Beautiful World, Where Are you: Part Two

The Part That Is About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I have a rule.

I call it The Ayn Rand Rule, and I came up it with years ago, after reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’. ‘Atlas Shrugged’, in case you are not familiar, is a pretty bad novel about a woman named Dagny Taggart who runs a railroad company. The book is mostly about how Dagny Taggart and other visionary business leaders are forever being stymied by the forces of consensus mediocrity. These forces cannot stand the truly excellent in their midst and are trying, by any means necessary, to basically ruin everything for everybody. However, if you have read ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you will probably remember that Dagny Taggart, who looks suspiciously like Ayn Rand herself, also spends a significant amount of time having rough sex with several tall, dark, and handsome leaders of the business community.

The out-of-context intensity of these sex scenes, Taggart’s resemblance to Rand, and the juxtaposition with the otherwise totally monotonous moralizing of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, was both poignant and absurd. That Taggart was Rand’s avatar was obvious, but what was also clear from the too-fully-imagined quality of the sex itself was that the whole thing was Rand’s personal fantasy. It felt as though she could not help but write herself into her own polemic novel in a weird, transparent sort of sexy fan-fiction.

Now, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is quite bad, so honestly the sexy interludes are kind of the high point. But, because those scenes are so obviously Rand’s sexual fantasies, they pull you out of the flow of the story and remind you of the author herself. It is as though she had scattered naked pictures of herself throughout the book: more than you probably wanted to know.

Hence The Ayn Rand Rule: I (the Reader) should not be able to tell what gets you (the Author) off just from reading your novel. Sex is fine, but the sex should belong to the story; when the sex is clearly about what you enjoy, when I can tell just from reading it that this is your thing, you have violated the rule.

Now, I realize that I am doing Sally Rooney a huge injustice by writing about her and Ayn Rand in the same post. I feel quite sincerely bad: Rooney is entirely too good an author to have to suffer juxtaposition with Ayn Rand. I feel bad enough about it, in fact, that I wrote a whole other post about ‘Beautiful World’ last week, where I tried to keep the discussion dignified and adult and Ayn Rand-free.

But I needed to describe the Ayn Rand Rule here because, I’m sorry to say, I think Sally Rooney has broken it.

Now, one of the things that is a little tricky about the Ayn Rand Rule is that you can never really be sure that an author has broken it. You may be quite convinced that your author is getting her jollies writing a sex scene, but, unless you actually have sex with the author, you’ll never know for sure. Therefore, Rule violations are always suspected, never proven. So, yes, technically, I cannot say for sure that Sally Rooney has broken the rule, but I think that she has (technically, I can’t even be sure that Ayn Rand violated the Ayn Rand Rule, but I can live with that).

Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of the offending passages from ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, Rooney’s latest:

“He leaned over then and kissed her. Her head against the armrest, his tongue wet in her mouth. Passively she let him undress her, watching his hands unbutton her skirt and roll down her underwear. Reaching up under her knee, he lifted her left leg over the back of the sofa and moved her other foot down onto the floor, so her legs were spread wide open, and she was shivering. Ah, you’re being very good, he said. Shaking her head, she let out a kind of nervous laugh. Lightly with his fingers he touched her, not penetrating her yet, and she pressed her hips down into the couch and closed her eyes. He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured. Just relax. Gently then he pressed another finger inside her and she cried out, a high ragged cry. Shh, he said. You’re being so good. She was shaking her head again, her mouth open. If you keep talking to me like that I’m going to come, she told him. He was smiling, looking down at her. In a minute, he said. Not yet.” (p. 162)

This type of benignly patriarchal sex, this whimpering ‘Good Girl’ sex, appears several times throughout the book. It is very consistent, and very specific. And since Rooney’s writing is spare, the intensity of these scenes stands out. In some way that is hard to define, Rooney’s characters are more immediate, more tangible, when they are having this kind of sex than they are when they are fighting, talking, emoting, or having other kinds of sex. This is the most vivid they get.

Which automatically suggests an Ayn Rand Rule violation. When sex scenes are the most vivid part of a novel, that’s usually because they are the part which has been most thoroughly imagined by the author. And when the sex in question is distinctive in some way, it feels as though the author has devoted more time to imagining that particular sex than was strictly required by the needs of the work.

OK, so, fine, who cares?

Sally Rooney

I care. Frankly, I care because it makes me uncomfortable.

Now, I’m not uncomfortable with sex in novels. On the contrary, I love sex in novels: I seek it out, in the same way I seek out movies with nudity, because it’s sexy. But when the sex feels more salient than the rest of the work, when it vibrates on a different intensity than the rest of the novel, when I start to feel that the sex is personal for the author, I stop being able to focus on the story and start feeling intruded on by the writer.

It is a minor sin, all things considered. Authors are usually more vivid when describing their personal experiences, that’s normal, and sex, which often intense in life, is usually also intense in fiction. And, while sex has featured heavily in all of Rooney’s novels, this is the first time she’s given me that unpleasant feeling of learning too much, and I am not inclined to hold it against her.

But, it is also going to be one the things I remember mostly clearly about this work. It was absolutely the thing I most wanted to write about. I wrote two posts on ‘Beautiful World’ because I believed that it, and Rooney, deserved more discussion than just an analysis of some sex scenes, but the sex scenes really affected my experience of the book.

That’s the real risk of violating the Ayn Rand Rule: you can completely change the way the book is experienced by the reader. What should be experienced as a work of fiction suddenly swerves and starts to feel like a sexual disclosure by the author. If that’s the intention, it’s all well and good, but in most cases, it’s probably not what the author really wanted. And, at least for me, it’s not what the reader wanted, either.

