Category Archives: Books

Word Porn: Sherman Alexie – “Indian Killer” (1996)

Having established his slot in the contemporary American canon with his 1993 collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and the novel Reservation Blues (1995), Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer finds its author at a point during his career in which he can attempt to exercise some of the literary clout his work thus far has earned him. The Alexie of 1996 is allowed the freedom to play with genre without fear of critical pigeonholing, a luxury not afforded to the Alexie of 1993 — or any first-book writer, for that matter. Accordingly, he gives us a hard-boiled crime novel which sets out to   manipulate the line separating the popular from the literary while confronting the host of complications plaguing the relationship between American Indians and Americans of European ancestry.

On paper, Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer sounds exceptionally promising: a deranged serial murderer dubbed “The Indian Killer”  is on the lam in Seattle, scalping white men throughout the city and leaving a calling card of two crossed owl feathers at the scene of each gruesome murder. Such a foundation in the hands of a talent like Alexie suggests that the reader should expect both first-class genre writing as well as thoughtful observations on race relations in America. Unfortunately, what Indian Killer offers in its attempt to deliver such a novel is an uneven balance of genre and insight in which both halves compete in a shouting match with no clear winner.

Ultimately, Indian Killer‘s biggest problems lie with its characters. The novel is populated by static, two-dimensional stand-ins motivated by little save their respective ethnicities. One can’t help but get the feeling that Alexie cares little for and possibly even hates every last character in his novel; and, if their fully-fleshed personhood isn’t respected by Alexie, there is little hope that it will be respected by the reader. This creates a disconnect between the audience and the text which may be desirable in certain post-modern contexts but adds little value to a social novel which depends on its depiction of living, breathing people interacting in complicated ways which the reader can recognize as human.

In one of the novel’s many subplots, the young revolutionary Marie Polatkin repeatedly locks rhetorical horns with a laughable Literature professor whose Native American Lit class Marie finds offensive and fraudulent. Her perpetual, combative corrections regarding ethnic customs satisfies her attempt to find “an emotional outlet in the opportunity to harass a white professor who thought he knew what it meant to be Indian,” (61) but offers the reader very little in regard to truly understanding one of the novel’s most prominent characters.

By denying his central figures this necessary complexity, Alexie reduces them to transparent pawns in his literary experiment. However, this isn’t to say that a novel should be without its static, stock characters. As demonstrated by the “Testimony” chapters of the novel, in which eye witnesses are interrogated regarding the Indian Killer’s brutal murders, this two-dimensional approach to character sketching can be a breezy, effective way to push the crime narrative. The reader doesn’t require that the middle-aged bystander at the casino murder, the severely beaten hitchhiker or grief-stricken mother the young boy kidnapped by the Indian Killer have rich personal histories wrought with complex motivations and detailed voices. These characters exist to tell the reader about gunshots, mysterious screams and broken limbs; they exist to serve the genre.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the function of all the characters in Indian Killer. In the end, one can’t help but feel that Alexie has gone slumming in the paperback thriller aisle in order to bring something interesting back to the shelves of literary fiction; but Alexie’s name alone cannot save Indian Killer from being little more than a flat, thrill-seeking novel whose social resonance is lost in the murky waters of its own pastiche.

Jezy

Walter Benn Michaels: Bad Economy, Better Books

In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.

For Walter Benn Michaels, renowned literary theorist and author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, American literature has long suffered from a severe case of cultural short-sightedness, an affliction which he thinks may be remedied by our current economic distress.

In “Going Boom” (Bookforum: Feb./Mar., 2009) Michaels contends that the social problems we see confronted in our most celebrated novels of the last quarter-century all share a point of comonality in their refusal to acknowledge the perpetually widening income gap created by the free market. Moreover, he takes issue with the American tendency to re-examine the atrocities of our past in terms of ethnic identities, moral failures and speculative historical revisionism rather than confronting the social realities which have come by way of our very economic  foundations.

“What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference,” he writes, “is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than  money for their mortgages.” And, while a large part of me is leaping to defend the Roths and Morrisons of our literary landscape, I’d be lying if I said he doesn’t have a point.

