any accommodation with a woman.

In a kind of deus ex machina ending, Man, now a communist commissar, arranges for the Captain and Bon to escape from Vietnam with the boat people. Even if they survive the journey, we wonder where they will end up. The Captain has burned his bridges in the U.S., having committed a murder (of the character Sonny) just before leaving the country. He will be the prime suspect in that murder, so he cannot return to the beloved/hated U.S. At the end of the novel the man in limbo finds himself in even a physical liminality: he is the eternal displaced person, with no country to call home.

The Sympathizer is full of so many brilliantly written passages that you feel like quoting everything in full. The author has a way of writing set scenes with a mass of accumulated detail. Here are selections from a long passage describing the many fates of the Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S.: “the naïve girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen, and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland, . . . . .  and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston, and the proprietor who accepted food stamps for chopsticks and was fined for breaking the law in San Jose, and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, . . . . .  and the half dozen who went to sleep in a crowded, freezing room in Terre Haute with a charcoal brazier for heat and never woke up, borne to permanent darkness on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide” (70-71).

The above passage goes on for a full two pages, and, eventually, grades into the success stories: “the story of a baby orphan adopted by a Kansas billionaire, or the mechanic who bought a lottery ticket in Arlington and became a multimillionaire, or the girl elected president of her high school class in Baton Rouge, or the boy accepted by Harvard from Fond du Lac” (71). The whole long riff ends as follows: “So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead” (71).

Another wonderful passage describes The Captain’s visit to the home of a Hollywood director, where—after finally breaking his way through the conceited director’s monologue, he delivers a forceful lecture on a subject dear to his heart: how the Vietnamese scream.

“Screams are not universal, I said. If I took this telephone cord and wrapped it around your neck and pulled it tight until your eyes bugged out and your tongue turned black, Violet’s scream [Violet is the director’s assistant] would sound very different from the scream you would be trying to make. Those are two very different kinds of terror coming from a man and a woman. The man knows he is dying. The woman fears she is likely to die soon. Their situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timbre to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private” (130-31).

The power of the above passage is reinforced when The Captain tells us what he was thinking as he impressed the words upon the fatuous director. “I stood up and leaned on the desk to look right into his eyes. But I didn’t see him. What I saw was the face of the wiry Montagnard, an elder of the Bru minority who lived in an actual hamlet not far from the setting of this fiction. Rumor had it that he served as a liaison agent for the Viet Cong. I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple. That was not what made the old man scream, however. It was just the appetizer. In my mind, though, as I watched the scene, I screamed for him.

“Here’s what it sounds like, I said, reaching across the desk to pick up the Auteur’s Montblanc fountain pen. I wrote onomatopoeically across the cover page of the screenplay in big black letters: AIEYAAHHHH!!! Then I capped his pen, put it back on his leather writing pad, and said, That’s how we scream in my country” (131).

So many good passages, too many of them to quote in detail. There are, for example, (1) touching passages about the former South Vietnamese military men, now living emasculated in the U.S., working as bus boys and landscapers.  They train to go back and fight as guerillas in their home country—returning through Thailand. They hate America for many reasons, the main one being that in America they are no longer men, and they are willing to die in their effort to become men once more (220-222). (2) poetic passages using the device of accumulating detail, such as all of the things about the Vietnam that “we could not forget” (238-39).

The author has a wonderful feel for the way human psychology works. In the scene describing how The Captain murders the innocent Sonny (274-76), there is a suggestion that deep in the neurons of his brain Sonny realizes the danger he is in, but the neurons cannot get the full message to his conscious mind in time. Flustered at the Captain’s admission that he is a sleeper agent, Sonny suggests that the General has put him up to coming here—the General has done so, but he has put out a contract on Sonny’s life. Sonny even once uses the word “kill”: “I think you’ve come here to trick me. You want me to say I’m a communist too, so you can kill me or expose me, don’t you?”

