Category Archives: the grasshopper king

Elif Batuman, “The Idiot”

What a novel!  The best I’ve read in quite a while.


One thing I like:  the way this book takes what’s become a standard bundle of complaints against “literary fiction”:

It’s about overprivileged people with boring lives.  Too much writing about writing, and too much writing about college campuses, and worst of all, too much writing about writers on college campuses.   Nothing really happens.  You’re expected to accept minor alterations of feelings in lieu of plot.  

and gleefully makes itself guilty of all of them, while being nevertheless rich in life and incident, hilarious, stirring, and of its time.


Maybe “hilarious” isn’t quite the right word for the way this book is funny, very very funny.  It’s like this:

“Ralph!” I exclaimed, realizing that he was this guy I knew, Ralph.

Whether you find this funny is probably a good test for whether The Idiot is gonna be your thing.


Given this, it’s slightly startling to me that Batuman wrote this essay in n+1, which endorses the standard critique, and in particular the claim that fiction has been pressed into a bloodless sameness by the creative writing workshop.  They bear, as she puts it, “the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory.”

What kind of writing bears this stamp?

Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes”—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.

So what’s weird is that Batuman’s writing is exactly the kind that the creative writing workshop leaps to its feet and applauds.  OK, there’s no leaping in creative writing workshop.  It would murmur appreciatively.  Her sentences are pretty damn whittled.  Also clever.  Scenes don’t overspill, they end just before the end.  Batuman’s writing is both crafted and crafty — but not anorexic!  Anorexia isn’t denying yourself what’s needless; it’s a hypertrophy of that impulse, its extension to a more general refusal.

Batuman is really excellent on the convention of the literary short story cold open, which is required to be:

in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead.”  …. A first line like “Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner” is supposed to create the illusion that the reader already knows Lorraine, knows about her usual coffee, and, thus, cares why Lorraine has violated her routine. It’s like a confidence man who rushes up and claps you on the shoulder, trying to make you think you already know him.

Her paradigmatic offender here is the first line of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

about which she says:

All the elements are there: the nicknames, the clauses, the five w’s, the physical imprisonment, the nostalgia. (As if a fictional character could have a “greatest creation” by the first sentence—as if he were already entitled to be “holding forth” to “fans.”)

To me this all starts with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which all of us writers read the hell out of in high school, right?  Surely Batuman too?  No kid can read

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

and not say, oh, that’s how you do it.

Anyway, I’m mostly with Batuman here; once she shows you how it works, the trick is a little corny.  Maybe I already knew this?  Maybe this is why I always preferred the first line of, and for that matter all of, Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to Kavalier & Clay.  Here’s the opening:

At the beginning of summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.

In medias res, yes — but not so overstuffed, just one piece of information (the gangster!) presented to start with.  No names.  The word “transact” — boy, there’s nothing I like more than a perfect placement of a boring word.  I think it’s a lot like the first line of The Idiot:

“I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.”

Except Chabon focuses on rhyme (summer-father-gangster) while Batuman is all scansion — perfect trochees!

 


Of course there are a lot of reasons I’m predisposed to like this.  It’s about bookish, ambitious, romantically confused Harvard undergrads, which Batuman and I both were.  There are a lot of jokes in it.  There are some math scenes.

There’s even a biographical overlap:  Batuman, wrote her college novel right after college, just like I did.  And then she finished her Ph.D. and put the manuscript in a drawer for a long time, just like I did.  (I don’t know if she carried out the intermediate step, as I did, of getting the book rejected by every big commercial house in New York.)  And then at some point in the run-up to middle age she looked at those pages again and said words to the effect of “This is not actually that bad…”

So let me say it straight; The Idiot makes me think about the alternate universe where I stayed a novelist instead of going back to grad school in math, a universe where I spent years working really hard to sharpen and strengthen the work I was doing.  This is the kind of novel I would have been aiming my ambition at writing; and I still wouldn’t have done it this well.  The existence of The Idiot releases me from any regrets.

