Tag Archives: novels

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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The Story of a New Name

2016 reading project is to have more than half my reading be books in translation.  So far this has translated into reading Ferrante after Ferrante.  Not really feeling equal to the task of writing about these books, which color everything else around them while you read.  The struggle to be the protagonist of your own story.  Gatsby is a snapshot of it, Ferrante is a movie of it.

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Obscure novels that are great

I was thinking about the amazing and barely read here TRIOMF, by Marlene van Niekerk, and asked on Twitter:  what are novels you think are truly great and which nobody knows about?  Like, say, less than 10 Amazon reviews, to use an imperfect measure?

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Notes on Gone Girl

It reminds me of Martin Amis’s The Information, in that it is a really well-made thing, but one which I think probably shouldn’t have been made, and which I’m probably sorry I read, because it’s sick in its heart.

Everything else I can say is a spoiler so I’ll put it below a tab.

Continue reading

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Stoner

Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, has been named the 2013 Waterstones Book of the Year.

Pretty cool to see an old book recognized!  I read this a while back; it’s one of those books often mentioned as a “forgotten classic” and I read such books out of a sense of obligation.  But sometimes, like this time, it pays off.  (See also:  Independent People, The Bridge on the Drina.)  Stoner represents a certain strain in the mid-century American novel that I really like, and which I don’t think exists in contemporary fiction.  Anguish, verbal restraint, weirdness.  Among famous authors, maybe some of Salinger, maybe some of O’Connor (but not glowing like O’Connor, more subdued, and not funny like Salinger, more deadpan.)  Besides Stoner I am thinking of James Purdy and Richard Yates — not even so much Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade, which is grinding and merciless but at the same time strangely mild-mannered, in the same way Stoner is.

What else belongs here?

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The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson

Strange and kind of great new novel by Jenny Davidson (who, for full information’s sake, is someone I’ve known on and off since college) about young intellectuals who believe in the power of text more than is perhaps good for them.  “Text” here means books, as you’d expect, but also text-as-in-texting and chat windows and games.  A lot of the dialogue is in an interestingly distant Delmore Schwartz register.  It reads strangely at first but makes sense once you get used to it.

What I liked best is this.  The book gestures at being one of those in which real life gives way to the fantastic, but ends up insisting (correctly, I think!) that when the fantastic intrudes into ordinary life, it does not replace ordinary life but rather overlays it — so that one can have the most heightened and extrawordly experience possible, and then go home, with the smell of it still on you, and check your e-mail and brush your teeth.  It is a novel for the world of Google Glass, and should be read whether or not the world of Google Glass turns out to be our world.

 

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Imraan Coovadia on South African fiction

Pungent as usual:

During the late 20th century, the black-white struggle in South Africa interested Americans because it looked like an African version of the civil rights movement. But it never was. We seem to have fulfilled some imaginative need in the 1980s and 90s. We were grateful for the interest. But we’re not actively persecuting anybody nowadays. As a result, people aren’t particularly interested in what’s happening here any more, except for the occasional Aids, infidelity and polygamy controversy. Nowadays, people are more interested in reading about how terrible Zimbabwe is. They’ve moved on.

Imraan’s new novel, High Low In-Between, won the 2010 South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize.  It’s not out in the US, but you can mail-order it.  I just got mine.

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Austin Grossman’s new novels: soon they will be available

The very first post on this blog was about Austin Grossman’s first novel.  Good news:  he just signed a deal for two more! The first one, You, is about computer games.  The second, Crooked, is a supernatural thriller about Richard Nixon.  I haven’t been this excited since they filmed both Back to the Future sequels at the same time.

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Brothers

Just finished and very much enjoyed Yu Hua’s Brothers, China’s all-time best-selling novel.  If you’re going to read one long translated work of fiction in the social-magical-realism mode this year, make Hua’s book the one.  Especially if you like lots of bathroom jokes swirled into your multigenerational sagas of love and capital.  The translation, by Eileen Chow and Carlos Rojas, feels very natural without reading like colloquial English; I can’t speak to its faithfulness, of course.

The book is in some ways a standard melodrama; people get rich, people get poor, people get politically oppressed and beaten, two people want to marry the same person, people disappear on long journeys only to reappear at just the right time, people get artificial breasts and hymens surgically attached (OK, that last part is somewhat less standard, but by the end of the 600+ pages of Brothers it’s started to seem standard.)  I think my social prejudices would work against my buying an American novel that functioned like Brothers. Or America’s all-time best-selling novel, whatever it is.   But when a book is in translation all snobbery falls away.  Maybe because it is “improving” to read foreign books.  (Those scare quotes are meant to distract you from the fact that I actually kind of believe this to be the case.)

One sentence from a direction I decided not to pursue in this post:  “The brothers in Brothers are the driven and insatiable Baldy Li and his meeker, gentler brother Song Gang; the inexorable rise to wealth, prominence, and sexual irresistibility of the former, and the corresponding decline into government dependence, ill-health, and gynecomastia of the latter, is the kind of story Ayn Rand would have told if a) she were funny, and b) she thought that the successful brother was horrible and doomed, but recognized that the alternative to this kind of success was even worse.”

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One paragraph of Oscar and Lucinda

Most of the way through this fine Peter Carey novel; about the book in general I don’t have much to say but that it superbly realizes the traditional novelistic virtues.  I wanted to highlight this passage, though, a bit of thought from a provincial bishop:

Dancer could not, of course he could not, have clergy who were notorious around the track, who lost their horses or their carriages because they heard a horse was “going to try.”  Sydney — a venal city — was too puritanical to allow such a thing.  But had you informed Dancer of this story after dinner, he would have found it funny.  He could find nothing in his heart against the races and he left that sort of raging to the Baptists or Methodists.  The true Church of England, he would have felt (but never said) was the Church of gentlemen.  Sometimes gentlemen incur debts.

Notes:  “of course he could not” in place of the standard “of course” is splendid.  Not sure why the doubled “horse” in the first sentence, or why “or” instead of “and” between Baptists and Methodists.  What I really like here is the closing.  If I’d written this paragraph I would have gone with the easier rhythm of “Gentlemen sometimes have debts.”  But Carey’s version — which is kind of hard to say, which can only be said aloud in the deliberate word-by-word manner Carey’s trying to suggest, and which does all the work of characterizing this bit player in the book — is massively better.

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