The novel is a bit weaker at the end, where it describes the Captain’s return to Vietnam and his interment in a labor camp for “re-education.” The author, although by birth Vietnamese, has barely ever been in his home country and must make up nearly everything in this part. Consequently, the reader must do a good deal of “suspending disbelief” in the latter pages of the novel. The business (370-78) about how Man insists on torturing his friend until The Captain understands the meaning of the word “Nothing” is much belabored and, ultimately, unconvincing. Then again, we are expected to believe that by the time we read it, the manuscript (the first 307 pp.) has already been through three drafts, which are redacted by the commandant of the camp. I see little evidence of the viewpoint of a true-believing communist in that manuscript part of the book. One more thing: what language is the ms written in, Vietnamese or English? It is so thoroughly steeped in the English language that one has trouble imagining it written in Vietnamese for the eyes of the commandant. More heavy suspension of disbelief.

A few passages would be wonderful, were they not so suggestive of other Western writers. Take the masturbation scene: “I committed my first unnatural act at thirteen with a gutted squid purloined from my mother’s kitchen.” The story of the love affair with the squid goes on for two pages, and would be more entertaining were not the whole business purloined from Roth’s Portnoy (78-80). Once in a while a line sounds like it might have come out of Mickey Spillane, or from Garrison Keillor in the role of Guy Noir: “Her legs demanded to be looked at, and would not take no, non, nein, nyet, or even maybe for an answer” (243). Then again, the Captain can be quite an innocent for a military man; even though he himself carried a .38 special back in Vietnam, he is unaware that the weapon accommodates five cartridges, not six (97).

These are mere quibbles, not meant to detract from the brilliance of the novel on the whole. Although the writer has a Vietnamese name, he is, essentially an American, having come to this country at age four. The novel, as well, is set firmly in the tradition of the Western novel. To what extent it may also be in the tradition of the Asian novel, I do not know, as I confess my ignorance of Asian literature. It would be interesting to hear how this book goes over in Vietnam, after it is translated into Vietnamese and published there. You kind of wonder if the Vietnamese reaction might be like the commandant’s reaction to The Captain’s confession: too mired in Western ways, too “American” in its viewpoints. And that would be still one more grand irony.

To return one last time to Dostoevsky, the ending of The Sympathizer reminds me somewhat of the ending of Crime and Punishment. In that novel we are left with the author’s nudging hard at his recalcitrant, atheistic Raskolnikov, with the aid of the unbelievably saintly Sonya, pushing him over into the camp of Russian Orthodox faith, but not quite getting him pushed there. The split-personality “hero” of C and P—so we are told—has made strides forward, but has certainly not yet resolved his split or atoned for having committed murder. It would take another long novel, writes Dostoevsky in the final pages, to describe Raskolnikov’s true religious transformation and healing. Of course, that novel was never written. In his turn, the author of The Sympathizer has mentioned in interviews that he has considered writing a sequel to his novel. He has not suggested, however, that the bifurcated Captain has a chance to resolve his split. Not likely.



Friday, March 10, 2017

PUTIN AND TRUMP ON THE PHONE (Selections from forthcoming comic novel by U.R. Bowie, "ONE TON")



My new comic novel, ONE TON: THE TRUE AND HEARTRENDING TALE OF A FATBOY'S TRIUMPH, is scheduled for publication in the next couple of months. This is the funniest thing I've ever written, HAR, HAR, HAR (I can't stop laughing).

Composed in the spirit of my favorite movie, "Dr. Strangelove," the novel tells the story of Leland (The Blob) Lebeau, hunger artist extraordinaire--who aspires to be the first human in history to attain to the weight of 2000 pounds.

Featured as characters in the book are, among others, Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-Un.

Here is an excerpt, describing the first phone conversation between Putin and Trump, immediately following the latter's inauguration as President.