Beautiful World, Where Are You: Part One

The Part that’s NoT About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is Sally Rooney’s third novel. Rooney, who is not much older than 30, has become one of the most famous novelists in the world. Her first two novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People’, were both very zeitgeisty: they appeared on the Staff Picks tables at independent bookstores, they topped best seller lists, one was adapted into a TV show. They were the kinds of books that people asked you if had ‘read yet’.

I have read all of Rooney’s books, and in order of their publication. I wasn’t sure what to think after reading ‘Conversations with Friends’, but when I read ‘Normal People’, I gelled into a solid fan. I liked her project, as I understood it. It seemed to me that Rooney was trying to portray human feelings (with all their complexity, ambiguity, and wheel-spinning pointlessness) with flat realism, to treat emotion as just another fact about the world and to describe relationships as though they were not totally subjective.

I actually kind of loved that project, if I’m being honest. Rooney’s tone reminded me of what Hemingway might have sounded like if he were a sober millennial woman (and about 25 IQ points smarter).

‘Beautiful World’ is a little bit of a departure from Rooney’s previous work, although it makes sense to me as a natural extension, a sort of riff, on her first two books. But I have a lot to say about it, so I am going to break this into two parts. In this, the first part, I’d like to give Rooney’s project and prose the attention I think she deserves. In the second part, I’d like to talk about something which is bothering (obsessing?) me: sex.

‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ is the story (as all of Rooney’s novels are) of two friends: Alice and Eileen. Friends since they were teenagers, Alice and Eileen are now in their twenties. Eileen, who is beautiful and literary, works as a copy editor at a magazine. Alice, who is prickly and complicated, has found international success as a novelist. ‘Beautiful World’ is about these two women, the men that they love, and what happens to their friendship as their paths start to diverge.

If Rooney’s project in her first two books was to talk about feeling as fact, her project in ‘Beautiful World’ is show human relationships without talking about feelings at all. It’s a little weird: the narrative portions of the books are entirely observational. Rooney, as narrator, gives absolutely no information about the internal experience of any of the four main characters.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is a passage from ‘Normal People’:

“He got back into bed besides her and kissed her face. She had been sad before, after the film, but now she was happy. It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give to her, like money or sex. With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person. He was the only one who knew her like that.” (p. 108)

Do you see what I mean when I says she writes feelings as facts? Her emotional assertions are dry, simple, declarative. “She had been sad before…but now she was happy” is as uncontroversial, unqualified, a statement as “She had been 24 before, but now she was 25.” It is not how emotions are usually discussed in literature, where they are usually described rather than asserted.

Compare that to a representative passage in ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’:

“Putting the cloth back in the sink, she said she would make up one of the beds. He looked down at the floor. She came to stand in front of him, and said in a kindly tone of voice: Felix, are you okay? He gave a half-smile. Yeah, I’m sound, he said. Just tired. Finally he met her eyes and said: You don’t want to sleep together, do you? It’s alright if you’ve gone off the idea, I know I was a bit of a prick about it. She looked back at him, her eyes moving over his face. I did feel foolish when I didn’t hear from you, she said. Can you understand why I felt that way or do you think I’m being crazy? Apparently uncomfortable now, he said he didn’t think she was being crazy, and that he had meant to reply to her message, but time had passed and he had started to feel awkward about it.” (p. 184)

If Rooney’s first two books tried to treat our interiority as reportable information, ‘Beautiful World’ tries to remove interiority at all. We are never told how our characters are feeling, what they are thinking – we are only told how they behave.

Sally Rooney

It’s a really interesting approach to take, and I think it would have worked quite nicely, except that Rooney cheated. Each narrative chapter is followed by an epistolary chapter, emails between Alice and Eileen. In my opinion, the decision to add these chapters detracts from the novel rather than adding to it. First of all, it feels as though Rooney didn’t trust herself (or her readers). In the end she isn’t actually content to let her characters’ actions speak for themselves, and so made sure to spell out for us the conclusions she wants us to draw at regular intervals.

But, secondly, the email chapters are unconvincing and, frankly, annoying. They don’t read like actual emails; they feel like authorial explications. They are too long, too verbose. They are essays, and they make both women sound pretentious. Let me give you an example:

“But I think you’re wrong about the instinct for beauty. Human beings lost that when they Berlin Wall came down. I’m not going to get into another argument with you about the Soviet Union, but when it died so did history…Or maybe it was just the end of one civilization, ours, and at some time in the future another will take its place. In that case we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.” (p. 101)

Come the fuck on. I am, myself, a verbose, pretentious millennial woman, but if any of my friends ever sent me that email, I’d never speak to them again. The email chapters aren’t very good – they don’t give us a window into the lives and minds of these two women because they don’t sound like they were written by humans, and anyway wasn’t the point of the novel to not have the window in the first place?

Rooney is a good enough novelist that I would like to allow for the possibility that I am missing something fundamental, but, to me, it feels as though Rooney wanted to try something a little radical, and then had a failure of nerve. I have some sympathy for that, by way: it’s really hard to write about relationships without writing about interiority, and it might have made for a strange, bleak novel. It is totally reasonable that she would have wanted to give her readers some access to her characters; I just don’t think the emails were super successful at that.

But, as for Rooney as a novelist, whatever journey she’s on, I’m with her. The more books she writes, the more interested I am in what she’s trying to do, which, I think, is to really fundamentally find a different way to portray human feeling. It’s a hard project, but a really good one, so I’ll keep riding with her.

Travels with My Aunt

By Graham Greene

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I resisted Graham Greene for many years.

It was prejudice, pure and simple: I got it into my head that I didn’t like him, and so avoided him well into my twenties. I forget how I was cajoled into finally picking him up – probably someone gifted me the first book of his that I read, ‘The Orient Express’. Whatever happened to get me to read it, that novel changed my opinion about its author more quickly and thoroughly than any book I have read before or since.

