Edward P. Jones: Live in L.A.

September 22, 2006

Last night, I saw Edward P. Jones at an ALOUD event across from the Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. For a man who grew up poor in Washington D.C. with a mother who couldn’t read or write, and yet won literary acclaim later in life, including a MacArthur fellowship and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, he dressed the part: he wore crinkled blue jeans with black socks and dress shoes. On the whole, Novelist Susan Straight did well at using humor and personality to keep the talk interesting, except that she had a few too many cappucinos and on occasion verbally bulldozed the taciturn Jones. Here were some of my favorite quotes from Jones.

On why he makes up stuff rather than using stories people told him:
“I was born with an imagination so I might as well use it. When I’m old and addled, then I’ll steal from other people.”

On love:
“I am a pretty pessimistic person.”

On (not) growing up:
“We never get over being children.”

On Writing:
“There are days when I am feeling sad, but if I get in a good two or three pages, the rest of the day is sunshine.”

His latest collection of stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children (The title came from an old term for black people) was released September 1st.

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The Rein of Michel Houellebecq

September 19, 2006

It’s been four months since the French writer Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, was released in English, and eight years since his first novel Whatever appeared on the scene. In that time he’s managed to make quite a bad boy image for himself, primarily by the excoriating insults in his novels (in Platform a character asserts that Islam “could only have been born in a stupid desert, among filthy Bedouins who had nothing better to do — pardon me — than bugger their camels.”) In addition, he’s managed to act like an ass in person, even in his own documentary (in one interview he got smashingly drunk and demanded sex from the female interviewer, and in his documentary he’s always alone, swigging off a bottle.)
But not since Camus has a French novelist received such widespread popularity, and the sales come partially because of his willingness to sacrifice every sacred cow. He debases women (only slightly more often than men), critiques religions (especially Islam), and offers a selfish, despairing view of the world, but that’s precisely what people find attractive about him. His ideas are attractive because he tries so hard to be unattractive. His ideas are also attractive because no one else is saying them.
He’s been characterized wrongly as a nihilist. It’s simply not true, and what disproves it are two books that form the pillars of his work. The Elementary Particles, which was his first big hit, and his last book, The Possibility of an Island. These two books are hitting on the same theme: that technology cannot save us, and we should return to a primal state. This repeated theme (among many other reasons) is why he’s called a novelist of ideas. Platform and Whatever are minor books, deserving a reading only if you’re a die-hard fan, but if you want the heart of this misanthropist, read the two pillars. He’s acerbic, difficult to swallow, and often offensive, but his original training in poetry comes through in well crafted prose and his ideas, told entertainingly, should be dealt with.


Milan Kundera: The Curtain

September 8, 2006

Milan Kundera’s new treatise on the novel – The Curtain – is being published in English in February 2007. Don’t miss this. Because not only is Kundera a master of the novel himself (Unbearable Lightness of Being, of course, but what about the Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting?), but his analysis of the state of the novel is uber-insightful. I read The Art of the Novel about five years ago . . . and then read it again . . . and again, (speaking of that – I need to reread it again) and passed it off on my brother and anyone else who ventured within earshot. I’m just surprised, given Kundera’s fame, that they’ve taken so long to translate it. It was originally published in French in April 2005, and is available in Spanish, German, Polish, Greek and Croatian. Croatian? I didn’t know they had such a lively literary community that they beat out the English speaking world. Probably contract wrangling and stiff-necked publishing houses at fault, but at least HarperCollins is leaving all that to history.



September 4, 2006

I found Marilynne Robinson through an essay she wrote in Harper’s critiquing evangelical religion. It was so dead-on I just had to read her second novel, Gilead. She pulled off a lovely voice, from a man at death’s door writing letters to his son, and also managing to have quite a few theological rumorings and speculations. It’s written in snatches, like Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, and somehow a large percentage of sections left me teary eyed. Other than Bret Lott (I’ve read Jewel) and perhaps Anne Lamott, I don’t know of many other Christians who are writing literary fiction – there are slates of them churning out “religious” thrillers and romances, but those disgust me.