Over in Moscow President Putin was on the phone, making his first official phone call to the new President.
            --Hello, hello. Can you hear me? Is that you, Donald?
            --Speaking. How’s it going, Vlad? How’s it hanging?
            --Going good, always going good, hanging high. If it were going gooder or hanging higher we’d have good beyond mere good; we’d have the ultimate goodest of the good and the highest of the high hang (joked Vlad the Impaler).
            The Trumpster laughed wholeheartedly, though he didn’t get the joke. Russian humor (he thought). Sad.
            --Let me say first off, Mr. President . . . oh, is it all right if I call you Pussy Snatcher?
            --Sure, Vlad. That’s fine. All my friends call me that. The American people came up with that affectionate nickname.
            --Okay, well, first off, Pussy Snatcher, congratulations on being elected. When we first heard you were running, my people in the FSB said, and I quote, “That fat sap ignorant fucker don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of winning.”
            --Well, they were right. I didn’t. But I did!
            Now it was Putin’s turn to fake laughter. That must have been a joke, so I better laugh. The Trumpster joined in cackling, and the two laughed together for thirty seconds straight. Putin was the first to go on with the conversation.
            --So how has it been, being President for the first few weeks?
            --A lot of fun, Vlad. Fun, fun. Terrific.
            --Yeah. But then, the responsibility sometimes hangs heavy on your neck.
            --That’s what Obama told me: responsibility. But actually, I find the job kind of boring. They want me to read all these crappy intelligence reports. But if I did that it would take away from my tweeting time. And watching Fox News.
            --I see. What’s this about the courts putting the quietus on your anti-Muslim decrees?
            --No problem. It’s like swatting flies. So-called judges. Sad.
            --Strange country you got there, buddy, the way the court system works. Sticking its nose into presidential ukases.
            --How does in work in Russia?
            --Easy. No sticking of the noses. Then again, we have court trials, but the verdict is decided before, not after the proceedings.
            --Who decides?
            --I do.
            --Sounds like a good system. You and me, we got to get together and talk over that. Plus a few more things.
            --Like what?
            --Well, for example, we’ll be pulling out of NATO soon, those suckers don’t pay their fair share. It’s a bad deal. So you and I, we got to figure out what happens next. Like, for example, you can have Estonia back if you like.
            Putin narrowed his eyes and spoke now in a whisper.
            --What will you be asking in return?
            --Not much. Just your help in bombing ISIS back to the Stone Age, bombing all the Muslims in Iraq, Libya, Egypt. Stuff like that.
            --Sounds like a deal, Donald. You got it.
            --One other thing, Vlad. Might need your advice with some lying we’re doing.
            --Lying?
            --Yeah. We’re trying to figure out how best to bamboozle. We’ve come up so far with ‘alternative facts’ for every issue. Plus some doublethink and newspeak, you know? Maybe you could lend your expertise.
            --Hm. I’d like to help you, but lying was never in my lesson plan.
            --Really?
            --I’ve never told a lie in all my born days. I swear it on my mother’s grave.
            --Um. Okay.
            --HAR, HAR. Fooled you, fooled you, had my fingers crossed when I said that! HAR, HAR.  
Once again the Trumpster joined in with the laughter, although he didn’t find the joke funny. The two world leaders laughed together for another thirty seconds. Finally Putin spoke up again.
--Got to run, Mr. President. I’m on my way to help out some cranes.
            --Cranes.
            --Yeah, some sand-hill cranes are gearing up for their semi-annual migration, and I’ll be the guy in the crane suit, flying a tiny crane-looking aircraft and guiding them back to their nesting sites.
            --I see. . . . Well, have a good flight, Vlad.
            --Oh, before we hang up, I want to tell you something funny, Pussy Snatcher.
            --Right. Go ahead.
            --I looked up the word ‘trump’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, and guess what it said?
            --I don’t know. Trumpeter? Bridge player? Dealmaker? Brilliant mind?
            --It said, and I quote, “(slang) an audible act of breaking wind.”
            Vlad the Impaler went off into paroxysms of hearty laughter, while the Big Orange Pussy Snatcher sat bewildered, holding the phone in one tiny hand and staring off into space.
            --Oh, one other thing, Mr. President.
            --What’s that, Vlad?
            --Remember when you were in Moscow four years ago for the Miss Universe competitions?
            --Yeah. What about it?
            --Remember when we made a gift to you of Miss Uzbekistan, and Miss Chechnya, and Miss Tajikistan, and they went back to your room in the Metropole Hotel?
            --Sure. What about it?
            --Well, hate to spring this on you, Pussy Snatcher, but we’ve got videos of your bare ass. Real high quality stuff.
            --So what?
            --Just this. You do what we say from now on, or your bare ass will be on every TV screen and internet screen in the world.
            --That’s great, Vlad. Thanks!
            --Huh? What’s great?