That was more than a decade ago. In the interim, I have read most of Greene’s novels, many of them twice. My favorites I reread every year or two. I love Greene desperately; he is probably my favorite novelist. My relationship with him transcends simple enjoyment of his work: I am emotionally vulnerable to his books in some way I don’t really understand. Something in his worldview resonates deeply with me, and his work moves me more than the work of any other author I have ever read, I think.

It isn’t a happy resonance, I should state clearly. I find Greene powerful and devastating. Ever since I read that first book, I felt that he was showing me something true about the world, something terrible, something I had always sort of known but never wanted to admit. As though he were prophesying doom, I believed him and despaired.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ was, apparently, a special book to Greene. According to the Introduction, Greene described it as the only book he ever wrote for fun, and it shows. It is among the most mordant of his works, and it seems like it would have been fun to write.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ follows Henry Pulling, a former bank manager. Henry is retired; a bachelor, he spends his days rereading the books his late father loved and tending his dahlias. At his mother’s funeral, however, Henry meets his Aunt Augusta, a septuagenarian with vivid red hair who convinces Henry to travel with her. Aunt Augusta, it quickly emerges, is a slightly seedy character with a long string of past lovers and a predilection for minor crime. Henry, staid, lonely and conservative, finds that he cannot resist the company of his aunt, and will watch his life transformed by her companionship.

This is a Greene speciality, this sort of book. He has a knack for crafting caper-novels whose sense of antic fun hides a deep vein of despair. It’s probably clear even from my description that Henry Pulling is a pathetic character; you might even intuit that the character of Aunt Augusta is also poignant.

However, the most crushing figure in the novel, a character who perfectly captures Greene’s particular gift for devastation, is Wordsworth. Wordsworth, a South African exile, is Aunt Augusta’s lover and helpmeet at the beginning of the novel. A marijuana smoker and grifter, Wordsworth is devoted to Aunt Augusta, who he will refer to throughout the novel as his ‘bebi gel’, despite the fact that she is decades his senior. Though it becomes clear very quickly that Augusta is searching for the lost love of her life, the Nazi war criminal Visconti, Wordsworth remains devoted to her. His attachment to her will, of course, destroy him – attachments in Graham Greene novels usually destroy the hapless souls afflicted with them. By the end of the novel, he will be rejected, discarded, and killed.

Wordsworth is a peripheral character, and it is precisely his lack of importance (to you, the reader, to Henry Pulling, and, most importantly, to Aunt Augusta) which makes his love, and his death, so painful to read about. In a comic novel, Wordsworth is expendable; most often referred to by the main characters as “poor Wordsworth”, his death passes without grief or comment.

Greene often embroiders his stories with these brutal little tableaux. He always understood that every character suffers, even the ones who don’t get center stage. He shows the pain and despair of these bit players, but not to humanize them. No, he’s a much crueler author than that: he is not dignifying Wordsworth by showing us his degradation and pain, however briefly. He is demonstrating to us how pointless Wordsworth’s suffering is.

Graham Greene

This is a particularly Graham Greene kind of move, and it is the thing that I find so reliably upsetting about his books. Greene has seen with unusual clarity that most of us are peripheral characters; we just don’t know it. We live and love and suffer with all the intensity and sincerity of main characters, but we aren’t heroes. We aren’t even villains: we are scenery, comic relief, plot mechanisms. We are afterthoughts in the lives of others, and all our love and all our grief will vanish with us. They will not give our lives meaning – they will not redeem us. No one cares, except us.

I think that we have been trained by our culture to believe that suffering has meaning. Whether we consider it redemptive in the Christian sense, or enriching in the psychoanalytic sense, or simply a necessary development in a character arc, justified by happiness in the end, we tend to think that pain has a point. Graham Greene does not believe that. A lapsed Catholic, Greene is a nihilist: for him, the suffering of a character like Wordsworth has no point. No one learns, no one grows, no one is redeemed. We suffer, we die, we are forgotten.

It might seem strange that I love this author so much. I’m not sure I can really explain why I do. I have never finished any book of his without pain, a feeling that my heart has been wrung badly. But I have always, from that first book, believed him. If his novels are painful, they are also, in a very important sense, true. Greene saw something, something about human weakness and human selfishness and human pain, which I believe. I do not think he saw the whole picture, but I think he saw a part of it very clearly. I think he knew something, and I want to learn what it is.

Introductions

I’d like to do something a little different today. Rather than discuss a specific book, I’d like to talk about Introductions, and why I hate them.

Let me begin, as usual, with a qualifier: I don’t mean all introductions. Specifically, I’d like to exempt authorial introductions, i.e. introductions written by the author, say on some anniversary of the original publication of the work. I actually often love introductions of this kind – it’s almost always interesting to hear an author discuss their relationship to their own previous work. Usually, they contain some clarifying context: ‘I started this book the day the Berlin Wall fell‘; ‘At the time I wrote this, I did not yet know that Rock Hudson was gay‘. They also contain the author’s current perspective: ‘In retrospect, Y2K was a less urgent problem than we supposed at the time‘. At their very best, they integrate feedback: ‘A number of readers have told me that the main character is desperately annoying – if I was writing him today, I probably wouldn’t have made him a Gemini‘.

