The Man Who Told Oprah She Chose “Shmaltzy, One-Dimension Books”

August 28, 2006


This September, Jonathan Frazen breaks new ground with a memoir: The Discomfort Zone. I’d like some more fiction from him, but perhaps since much of his fiction (especially The Corrections) came from personal experience, there really isn’t that much of a difference in terms of themes. I’ve read excerpts from the new non-fiction, most notably his story of high school shenanigans regarding the flagpole, but rumor has it from GQ magazine that in this memoir he describes losing his virginity . . . as a college senior . . . writing in the third person. More power to ya, Frazen, for transparency, but I bet it’ll be nice to hide behind the curtain of fiction after this book tour.

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The Silence of Gunter Grass

August 18, 2006


The New York Sun published a two-part open letter to Gunter Grass in response to his recent admission that he was a part of the Waffen SS during World War II. The open letter is heartwrenching; never have I read a letter so full of choken tears and resentment. Daniel Johnson, the author of the letter, takes Grass to task for his hypocrisy over these last 60 years, as Grass has maintained an anti-Western attitude, an anti-Israeli attitude, and remained a public intellectual figure while never admitting his role in the Nazi regime.

Grass’ silence, certainly, is reprehensible. But I certainly understand it. I can fully understand why he has kept silent. As he says, shame has been responsible. Less clear, however, is why he chose to reveal it at this time. Or, perhaps, this is too clear – he wishes to maximize sales of his new memoir.

I do take issue with the way people have condemned him: they look back at the atrocities of WW II, which has become less a historical event than a metonymn for evil, and unilaterally condemn anyone even tangentially connected with that evil. I think that is the wrong approach. In judging others, you must look at it from an existential perspective: Gunter Grass, at that time a seventeen year old, full of the propoganda of the Nazi party, wished to defend his country, and was probably unaware of the scope of the holocaust (if not its existence). A wicked decision, yes; but could we, in that place and at that time, and at such a tender age, chosen differently?

It gives me even more sympathy for him as I read The Tin Drum. In what sense is Grass the dwarf/child Oscar, pounding away on his drum as the atrocities go on? And how badly must his secret have been burning within him all these years, as he pens character after character with secrets of their own?

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Man Booker Prize

August 15, 2006

The Longlist (19 books) is out for the Man Booker Prize, and boy do I want David Mitchell to win (he’s given a 6 to 1 chance by betting companies!). Peter Carey’s won it twice already, so honestly – that’s enough. And besides, he’s often overrated (sorry Carey fans). Even though Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is much better than his latest, Black Swan Green, he’s a fantastic writer and should be honored as such.

For more info, check out The Millions or The Literary Saloon.

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Harper’s Serialization of J. Robert Lennon

August 14, 2006


It’s been fifty years since Harper’s Magazine published a serial novel, and an abridged version of J. Robert Lennon’s novel Happyland has won the honor. Although Harper’s has fiction in every issue, at least a single short story, it seems serialization gives more weight to fiction, a weight desparately needed after most magazines have relegated fiction to little-read journals and the Atlantic Monthly has recently decided to drop their short story slot. And I admit – I’m intrigued by Lennon’s story of a doll-maker’s takeover of a small town. Installment #3 just came out in the September issue, and I can’t wait to read the rest.

On the webzine Being There Lennon admits that as he wrote it the story turned into a satire on the current political climate, with the protagonist Happy Masters representative of Karl Rove. In the interview he says, “It’s about people feeling powerless against someone who is a leader that they feel they did not choose.” The political interpretation, however, I feel is one that he has projected on the storyline because of his admitted obsession with hating the Bush administration. The novel could be read just as well by interpreting the corporations as the evildoers – the business conglomerates that can refurbish the landscaping of a city according to their own desires, making it as fake as dolls and dollhouses. This Walmartization of America, I think, it what Happy Masters represents, and it’s an interpretation according to Occam’s Razor – it’s much simpler than the political take. But of course, this is only how I read it, and better books often allow for more interpretations. This is why Jose Saramago’s book Blindness was excellent and his follow-up Seeing hit below the mark: because Blindness allowed for so many metaphorical interpretations while Seeing hammered a single refrain. So perhaps it’s better that Lennon allowed some space for interpretation.

Question for my readers: Anyone out there know how many more chapters there are in the novel?

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Pynchon Update

August 12, 2006


The new Pynchon book, Against the Day, comes out December 5th. And not to mix metaphors, but it’s Russian-Novel/Ayn-Rand sized, weighing in at the sumo-like bulk of 1040 pages. The description of the book – which he wrote himself – betrays his idiosyncraticities:

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

–Thomas Pynchon

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