            --It’s great for the notoriety. Then again, what a treat for the world! My bare ass is a beautiful sight. Terrific. Thanks again, buddy.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

ON CREATIVE WRITING AND CREATIVE WRITERS




U.R. Bowie

Observations on Creative Writing and Creative Writers

“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue  his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”
                                                     Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, Jan. 16, 2017, p. 84


Most of today’s creative writing in America is highly imitative, lacking the creative spark of originality. Writers imitate other writers: their themes, their literary form, their tone, everything. Much of what is published amounts to bad imitations of bad stories to begin with. The imitators apparently took the bad stories for good ones. A writer writes another bad story imitating a previous bad story. How does a writer avoid such a misfortune? Read the greatest writers who have ever lived. Read Lev Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, Flaubert, Gogol, Rebecca West, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf,  many many others in the grand pantheon of world literature. If you must imitate somebody, try imitating them. Don’t bother reading ninety-five percent of living American writers, even the ones who have won awards.

Then there is the brilliant young writer who proclaims, “Why do I got to read all them old dead white men (plus a few dead white women)? Me, I got my own ideas!” How do we answer such a proclamation? We say, “Duh, yeah.”


About imitation. One thing that’s ever so hard to be is original. Good writers present something novel in tone or style; a good writer has his/her own voice. When you find your voice you have begun. Some writers never begin.

On The Envy of the Creative Writer

One day a writer of creative literary fiction sits down and writes a masterpiece. Other writers are plunged into sorrowful depression, thinking, “Dang, there are only a limited number of masterpieces to be written, and now this guy has filched another one and run off with it.”
                                                      Paraphrase of James Salter, The Art of Fiction, p. 50

As for myself I don’t even know what Salter is talking about here. I don’t have any feelings of envy whatsoever. Never have had. What’s wrong with me? I just read the brilliant novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Didn’t feel envious of him; just felt, “Wonderful, how great to have a young writer writing at that level of creativity.” Then again, I don’t know what writer’s block is either; can’t even conceive of not being able to write—unless I go blind or senile. Guess I’m just dumb.

What do good creative writers do? They “make the shape and rhythm of sentences intensely felt” (Salter, p. 56). Yes!

Then there’s the aspiring creative writer who proclaims, “I’m not interested in rhythms of sentences; I want to write about ideas.” Urggh.

Here’s the layman’s image of a writer who teaches creative writing in a university: “… a dramatic figure striking in appearance, wearing boots and jodhpurs, perhaps, with long white hair like a prophet and bearing a kind of literary ichor, the fluid in the veins of the gods” (Salter, p. 57).

Can that white-haired prophet teach you to write? No, you have to learn yourself, through years and years of intensive practice, while reading only the best creative writers who ever lived and learning from them.

Salter mentions his friend Saul Bellow, who once remarked on “the sexual heartlessness of women.” As Salter says, “Women were especially on his mind at the time since his ex-wife—his third—was suing him for more money, given that he’d received the Nobel Prize with the six or seven hundred thousand dollars that came with it” (p. 58, 61). No big secret there—that women can be sexually heartless, or even just plain heartless, or mercenary, cruel or meretricious. But so can men. Welcome to the human race.

We Write Ourselves


“In a copy of a book that Colum McCann signed for an auction of first editions, beside the disclaimer that is always printed proclaiming that the book is a work of fiction, the names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, beside this McCann wrote simply, ‘Bullshit’” (Salter, p. 38).

Then again, you don’t want to get sued, do you?

Important Books and Unimportant Books

“Books that are important weren’t written to be important, generally. They became such. By important, I mean so-deemed. Referred to. I can’t think that The Catcher in the Rye was written as an important, life-altering or significant book. I believe that it was simply heartfelt. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t bear marks of an intended importance although I don’t know what Harper Lee actually felt. Fitzgerald thought all of his books were important. The Great Gatsby was a short book, only 214 pages, and he was insistent that the publisher sell it at the same price as his longer ones” (Salter, p. 42-43).

Speaking of the so-deemed, the above paragraph demonstrates the sometimes dated opinions of James Salter. Read by everyone and his brother in the fifties and the sixties, The Catcher in the Rye is read by practically no one these days. Not only not important, but already moribund, almost dead.  To Kill a Mockingbird is still widely read, its so-deemed greatness still afloat, but it is “a book for children” (as Flannery O’Connor said), and for people who do not or cannot read real literature. As for The Great Gatsby, this book has claims to being the Great American Novel; it should be sold at twice the price of any other book.