I love authorial introductions because I always, always learn something about what the author wanted the book to be, and I think that that is useful information to have. I feel that they give me better insight into what the author expected to happen when I read the book. In some cases, the authorial introduction has had such a profound impact on how I understand the book that I cannot think about one without thinking about the other. An example is Arthur Miller’s essay on ‘The Crucible’, in which he writes, of Danforth the judge:

“In my play, Danforth seems about to conceive of the truth, and surely there is a disposition in him at least to listen to arguments that go counter to the line of prosecution. There is no such swerving in the record, and I think now, almost four years after the writing of it, that I was wrong in mitigating the evil of this man and the judges he represents…I believe now, as I did not conceive then, that there are people dedicated to evil in the world; that without their perverse example we should not know the good. Evil is not a mistake but a fact in itself…I believe merely that, from whatever cause, a dedication to evil, not mistaking it for good, but knowing it as evil and loving it as evil, is possible in human beings who appear agreeable and normal. I think now that one of the hidden weaknesses of our whole approach to dramatic psychology is our inability to face this fact-to conceive, in effect, of Iago.’ (p. 167, ‘The Crucible: Text and Criticism’)

I could write essays on that quote alone; it is not an understatement at all to say that it has changed how I think about the world and that it means more to me than ‘The Crucible’ itself (which I love, deeply) could ever have meant to me without it. It is an integral part of my experience of the work.

But I am not talking about that kind of introduction today. Today, I’d like to talk about the critical introduction, written by someone other than the author, which so often appears in front of esteemed works of literature. These introductions offend me deeply, because they almost always tell me what to think, and, in doing so, they spoil the work in some way.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, crack open the Introduction of any major work of fiction. You will inevitably find sentences giving the game away, or framing the relationships of the book for you. Sentences like these:

“Prince Myshkin has two loves, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, one belonging to each “world” of the novel. He also has two doubles: Rogozhin and Ippolit. There is a deep bond between the dying consumptive nihilistic thinker and the impulsive, unreflecting, passionate merchant’s son, between the suicide, and the murderer.” ‘The Idiot’, Dostoyevsky)

“One of the most touching scenes in the novel is the transformation of Sir Leicester near the end. He has been severely humbled by the discovery of his wife’s secret and her flight, jeered at by a servant, and crippled by a stroke. Society expects him to renounce his wife, but instead, before his household, he declares his loyalty to her with the pomp and bravado that have, until now, made him the novel’s chief stooge.” (‘Bleak House’, Dickens)

Or how about one of the introductions that has most offended me over the years, from ‘The End of the Affair’, by Graham Greene:

“We can entertain the possibility that a miracle has occurred so long – and only so long – as the novel also leaves us free to entertain the possibility that it hasn’t…The last chapters of ‘The End of the Affair’ do not allow us that freedom…It is as though the novelists “technical ability” had failed him just this once, and left him caught with his finger on the scale. And Greene has since admitted that the way in which this “cheating” harmed the novel…The story he wanted to tell was that of a man “driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he broke and began to accept the incredible.” But Greene found that after describing Sarah’s death he “had no great appetite to continue,” and rather than allowing Bendrix to grow into a “reluctant doubt of his own atheism,” he began to “hurry” onto the end.”

Ok, so you’re not just going to ruin the ending for me, you’re also going to tell me that the ending isn’t successful? This is just rude, frankly. It is rude to roll up on a great novel, slide in front with your measly little opinion and tell naive readers not only what is going to happen, but how they are supposed to feel about it.

‘Ok’, you might be saying to yourself, ‘Fine, you’ve got a defensible opinion here, if perhaps a little hysterical. But the solution is clear: just don’t read the Introduction. They aren’t mandatory; just skip by them and take in the work with a fresh eye.’

It’s a reasonable point, but, unfortunately, it gets right to thing that most offends me about them: we are supposed to read them. We are pressured, by their location and nomenclature (they are Introductions), to read them. That’s why they come before the book: they are meant to be a subtle gatekeeper, a sort of orientation to the book you actually wanted to read.

It is true, we are absolutely capable of sailing right by the Introduction; in fact, most people probably do. But it is clear to me that we are meant to feel bad for skipping past it. If we simply ignore that prefacing section, we are meant to feel philistinic, unliterary. ‘Oh,’ those pages seem to say to us, ‘Someone’s in a hurry. Not a real Reader, are you? I guess you don’t really care about understanding the book you’re reading, huh? Just trying to put a notch in the bedpost – fine. Not everyone can be a real intellectual, I guess’.

Look, I love a good critical explication as much as the next guy. Critical essays help us deepen our relation to the work in question; they make us better readers. But they should not be placed, like a toll booth, at the front of the work. Fiction should be read fresh, without preconceived notions of meaning. Meaning should come later – experience should come first. To present readers with a pre-masticated point of view about the work which they are about to encounter is, in my opinion, wicked. It does violence to the spirit of thing, to the relationship between a reader and a new book.

I’ll put it another way: the novel should frame the criticism. The criticism exists contingent on the novel; the novel is its context. However, when you put the Introduction in front of the novel, the Introduction frames the novel. It’s ass-backwards. It spoils the book for new readers; it’s patronizing and contaminating. Stop it.

The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’d like to talk about allusions.

An allusion, not to be confused with an illusion, is an implied reference to something else. It is often, but not exclusively, used to describe artistic allusion: the implicit or unstated gesturing, within one work of art, at another work of art. But there are all kinds of allusions: cultural, historical, religious. When you describe a task as Sisyphean, you are making an allusion. When you say someone has the patience of Job, you are making an allusion. When you describe something as your kryptonite, or compare it to the Kobayashi Maru, or call something your white whale, you are making an allusion. 

Allusions are very useful. Because they call to mind a shared cultural touchstone, they allow you, essentially, to flesh out an entire context with very little effort. If I make a joke: “To snack or not to snack – that is the question”, you know right away that I am referencing Hamlet. You know that Hamlet is asking his famous question about existence, about the nature of death and the meaning of life, whereas I am merely wondering whether to have a snack. You juxtapose the weightiness of his question against my triviality, and get the joke: I’m over-worrying about snacking.

It’s very powerful. In a world without Hamlet, I would have had to enumerate the levels of my agonizing to you: the wanting a snack, the not wanting to want a snack, my sense of genuine dilemma along with my meta-sense that my dilemma is minor in the grand scale of things, my own awareness of my ridiculousness and my awareness that you are also aware. Using an allusion, I can achieve all this complexity in a single phrase.