(I don’t have many.  Math, for me, is fun.  Writing fiction is not.)

 

 

 

 

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Elliott Bay and TGK

One final note about the book tour — Elliot Bay Book Company, who handled sales at my talk in Seattle, won a special place in my heart forever, because not only did they have lots of copies of How Not To Be Wrong, they also brought along a small stack of The Grasshopper King!  And they even sold a couple.  Nice to see that little green paperback again.

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Somewhere a dog barked

From Rosecrans Baldwin in Slate:

As a reader of novels and not much else, I keep a running list of authorial whims. Male writers of the Roth/Updike generation, for example, love the word cunt. Also, where novelists once adorned their prose with offhand French bon mots, Spanish now appears. Here’s another: Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance. I’ve seen it happen across the spectrum—Jackie Collins, William Faulkner, and Chuck Palahniuk: “There was no more rain, just an eerie stillness, a deathly silence. Somewhere a dog barked mournfully.” (American Star) “She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow sad, faraway.” (Light in August) “This is such a fine neighborhood. I jump the fence to the next backyard and land on my head in somebody’s rose bush. Somewhere a dog’s barking.” (Choke)

I checked The Grasshopper King, and nope:  no barking dogs.  There’s a ceramic dog, and one dog who howls (but who appears moments later, and is named) and finally, near the end, a talking dog.  Me 1, cliche 0.

In other Slate literary coverage, Dan Kois reviews Ben H. Winter’s novel The Last Policemana detective story set in a future where Earth is six months away from certain destruction by asteroid collision.  When I was in college I took Spike Lee’s screenwriting course, and my screenplay was roughly on the same theme. It was a meteor heading for the earth, not an asteroid, and the atmosphere was supposed to be roughly that of After Hours or Into the Night.  It was called Planet Earth.  Lee’s total commentary on the screenplay, written on page 3, was “Some parts I laughed, some parts I didn’t,” and he gave me an A-.

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Higgs

Since someone asked me today: yes, the Stanley Higgs who appears in my novel was named after the Higgs boson. I thought it would add a very slight tinge of cosmic mystery to the character. Not any more, I guess.

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Admired sentences

Somebody out there liked my book.

In fact, she singles out for praise a single sentence.  And the sad truth is:  I have no memory of having written this sentence. I guess I’d imagined her favorite sentence would be something I, too, would have singled out in my mind.  But no.

Anyway, here it is:

My father, a mild man, dedicated to prudent consistency, demurred.

I’ll stand by this sentence.  I think the long part (“dedicated to prudent consistency”) is a bit too chunky in the mouth — too many palatal consonants.  I like the faintly comic tang you get from delaying the verb to the end — I stole this trick from somewhere, I don’t remember where.  (It might have just been the German language in general.)

Anyway, I have a favorite sentence in the book, but I don’t care to reveal it.  Instead, here are a couple of my very favorites from other people’s books.

One from Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I have quoted here before:

…the library, the dead core of my education, the white, silent kernel of every empty Sunday I had spent trying to ravish the faint charms of economics, my sad and cynical major.

And, in another register, from Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America:

The sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then lit with a match and said ‘Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,’ and put the coin in my hand but never came back.

I like the way this sentence is not a sentence, but reads as one.

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In the Land of Invented Languages

I had a thing for invented languages as a kid.  I took a correspondence course in Esperanto, and when I got tired of that, I started work (as one does) on my own ideal language, which was called Ilenga.  Later, when I was at Johns Hopkins, I spent a lot of time in Eisenhower Library looking at their collection of pamphlets, broadsides, and mimeographed polemics — and even the occasional published book — by language creators whose painstaking constructions never rose to the level of fame Esperanto enjoyed.  In the end, a lot of this stuff made its way into The Grasshopper King, which in some sense is about the question:  “What if a real language worked the way people who invent languages want languages to work, and what would happen to you if you tried to speak that language?”