Since September. . . things have gotten so bad that not just poor people but relatively rich people—up till now, the beneficiaries of the boom—have begun to feel the pain. And disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty. Which is just what the vast majority—the victims of the boom—have been worrying about all along. So maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade.

In the last three months, I’ve read the following contemporary American novels: The Tortilla Curtain (Boyle), Names on a Map (Saenz), What Is the What (Eggers), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Foer), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz), Lost in the City (Jones), Beloved (Morrison), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Chabon) and I’m currently working through Lahiri’s The Namesake and Danticat’s The Dew Breaker.

That’s a lot of books, right? Theoretically, with each author’s individual background and vision so drastically varied from the next, this should make for a thematically diverse reading list. But while each novel has its own method and voice, its own unique textual universe executed with varying degrees of success, they are all  — every last one of them — essentially about the same thing: reconciling one’s ethnic identity in the American social scheme.

To substantiate Michaels’ claim even further, the following historical atrocities are all on display: 9/11, slavery, the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the brutal reign of Trujillo, and the civil war in Sudan. Furthermore, the only two books which don’t apply their energies toward examining any big-time suffering from the past (The Tortilla Curtain and Lost in the City) are also the only two works which even attempt to talk about the mechanisms of class. They also happen to be two of my favorite texts on the list.

While it’s tempting to forge some causality here and say that these two books are superior to most others because of their attention — however muted by the theme of ethnic identity — to inequality in the American social strata, the truth is that they just happen to be the products of tremendously gifted writers. And, if pressed, I would have to say that Michael Chabon’s  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a staggering 700-page novel about the Holocaust and the comic book industry, trumps them all in terms of artistry and enjoyability.

Still, I think Michaels is on to something. While exploring the themes of identity and America’s brutal past does not, in my opinion, make a particular novel inherently worse than one which focuses instead on the economic discrepancies created by American hyper-Capitalism, it should cause us to stop and question its relevance in a world that is so drastically changing. But, if Michaels is right and our literature writ large  begins to follow suit with the American television series The Wire, “[a series] about the world neoliberalism has actually produced rather than the one our literature pretends it has,” then — even if we’re living in boxes, sustaining ourselves on twigs and berries — we just might be in for some damn good reading.

Jezy

Stuart Dybek to Read as Part of UNT’s Visiting Writers Series

Author Stuart Dybek will come to the University of North Texas to read selections from his work, which focuses on issues of community identity and displacement. Dybek’s reading is part of the Visiting Writers Series sponsored by the Department of English. The reading will be at 8 p.m. March 25 (Wednesday) in the ballroom of UNT’s Gateway Center, which is on North Texas Boulevard between Eagle Drive and Highland Street.

The 8 p.m. reading will be followed by a book signing with the author, which will also occur in the ballroom. UNT’s Bookstore will have Dybek’s works available for purchase.

An informal question-and-answer session will take place earlier at 4 p.m. March 25 (Wednesday) in Room 212 of UNT’s Auditorium Building, located on West Hickory Street between Avenues A and B. . . [continued here]

Dybek’s collections include The Coast of Chicago, Childhood & Other Neighborhoods, and I Sailed with Magellan. He has won the Lannan Prize, a PEN/Malamud Award, and his work has appeared in Houghton Miflin’s The Best American Short Stories. I’ll certainly be at the reading (and not just because I’m getting extra credit). If you’re wondering if it’s worth your time, check out some of his work online:

If I Vanished” (from The New Yorker)

Brisket” (from SmokeLong Quarterly)

Mole Man” (from SmokeLong Quarterly)

Jezy

Word Porn: Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” (1987)

There’s a scene early in Don DeLillo’s White Noise in which the novel’s central figure visits a campy tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. “What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he asks of his company. Pleased with his own post-modern musing, he responds to himself: “We can’t answer [this question] because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura.”