The reason this works is because we both know Hamlet. If we didn’t both know Hamlet – know it instantly – I would just be a person acting weird about snacks.

That’s the thing with allusions: the pay-off can be huge, but your audience has to get the reference. And cultural is local, both in space and in time. As anyone who has ever read Vergil will tell you, what the Romans considered obvious allusions would blow right by 99% of the reading public now. Likewise, we in the West tend to consider the Bible safe ground for allusions, but that’s awfully provincial of us. And popular culture, of course, is saturating but over in the blink of an eye (there are a lot of authors who, in about twenty years, are going to regret mentioning Kim Kardashian in their books). In fact, you can often date a piece of work by the cultural allusions the author seems to think everyone will get. Allusions require us to understand the same references, to live in the same world. The further apart our worlds are, the less likely we are to be able to communicate with each other this way.

All artists live with this tension when they deploy allusion: some people will get it, and some won’t. You need to balance the needs of the work with the likely scope of your audience. And, of course, for the audience, allusions are sort of terrifying. The idea that some crucial piece of meaning, some aspect or dimension of the work in which you are investing your time and energy might be lost to you, not through any fault of your own, but simply because you have not happened to encounter some other piece of culture? It doesn’t feel fair.

Which brings me to Paul Beatty. 

‘The Sellout’ is Beatty’s fourth novel, but the first that I have read. It won the Man Booker (side note: those Man Booker judges really are not fucking around). It is the story of Bonbon, a young Black man raised in Dickens California, a low-income high-crime neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. When Dickens is suddenly, inexplicably, dis-incorporated, Bonbon hatches a scheme to get his town back on the map: he will re-segregate it.

Beatty’s prose is among the most densely allusive prose I’ve ever encountered. There might be readers who are culturally informed enough to take in the full scope of the web of references that Beatty is constructing – I am not that reader. Which means that reading his work requires, on my part, a sort of surrender: the knowledge that I will not, cannot, comprehend the entirety of his project.

Paul Beatty

It’s daunting, but, in Beatty’s case, enormously worth it. Beatty’s prose is so fast, so sharp, so witty, that to grasp even a fraction is joyful. I was laughing out loud by page 13, when Bonbon describes a scheme he has to open a shop to translate personal mottos into Latin. He imagines people from Dickens coming to him for translation, so that they can get their mantras tattooed on themselves without fear:

“If it’s true that one’s body is one’s temple, I could make good money. Open up a little shop on the boulevard and have a long line of tattooed customers who’ve transformed themselves into nondenominational places of worship: ankhs, sankofas, and crucifixes fighting for abdominal space with Aztec sun gods and one-star Star of David galaxies. Chinese characters running down shaved calves and spinal columns. Sinological shout-outs to dead loved ones that they think means “Rest in peace, Grandma Beverly,” but in reality reads “No tickee! No Bilateral Trade Agreement!” Man, it’d be a goldmine…When business is slow, they’ll come by to show me my handiwork. The olde English lettering glistening in the streetlight, its orthodoxy parsed on their sweaty tank- and tube-topped musculatures. Money talks, bullshit walks…Pecunia sermo, somnium ambulo. Dative and accusative clauses burnished onto their jugulars, there’s something special about having the language of science and romance surf the tidal waves of a homegirl’s body fat. Strictly dickly…Austerus verpa. The shaky noun declension that would ticker-tape across their foreheads would be the closest most of them ever get to being white, to reading white. Crip up or grip up…Criptum vexo vel carpo vex. It’s nonessential essentialism.” (p.13)

Did you catch all that? No? How could you? The thing is, it’s funny anyway. The whole book is like that: funny, nimble, dense. Blink and you’ll miss something, but even if you keep your eyes peeled the whole time, you’ll still miss something because Beatty is moving too fast for you.

At a certain point, you just need to decide whether you’re willing to read a book knowing you won’t understand a lot of it. That there are in-jokes that will go right over your head, and that some of them might be important.  It’s hard.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth is because Beatty specifically is worth it, but it’s also worth it because that’s the only way to grow. If you only read authors you understood entirely, you’d never learn anything new. In general, the less challenging a work is, the less you learn from it. And the problem tends to compound itself: the more distance between your own experience and the scope of a novel, the less you will understand. The less you understand, the less likely you are to put in the effort to finish the novel, and, therefore, the more you become confined to your own experience.

Wading into someone else’s allusions is a good way to see the world through their eyes. And their world will necessarily be different than yours – that’s the whole point. If it weren’t, you’d have imagined the book yourself.

I couldn’t have imagined ‘The Sellout’, not with all the time in the world and a gun to my head. And books like that, books you couldn’t have imagined and don’t fully understand, those are the best books, in my opinion. Even if you don’t get every joke, don’t know every reference, those are the books that make your world bigger.

And bigger worlds are better, I think.

White Noise

By Don DeLillo

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I read ‘White Noise‘ in college. I hated it, but I can’t tell you why. I remember very little about the plot, something about a man who studies Hitler, and a toxic cloud. I had an impression that it was clever but bleak. I found it almost overwhelmingly unpleasant to read, but not bad at all. Just aversive.

I put it on my bookshelf, and looked at it periodically with suspicion. I have long wished to purge and donate it, but something has held me back: some sense that it is a modern classic, an Appreciated Book, critically valued. Also holding me back: though I remember almost nothing of the book, my copy is so full of sticky notes, flagging passages I liked, that it is nearly double its normal thickness. I did not like it, I am sure, but I certainly appreciated lots of things within it.

During my last book-purge, I reached crisis and decided to reread it. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to throw it away with an easy conscience.

I’ve just finished it, and, somehow, I find myself more confused than I was when I started.