Where and When You Write And Who Is Helping You Out

“You don’t do all the writing at your desk. You do it elsewhere, carrying the book with you. The book is your companion, you have it in your mind all the time, running through it, alert for links to it. It becomes your chief companion, in the real sense of the word, you can talk to it quietly. It becomes your sole companion” (Salter, p. 76).

What Salter hints at here is that, unbeknownst to you, the book is writing itself in your mind all the time. Your deepest neurons of the brain work on the writing day and night. As recent studies in brain science have revealed, on a conscious level we have no idea about the decisions those independent neurons are making. Romantic writers used to think of themselves as the amanuensis of the gods, who guided their pens and sent down original ideas. But more likely writers are the amanuensis of their own creative neurons. When your favorite character suddenly does something totally unexpected on the page, it’s not because God so decided. The neurons decided—and they very well may have made that decision at three a.m. in the morning, while you were fast asleep.

“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real” (Salter, p. 77).


Selected Passages from the Writings of Good, and Sometimes Great Writers


[description of a ritual butcher in a Ukrainian shtetl, inspecting the lungs of a cow or sheep he has butchered] “the glossy brownish organs . . . . . the grotesque and otherworldly things that made life possible and which everyone—from a mouse to a man—had pumping and sloshing around in the dark hollows under his skin” (David Bezmozgis, The Free World).

“Her light-brown hair was drawn smoothly back and gathered in a knot low on her neck, but near the right temple a single lock fell loose and curling, not far from the place where an odd little vein branched across one well-marked eyebrow, pale blue and sickly amid all that pure, well-nigh transparent spotlessness. That little blue vein above the eye dominated quite painfully the whole fine oval of the face” (Thomas Mann, “Tristan”). [Mann is great at describing human faces, human bodies.]

[description of a delicatessen] “there were glass showcases where smoked mackerel, lampreys, flounders, and eels were displayed on platters to tempt the appetite. There were dishes of Italian salad, crayfish spreading their claws on blocks of ice, sprats pressed flat and gleaming goldenly from open boxes; choice fruits—garden strawberries and grapes as beautiful as though they had come from the Promised Land; rows of sardine tins and those fascinating little white earthenware jars of caviar and foie gras…” (Thomas Mann, Felix Krull) [Mann is also great at describing a scene by accumulating masses of detail; in this he reminds me of Nikolai Gogol.]

“She’d never met a child with beady eyes. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment,
usually in middle age” (Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God”).

“She felt a single drop of sweat slip from the small of her back, hang for an instant, and then slide into the mellow groove between the flexed jaws of her buttocks” (Harry Crews, A Feast of Snakes).

“A vast strand of white fleece, brutally bright, moved south to north in the eastern vault of the heavens, a rush of splendid wool to warm the day” (William Kennedy, Ironweed).

“joyfully gazing out from behind the cobblestone barrier are white crosses and monuments, which hide in the greenery of cherry trees and look from afar like white spots . . . . . when the cherry trees bloom these white spots blend with the cherry blossoms to form a broad seascape of white; and when the fruit ripens the white monuments and crosses are bedizened with specks that are blood-scarlet in color” (Anton Chekhov, “The Steppe”). [Chekhov’s tone-poem novella, “The Steppe,” full of such brilliant nature descriptions, was much influenced by his friend, the wonderful landscape painter Levitan.]

“You know, I have an uncle who’s a country priest, and the man is such a believer that when, in time of drought, he goes out into the fields to pray for rain, he takes with him an umbrella and leather raincoat, so that on the way back home he won’t get soaked” (Chekhov, “The Duel”).

“there was something wooden about his walk, something like the walk of toy soldiers, the way he barely bent his knees and tried to make each stride as long as possible” (Chekhov, “The Steppe”). [Chekhov loves describing how people walk. Tolstoy, who loved Chekhov when he met him, marveled at the way Chekhov himself walked. “He has the walk of a little miss of the noble class,” said Tolstoy with delight.]

“In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure. There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . . Painters are of the opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh” (Michel de Montaigne, “We Taste Nothing Purely”).

[Desdemona, reveling in the stories Othello tells her about his adventurous life] “She swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished that heaven had made her such a man” (Shakespeare, “Othello”).