This is essentially how I felt approaching Beloved. Every page, each often masterfully crafted metaphor, rang incessantly with the thundering voice of international — and nearly unparalleled — critical acclaim. It’s hard to divorce this looming shadow from your own experience of reading for the first time a novel that so many have lauded as the cornerstone of the American literary landscape. It’s also hard, then, not to feel underwhelmed when that novel doesn’t leap from your insignificant little hands, perform unimaginable acts of acrobatic daring and shoot off through the skylight before exploding into a myriad of brilliant lightworks which illuminate a night sky that had seemed somehow blacker, less relevant to your experience of being a person alive on the planet, before you experienced this staggering masterpiece of American literature.

The blame for this reader’s heightened horizon of expectations certainly can’t be placed on Morrison herself. And, as with any work of fiction, not all of the novel’s critical reception has been glowing. In his particularly icy 1987 review in The New Republic, Stanley Crouch chides the novel for “read[ing] largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the mini-series” (41). While I don’t completely share Crouch’s disdain for the novel’s social implications, particularly his contention that Beloved operates as little more than a hollow exercise in “the big-time martyr ratings contest,” (40) I do think he’s right in being troubled by the novel’s often sentimental approach to the psychologically complex condition of its central figures.

I was particularly skeptical of one of the novel’s pivotal concluding scenes, in which Paul D returns to 124 and selflessly attempts to relieve Sethe of the physical burden she has acquired throughout Beloved‘s tumultuous progression. “Me and you,” he explains,” we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322).  This keeps with the novel’s theme of the perpetual combat between the past’s inconceivable pain and the distant hope of the future, but it can’t help but come across as somewhat contrived to this admittedly cynical 21st Century reader. For me, those lines broke the thread of power accumulating in the novel’s closing chapter and the author’s mediating hand seemed to slap my wrists in an effort to say “This is a fiction which requires your guttural response, and here’s a forced, kind-of-sappy utterance to prove it.”

This isn’t to say that Beloved is a bust — far from it, in fact. I’m aware that any issue I have with the book is magnified by the pre-concieved aura of untouchability which comes with The New York Times Book Review Fiction Survey’s figurative neon banner which hails Beloved as “The Single Best Work of American Fiction Published in the Last 25 Years.” You can’t unread a declaration like that. It’s DeLillo’s unseeable barn. Still, though: there are moments in which the novel dazzles — Morrison’s iron grip on the English language is most certainly one of them — and there are characters here, Stamp Paid and Denver come immediately to mind, who are largely unforgettable and give the novel a much needed variety of experience. While I take issue with some of Morrison’s choices in execution, Beloved undoubtedly provides us with an important perspective by which to consider the psychological inheritance of America’s brutal past.

Jezy

Word Porn: “The Tortilla Curtain” (1995)

Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined — and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us . . .

The term “social novel” tends to send most American critics running for the hills. It has come to imply a certain triteness, I think — some sort of vague abstraction that many see as having ironically died with the A-bomb, and ultimately distracting from the serious business of fiction writing. After all, shouldn’t all novels serve some sort of social function? It’s a question which brings us to the age-old debate between critics of the formalist and cultural poetic schools of literary criticism: what purpose does fiction serve? Are its motives didactic, instructional, and irrevocably indebted to the zeitgeist which birthed it? Or, does our understanding and appreciation of the text begin and end with the front and back cover?

T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is a thoroughly convincing, and often very painful, account of race relations in America. Examining the sometimes jarring discrepancies between thought and action, between ideas and their execution, Boyle effortlessly reminds us that politics are inescapable: they latch to our every move, are reflected in every minute decision we make, and — sometimes in very violent, cruel ways — collide with the sober realities of our increasingly fractured, paradoxically global society.

Delaney, one of the novel’s central figures, is a white male of priveledge. He’s a Sierra Club Liberal who prides himself in his ultimate breadth of empathy and understanding, in his connectedness with our precious and quickly-fleeting biosphere, in the progressive ideals which shape his view of America as a beacon for peace, love and understanding. After hitting  an undocumented immigrant with his car — Candido, the anti-hero of the novel’s intercalary chapters — Delaney, after paying off the Spanish-speaking homeless man and leaving him to what seems to be certain death, is forced to address what is essentially an American dilemma: how do we reconcile the ideological pillars on which our country was founded (Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. . .) with the social realities of our treatment of minorities, “documented” or not?