White Noise‘ is the story of Jack Gladney, who is the head of the Hitler Studies department at a small liberal arts college. He is married to Babette, his fourth wife, and they live near campus with their substantial and blended family. They are happy, although Babette has been sneaking a medication and will not tell anyone what it is. One day, however, an airborne toxic cloud appears over their town. Jack is exposed, and, when his doctor informs him that his exposure will inevitably, inexorably, result in his death, Jack’s life begins to unravel.

I was right all those years ago, with all my flags: ‘White Noise’ is extremely clever, and bristles with quotable passages. Some examples:

“‘The flow is constant,” Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.'” (p. 66)

Another:

“‘I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the country, where the fish hatcheries are.'” (p. 117)

How about one more:

“‘I have only a bare working knowledge of the human brain but it’s enough to make me proud to be an American. Your brain has a trillion neurons and every neuron has ten thousand little dendrites. The system of inter-communication is awe-inspiring. It’s like a galaxy that you can hold in your hand, only more complex, more mysterious.”

‘Why does that make you proud to be an American?’

‘The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli.'” (p. 189)

Reading over these quotes now, I can also see why, despite the fact that it is so clever, I hated this book so much. In fact, I think I hated it because it is so clever.

Cleverness in writing is tricky. It can be immensely entertaining, startling and funny and revealing all at once. For me personally, a person susceptible to cleverness in general, it can be tremendously winning, and I will forgive a book many sins if it is clever.

But too much cleverness is alienating.

First of all, cleverness is cold. Being clever requires distance from the observed thing: it is far away from the warmth of human interaction, a dissection, and, when it is really sharp, it is a little cruel in its accuracy. It is fundamentally un-affiliative: it separates and distinguishes.

Don DeLillo

The most successfully clever books, in my opinion, are books that combine cleverness in observation with great warmth of feeling. It is all well and good to see so clearly, but you must then forgive the objects of your sight. Not many people can pull this off – the one who springs most readily to my mind is Zora Neal Hurston, who is incredibly clever but also deeply humane, all-seeing and all-loving.

DeLillo is not like this – or, at least, ‘White Noise’ is not. It is unrelenting, so clever it becomes aggressive. And this is the second problem with cleverness: it’s a little show-offy. Because it is impossible to be clever without knowing that you are clever, it always has the element of a performance, ‘Aren’t I clever?’ The difficulty is that too much of that quickly becomes tedious, the performance becomes about the performer, and not about the novel. The point of the book stops being the story, or the characters, or the readers; the book instead becomes merely an opportunity for the novelist to show how much smarter he is than anyone else. It’s needy.

But, as I said, I am a sucker for cleverness, and, at moments, I hoped that DeLillo was doing it all on purpose. It’s not impossible – ‘White Noise‘ is, after all, a novel about the fear of dying. The fear is death is unrelenting, icy and inexorable – perhaps ‘White Noise’ is unrelenting and bleak simply because death is. We cannot evade it; all we can do is laugh mordantly while we wait.

I’m giving it too much credit, I suspect. The Great American Male Novelists all had this tendency: to be more interested in the display of their own genius than in the experience of their readers. It’s a shame: DeLillo is clearly capable of tremendous observation. If only he had been willing to observe something redeeming, to observe with some kindness.

I think I am going to keep it on my shelf, though. I still don’t know why, but something holds me back from donating it. In the end, I suppose, imperfection is not the same as badness, and, after all, it is very clever.

Middlemarch

By George Eliot

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It’s always stressful when you fail to love a Great Book. It’s disappointing – you know something is askew, and the consensus critical opinion suggests that it is you.

I don’t love ‘Middlemarch‘. I know that I’m supposed to love ‘Middlemarch’ – everyone loves ‘Middlemarch’, especially women. Women seem to love ‘Middlemarch’ to an almost uncanny degree – the ubiquity of the appreciation is rivaled, in my opinion, only by love of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

But I’m a woman, and I have never loved ‘Middlemarch’.

I’ve read it three times in the past twenty years. I’ve never liked it, but I keep rereading it, partly because everyone loves it and I’m trying to figure out why, and partly because I can’t ever seem to remember what happened in it.

So it’s time to tackle ‘Middlemarch‘, fresh from this latest rereading and before I forget it again.

Let me begin with the obvious: it is beautifully written. My copy of ‘Middlemarch’ bristles with flags from all the passages that I’ve marked. The language is gorgeous, the insights profound.

“To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” (p. 266)

“Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best.” (p. 229)

“Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” (p. 349).

That I am in the presence of a great mind as I wade yet again through this book is obvious to me – Eliot is a magnificent writer. With her writing, I have absolutely no quarrel. But, alas, I loathe every single one of her characters, and I don’t care at all about what happens to any of them.

For what it’s worth, I am aware that this is the shallowest possible level of analysis. Characters in novels aren’t your friends – it is not their responsibility to be likable to you. The idea that the merit of a book is how much you root for the characters, or how much you see yourself in them, how much you connect with their situation, is, in my opinion, sophomoric garbage, weak thinking for weak minds.

Partly, this approach to novels offends me because it doesn’t even apply to life. People have many paths to demonstrate worth: they might be brilliant, or funny, or brave, without being at all likable. Plenty of people have accomplished great things, lived interesting lives, without being the sort of person you can relate to, with whom you’d like to grab a beer. Often in the world, the best lives, the most moving or interesting ones, are lived by weak, repellent, or wicked people. Novels, which are essentially just stories about people, shouldn’t be held to a narrower standard than the people themselves.

But, in my defense, I don’t loathe the characters in ‘Middlemarch‘ because they are weak, repellent, or wicked. I loathe them because they are boring. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t loathe them in real life – in all likelihood, I only loathe them because I am being forced by consensus opinion to read an 800-page book about them. Again.