It turns out Arika Okrent was looking at the same shelf of pamphlets.  And she now has a book, In the Land of Invented Languages, a kind of cultural history of the idea of the invented language.  You know how when you see the one-paragraph description of a book, and the premise is really great, and you say to yourself “I really hope this book is good, because if it isn’t,  it’ll be impossible for any future good book on this premise ever to published?”  That’s how I felt.  And I’m happy to report that Okrent’s book is everything I wanted it to be.  Partly because she’s a good, energetic writer.  Partly because she has a Ph.D. in linguistics and writes with an easy authority about the technicalities that vex her subjects.  And partly because she’s a hell of a researcher with an eye for the strange, decisive detail.  Three great facts I learned from this book:

  • Grover Cleveland’s wife had a dog named Volapük.
  • George Soros’s father was born with the surname Schwarz; he was a dedicated Esperantist and changed it to Soros, Esperanto for “will soar.”
  • James Cooke Brown, the inventor of Loglan, had the time and disposable income to create a language because he also invented the boardgame Careers.  Brown, a lifelong socialist, intended Careers to counteract what he saw as Monopoly’s overemphasis on making money as the sole goal of life.  I was a major Careers fan as a kid and let me just say this point was utterly lost on me.

This book pulls off a very difficult trick.  Okrent is writing about people who are often strange and almost always, in one way or another, misguided.  She gives you the full measure of their strangeness, but never deviates from her posture of bemused respect for the audacity and technical difficulty of the tasks they’ve set themselves.  Good trick; good book.

Here’s Okrent on Klingon speakers in Slate. Here’s her blog, which right now is just a list of book events. Here’s her bagel recipe.

And here’s the longest text I ever wrote in Ilenga:  a translation of the first verse of “Shout,” by Tears for Fears.

Shautoc, shautoc

Jame relsoc

Pas o i cosas nu as ni nido, disoc

Loc za

A disoi tu ta

Loc za!

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The Grasshopper King, wordled

Via Crooked Timber I learned about Wordle, the application that takes any chunk of text and produces a beautiful graphic representation of the most common words therein, sized according to their frequency. So here’s The Grasshopper King:

I especially like the tiny “asked” inside the “d” of “said.” I think that’s just good luck; it would be impressive if Wordle knew enough to make up little figures of this kind.

I wonder if most prose fiction would come out looking pretty much alike, apart from the names of characters? The predominance of “said” must be pretty universal.

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Prof’s skills add up to Hollywood gig!

So opines Doug Moe in the Wisconsin State Journal, which has a nice interview with me in tomorrow’s paper. Look closely and you’ll see that Ken Ribet has a photo credit!

In case anyone’s coming here from the WSJ and wants to read some of the things mentioned there: you can buy my book here. You can read my Slate columns here, including my thoughts on Barry Bonds and the placebo effect. The best pizza in Berkeley (or anywhere) is Cheeseboard, and the best ice cream in Cambridge (or anywhere) is Christina’s, as described in The Restaurant Hall of Fame.

To a guy like me, for whom “get this paper done in a hurry” means “within the next three months,” Moe’s output of five punchy columns a week is really startling. If you’re not already reading him, check out his recent columns on the surprising difficulty of street-naming and vanity plates too hot for the DOT.

Despite Moe’s lightning speed, his article gets the facts right. Well, except one: I do not “nurse” my coffee. Cold coffee is gross.

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Book review from a broad

There’s a very generous and keen review of The Grasshopper King this week in Letters From A Broad. When you read a really nice review of a book do you wonder to yourself whether the reviewer is a personal friend of the author? In this case, that’s a yes. And now I will return the favor by reminding you that you can read LFAB’s book Ex-Mormon online, at least in part. I’m all about maximizing the click-through rate, so let me direct you straight to the section called “Sexual Purity.”

Read my book free

When it started up, Google Books had spotty coverage for literary fiction. But I’m happy to report that they now offer The Grasshopper King well, not the full text, but all of the first chapter, and enough of the rest to get a sense of the book.

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