Why did [Delaney] keep thinking of shadowy black-and-white movies, men in creased hats leaning forward to light cigarettes . . . Because he was covering himself, that’s why. Because he’d just left that poor son of a bitch there alongside the road . . . and because he’d been glad of it, relieved to buy him off with his twenty dollars’ blood money. And how did that square with his liberal-humanist ideals?

The Tortilla Curtain, often bordering on a pastiche of American “dust bowl fiction,” gets most of its mileage from playing off of Steinbeck’s form in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s mammoth opus, Boyle’s novel makes no bones about its perceived job of providing social commentary. It’s unmistakably clear, through the heavy-handedness of the novel’s symbolic and pairing devices (a page straight from Steinbeck’s often criticized literary playbook) that Boyle wants us to use The Tortilla Curtain as an implement by which to consider the world around us. We should struggle, along with Delaney, to ask ourselves what it means to live in a free and democratic society — and what, after all, is less democratic than an impervious wall surrounding the American border?

Of course, the novel is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t expect a 300-page lecture on immigration legislation, or a constantly winking re-write of Candide, for that matter. Expect instead a deeply rewarding, compulsively readable, and uncompromisingly human and heart-wrenching affair which — while it may do little to answer that age-old question of purpose in fiction writing — renders in clean, muscular prose the very questions which will essentially define us and our relationship with the rest of the world.

Jezy

John Updike: 1932 – 2009

NPR.org, January 27, 2009 ·

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.

Updike once claimed that he was 15 before he read his first novel, but thereafter, the author wasted little time in mastering the art of fiction. He published his first short story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in The New Yorker when he was 22, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike vowed early in his career to write a book each year. Working at this clip, he published more than than 25 novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, criticism, a memoir and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike created his best-known character, a former high school basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run and later returned to the character in three more novels and a novella. . . (continue reading)

Interview with Updike (1995):

Part 1

Part 2

Jezy

Word Porn: ‘Revolutionary Road’ (1961)

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accomodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt sillhouttes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. . . “

After I first finished Revolutionary Road, I launched the book across the room and into a box of outgoing mail. This was a few summers ago. I was working as a clerical assistant at a local Elementary school, and had read the book cover-to-cover during a particularly slow week. While I may not have had much to do in the way of work, Yates’ immensely troubling and compulsively readable first novel made sure it was one of the most stressful weeks of my summer. 

There’s real dread here. Moreover, there’s a sense from the characters that speaking directly about the existential terror facing their dewy dreams of American escapism will somehow render the horror irreversible. As a result, reading Yates’ muscular dialogue becomes an experience not unlike navigating a minefield. This is equal parts literary retrospection (see: Hemingway, Chekhov) and prediction (see: Carver). Whatever it is —  a classic Fitzgeraldian opus or modernist masterwork —  the fact remains that Revolutionary Road is undeniably American, and that’s an important thing to consider.

“We marvel at its consummate writerliness,” Richard Ford writes in his introduction to the second Vintage Contemporaries edition, “at its almost simple durability as a purely made thing of words that defeats all attempts at classification. Realism, naturalism, social satire — the standard critical bracketry — all go begging before this splendid book.” And I think he’s right, not simply by virtue of the book’s greatness, but on the grounds that it is close to impossible to truly encapsulate the novel’s mastery with those critical staples. It’s melodramtic, but it’s not a pastiche; it’s satirical, but the objects of its satire are too large and numerous for the novel to really be considered “pointed” in any way; it’s truly tragic, but with enough textual distance that its tragic elements never take center stage in the authorial spotlight.    

Everyone owes it to themselves to pick up this criminally unread novel. If not, then at least check out Sam Mendez’s adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, playing now in select cities. I won’t get to see it until Friday, but if the American Beauty director’s last feature – 2006’s haunting Jarhead – is any indication of the direction in which he’s headed, then sign me up.  

– Jezy