The plain, embarrassing truth is that I don’t really understand why people love this book. But I have a sneaking suspicion that loving ”Middlemarch”, rather like hating ‘Middlemarch’, is really all about Dorothea. I don’t think anyone loves ‘Middlemarch’ for Fred Vincy, or for Will Ladislaw – Dorothea is fulcrum upon which the novel pivots and turns – it is Dorothea, rather like Elizabeth Bennet, upon whom readers pin their attachment.

Certainly, Dorothea is the obstacle which I cannot get past. Much of my irritation with her, I think, stems from my sense that I am supposed to like her, my sense that George Eliot liked her. She is not drawn as a perfect character, but her flaws, stated clearly in Eliot’s beautiful, precise prose, have the aspect of Trojan flaws: putatively added to give realism and depth, but actually draped across a character to flatter them, make them more lovable. The novelistic equivalent of being asked your weaknesses in a job interview and saying, “I care too much about my work.”

George Eliot tells us that Dorothea is idealistic, lofty in aspiration and naive in execution, and earnest to a fault, as befits a person pure of heart. But that is not who I see. The character I see is a fatuous twit: a stupid, pretentious woman who’s virtue is driven as much by her own vanity as anything else. And while I think it is entirely possible to love a stupid, pretentious character, I think it is very difficult to love a stupid pretentious character whose author doesn’t see her the same way.

As I write that out, it suddenly occurs to me that it is obvious. Of course my problem with ‘Middlemarch’ isn’t that I don’t like the characters – very few books are peopled by characters I actually like. The problem is that I don’t like them, but everyone else, most importantly George Eliot, does.

Maybe it’s not possible to really love a book when you substantively disagree with the author about its characters – I don’t know, I need to give it some more thought. But it is the problem here: George Eliot is charmed by her characters, and I am not.

George Eliot, portrait by Samuel Laurence

A story needs something to justify itself to readers. All stories are acts of persuasion: the readers are offering their time; the story must provide a continued justification for that time. Different kinds of stories provide different justifications: action heroes aren’t well-developed characters because they don’t need to be, no one is there to watch them grow and mature. Hero’s journeys are the opposite: if the hero doesn’t justify the story, nothing will. Likewise, when a character is meant to be disliked, the story is built to accommodate that repulsion. Repellent characters are often charming, but they are made to be – effort is made to attract readers to them despite themselves.

In this context, a mismatched justification is no justification at all. George Eliot wrote a hero’s journey: good and lovable, though imperfect, people find happiness through tribulation. The virtuous are rewarded; sinners are punished.

But I don’t find her heroes heroic – I find them pointless. And pointlessness doesn’t work in a hero’s journey; in a hero’s journey, it’s hero or bust. Worse, when the hero is pointless, all the apparatus of their journey becomes burdensome, and you, as a reader, resent it.

Or at least I do. And I know that it’s just me, it’s my problem. Everyone in the world seems to find Dorothea enchanting, worth journeying with – I’m clearly the exception. And I wish it weren’t so; I don’t feel superior when I fail to love something everyone else does. I feel…unsettled, as though I am missing something obvious.

I would love to love ”Middlemarch‘. But if we could choose to love, the world would look very different. And I have read this book three times now, and I don’t like it any better for it. It might be time give up, agree to disagree, and move on from ‘Middlemarch’.

Giovanni’s Room

By James Baldwin

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Years ago, a handsome young man, with whom I had never had sex of any kind, told me that our relationship reminded him of ‘Giovanni’s Room‘*. When I asked, “Which of us is Giovanni?” he said, “You are.”

(*I still haven’t had sex of any kind with him.)

Giovanni’s Room‘ is a novel by James Baldwin, who is probably the best American writer who has ever lived. It’s a story about two men who fall in love in Paris: David, an American, who is waiting for his fiancée to return from her travels, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender. They spend a summer living in Giovanni’s decrepit room, where David’s crisis of identity deepens as Giovanni comes more and more dependent on him. When David leaves Giovanni and returns to his fiancée, Giovanni has a slow-motion breakdown, which will eventually culminate in his imprisonment and execution.

It’s a beautiful novel, but I was offended by the comparison, because Giovanni is many things I do not find myself to be: he is clingy, passionate, romantic, melodramatic, and a drunk. According to my personal value system, it’s basically better to be a murderer than to be clingy and emotional, and so I deeply resented the implication that I was the Giovanni in any relationship. On the contrary, I have spent most of my relationships feeling very much like David: interior, ambivalent, cold, held back from normal human intimacy by profound self-loathing. I have held the comparison against that young man for almost twenty years now.

But I reread ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ the other day, and I see now that, in my outrage, I misunderstood what it is really about. I suppose I thought that it was about how destructive passion can be, about how a nature, consumed with love and without other ballast to steady it, could spin off into madness. I was fooled by the oldest trick in literature: I was paying attention the wrong character. I thought that ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was about Giovanni.

‘Giovanni’s Room’ is about David. It isn’t a novel about passion, or madness – it’s a novel about alienation, about the destruction of the possibility of love by hatred. David, who has spent his life in full flight from his very self, hates himself so completely that the love of other people, which he needs like water, feels like chains to him.

Baldwin doesn’t explicitly frame David’s self-loathing as internalized homophobia, and, though that is clearly part of it, I do not think he intended that David’s condition be that simple. David has been warped by a feeling that certain of his longings are “wrong”, yes, but he is also economically, culturally, and familially alienated as well. He is lost, trapped being a person he despises and unable to break free.

What David comes to know, what I have also come to know and the reason that I identified so strongly with David when I first read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, is that, when we truly hate ourselves, we are unable to sincerely love anyone else. And when you are incapable of loving other people, the love they offer you will always feel like a hair shirt: irritating, painful, constricting, external. You will seek it out – you are lonely, after all – but when you receive it, you will immediately feel straight-jacketed and embarrassed by it. The people who love you are so earnest, so intense, that it is difficult to look them in the eye. David flinches from Giovanni (I flinched from Giovanni) not because Giovanni is so extra, but because Giovanni is whole-hearted and David, who’s own heart is consumed by hating himself, is mortified by that.

James Baldwin

Like most truly great books, ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ is even more beautiful upon rereading. I have always found James Baldwin breathtaking, one of those authors who make me feel that reading their words is a privilege. He has always possessed a special insight into human suffering, no less clear-eyed because it is merciful, and he has the writerly power to express his insights with devastating effectiveness. And I discovered, upon rereading, that Baldwin tells us exactly what it means to be Giovanni:

“Perhaps, everyone has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.” (p. 25)

Giovanni goes mad through remembering; David goes mad through forgetting.

It’s funny, getting older. I was furious when that young man told me I reminded him of Giovanni, but I know now that he wasn’t insulting me at all. Quite the contrary, I believe he knew, young as we were, what Baldwin knew: that it is better, in the end, to be Giovanni, because Giovanni at least knows his own heart. David knows nothing.

I also know that, sadly, that young man was wrong about me. I am not Giovanni – I am David, I always have been.

Doxology

By Nell Zink

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Can a pointless book be good?

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows I’m obsessed with this question. To declare that, in order to be considered a work of value, a book must have some larger metaphysical or moral point is, essentially, to disqualify almost every work of horror, or fantasy, or romance from being ‘good’ (of course, most of them aren’t good, but very few books are good in any genre). Just as literary genres have their own conventions and codes, might they not also have their own standards, their own definitions, of success and failure? And mightn’t one of those standards be, simply, that they entertain?

I don’t think that many people would argue with me that, for example, ‘Jaws’ (a favorite test case of mine) is a great story. But it’s a great story because it is original and compelling, not because it makes any grand arguments – the shark doesn’t stand for anything, it’s not a comment on capitalism, or the patriarchy, or climate change. Its goals are to be fun and scary, and because sharks are intrinsically fun and scary, it succeeds in its goals. Therefore, it is a good book, in my opinion.

Applying that standard (“Does it entertain?”) to genre novels is pretty uncontroversial; however, when it is applied to realist literature, things become a little more complicated. We tend to have higher epistemological standards for realist literature; we expect those stories to do more than entertain. We expect them to instruct.

But I would like to advocate for the good literary novel which merely entertains, a la ‘Jaws’. It doesn’t make sense to me that we have simpler standards for books with wizards than we do for books about ordinary people. Perhaps the more we, the readers, resemble the protagonists, the more we require instruction: no point about reading about ourselves if we aren’t going to be bettered by it.

But ordinary people can be just as strange and compelling as elves, and not every story needs a moral. I’m advocating for this category, The Good, Pointless Book, and I’m submitting ‘Doxology‘ as an example.

Doxology‘ is about three friends who become a family. Pam and Joe meet in New York City in the nineties. Joe has William’s Syndrome; Pam is a punkish runaway. When they meet Daniel, a transplant from a religious Mid-Western family, the three decide to form a band. Joe is the singer song-writer, Pam the guitarist, Daniel the manager.

However, Daniel and Pam start sleeping together, and Pam is soon pregnant with a little girl she will name Flora. She and Daniel marry, while Joe unexpectedly becomes famous. On 9/11, as Pam and Daniel take their young daughter and flee the city, Joe overdoses on heroin. The family is traumatized, but their lives roll forward: Flora grows up, Pam and Daniel creep into middle-age.

Doxology‘ is really the story of Flora’s young life. She’s totally normal for an unusual kid: she’s smart, stupid, needy, independent. Her parents are cooler and stranger than normal parents, but her life isn’t therefore any more exotic. Aside from being babysat by a rockstar, she lives the life of a Gen-Z: raised by millennials, growing up under the cloud of climate change, idealism deeply challenged by the election of Donald Trump when she is barely out of a college, post-AIDS, post-Great Recession, lost.

And ‘Doxology‘ isn’t going to add anything to your understanding of Gen-Z, especially if you’ve ever seen a TikTok. If there is a greater meaning, I missed it. It’s merely, I think, a quick jaunt with a member of the latest adult generation.

Nell Zink

But it was a fun read, more of a zany ride than High Art. The action is fast-paced. Serious emotional developments are announced only in oblique comments, coded asides. Entire conversations are conducted with a sort of skipping meta-wittiness that makes ‘The West Wing’ look like ‘See Spot Run’:

“So, if I’m not the father, who is?”

“Aaron’s ready to accept responsibility,” she said.

“He’s a fucking socialist who wants to take responsibility for the whole planet. Can he tie his own shoes? Did you check?…It’s my baby,” Bull went on. “Or at least I’m adopting him. If biological-father-boy wants to make it an open adoption, let him try.”

“You don’t need me, if it’s a baby you want,” she said. “Have your own baby. You can afford a surrogate.”

“I guess for you Millenials that’s just one kind of sex work, but FYI, I’d rather be raped by an animal than exploit a woman of color like she’s a piece of meat. I love you, Flora, you fecund slut. I’ve got stuff to finish up here, but I’ll be home in an hour.” (p.366)

I am a millennial, and I have lived in New York City, and I have never, ever, heard a human talk like this. It’s completely unconvincing, but, again, I think that’s beside the point. It’s kind of fun (in an irritating way) to read an entire book about people who talk like this. It’s fun to read a pseudo-absurd thought experiment about millennial parenting. It’s fun to read about events of my own lifetime happening to fictional avatars. I didn’t learn anything, but I enjoyed it, and I guess I just fundamentally believe that that’s a good enough reason to recommend a book.