Wednesday, April 29, 2009

From the Library: "Zoology," painful asymmetry, and a chat with Ben Dolnick

The task of reviewing Ben Dolnick’s debut novel Zoology lays not in deciding whether the book is an enjoyable read (we'll spell it out right here—this is a fresh and excellent portrait of a quizzical young man), but rather in distinguishing it from the vast number of other memoir-novels that have preceded it.

Not unlike the new kid in class, Ben Dolnick suddenly appeared on the literary scene last year. As such, he is a newbie in a prestigious all-boys school of popular pros, the halls of which are packed with the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Erlend Loe, Brad Land, Keith Gessen, and Benjamin Kunkel. Black and white photographs of alumni (all-time favorites like J.D. Salinger, as well as recent grads Augusten Burroughs, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and Dave Eggers) adorn the school’s display cases with books beside the pictures like trophies. (James Frey was expelled.) And so, like having to prove himself on the playground, this tenderfoot twenty-something Brooklynite has quite a challenge set out before him.

Zoology follows a hapless high school grad, Henry Elinsky, who flunks out of college in his freshman year. Floating in and out of the reality of this situation, Henry moves in with his successful brother in New York, where he lands a job at the zoo scooping poop and food pellets. Between meeting a beautiful girl in his building, playing ping-pong with the doorman, realizing that he is a terrible saxophone player, and being yelled at routinely by his boss, Henry finds himself pondering life’s weirdness and lowlights. So far, not much surprise.

If Zolnick sets himself apart, it's in the moments of his narrator’s self-depreciation, sentences that shine like nuggets of originality in an otherwise saturated genre. Asked over email about what he himself reads and on what he models his fiction, Dolnick told PDXWD that he likes books that “present a real-seeming reconstruction of what the actual minute-to-minute, year-to-year experience of being a person is like,” and it’s this facet that makes Zoology successful. “It should be a comfort,” he added in his message, “to read ‘honest-seeming’ accounts of being alive.”

At the heart of the novel, as Dolnick puts it, is the “painful asymmetry” of life’s experiences—that events and regrets and guilt don't align in a zero-sum game. In other words, we can’t fix everything we’ve ever broken, and likewise, Zoology doesn’t try to answer every question it poses. What's striking about Henry is that his reflections are offered without overwrought exertion. At one point late into the novel, for example, Henry muses, “It was hard to imagine now that I’d woken up that morning in a life without Dad’s heart attack in it, that I’d pulled my tuna sandwich out of its bag and had no idea.” Throughout the book Dolnick is honest and real without being gimmicky, and is able to render disappointment in terms that don’t resort to hyperbolized or flaunted self-loathing.

So if Dolnick is aware that he’s in a class of bestselling novelists/memoirists who use their life as fodder for comical and heart-wrenching books, he’s great at not showing it. And though Henry is an obvious nod to Holden Caulfield (both have trustworthy older brothers, lurk in downtown jazz bars, fail often, and attempt to regain composure near the end), Dolnick’s protagonist swears less than Salinger’s, and is far less angry at the world. Treading much the same territory with much the same outcome, Dolnick has produced another young male book on being young and male, but while adding something nice to the pot at the same time.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

From the Library: "God Is Not Great" and a chat with Christopher Hitchens on morals, vanity, and comfort

Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 and most recent book, God Is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poisons Every­thing, is out in paper­back this month, and so PDXWD decided to get in on the action and have a word with Mr. Anti-Christ himself.

The well-known and outspoken British polemic has writ­ten for a variety of pub­lications over the years (from Vanity Fair to The Nation to Slate) and has made a name for himself as a radical thinker on lecture and debate circuits. But while he has taken on a number of
different topics in his career (George Orwell, monarchy, Hen­ry Kissinger, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and the Iraq War, just to name a few), God Is Not Great represents an attempt to dive into some essential — and poignant — problems of human nature.

“Morals simply cannot be derived from religion,” Hitchens told PDXWD recently via telephone, “and yet we are condemned to be moral and ethical beings. It is innate in us to consider other people’s feelings.” This fact leaves us, as Hitchens argues in his book’s introduc­tion, in a world where “religion has caused innu­merable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permis­sion to behave in ways that would make a brothel­keeper raise an eyebrow.”

So while God Is Not Great features a sensationalized argument, it doesn’t clarify how we might attain Hitchens' proposed “New Enlightenment” once religion is abandoned. The book ends with Hitchens quoting the old Greek adage “know thyself,” but an explanation of how this will help us move past religion and the awful­ness it has caused our world is left to the reader's imagination.

As a result, we wondered if there is any place for religion in Hitchens’ republic. “Keep it in the home,” the author replied. “Religion is a private belief, and it should stay that
way.” And yet home is of course not the only place religion resides, which is the problem Hitchens points out. The rhetorical question he raises at the beginning, and which pervades God Is Not Great, is: “How much vanity must be concealed — not too effectively at that — in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?” From there, the book exposes and details the destruction religion hath wrought on human civi­lization — as well as the immediately alarming sit­uation we’re all in when religion-based nations acquire nuclear arms — but it never goes so for as to offer much of a way out.

“Religion becomes a problematic mystery only if you believe that man was created in God’s image,”
Hitchens said later in our conversation. “When several groups of people believe they are each ‘doing God’s will’ at the same time, there is going to be conflict,” which is not a reassuring situation, and one for which we as a species have no recourse.

To be fair, solving the religion problem wasn’t Hitchens’ explicit intention, and yet his subject matter
and defamation all but make the reader beg for a solu­tion. Furthermore, the book tends to hierarchize the aesthetics of religion and atheism (placing atheism on top, of course), but can’t religion in itself be seen as an art, or as a form of literature, we wondered. “I’m reminded,” Hitchens admitted, “that many religious texts are not available to me because I don’t speak the language in which their holy books were written. Religion, after all, is manmade.”

God Is Not Great therefore makes a recurring point that many people are religious because it is too scary to think that they alone are responsible for their actions without a framework on
which to base their decisions. “Religion is com­forting for people to maintain,” Hitchens said. If that's the case, though, how will a serious addiction to such an opiate ever be kicked?

Your guess is as good as ours.

Friday, April 17, 2009

From the Library: "The Ghost Map," engaged amateurism, and a chat with Steven Johnson

Unless you are a hardcore lit nerd, it’s hard to imagine that a book about Victorian London would be an evocative and exceptionally fantastic read.

It’s even harder to believe that such a book would be wholly relevant to the plights of modern civilization, and yet that is exactly what Steven Johnson’s haunting historical narrative The Ghost Map is. From his cell phone in a cafe in Brooklyn recently, the best-selling author of the polemical Everything Bad is Good For You and the recently released The Invention of Air asserted that The Ghost Map is “not just a book about history,” but “a book about why this particular point in history is incredibly relevant for a number of reasons.”

That point in history is the horrifying cholera outbreak on Broad Street in London’s SoHo district in 1854 that ultimately claimed hundreds of lives in less than two weeks. Told in chapters named for each day that the epidemic ravished the neighborhood, Johnson follows the path of Dr. John Snow, an amateur epidemiologist who has a theory that the spread of the disease is somehow related to the water pump in the center of the district. Though it does so understatedly, The Ghost Map turns out to be a strong case against mass-market consumerism while drawing attention to “engaged amateurism,” as Johnson writes, and the underlying heroism and undervalued advantages of knowing one’s neighbor.

Both highly readable and wonderfully conceived, The Ghost Map, then, is a resounding and noteworthy lesson in perspective and the interconnectivity of everything, from microbes to city infrastructure. Not unlike Everything Bad, The Ghost Map utilizes what Johnson calls a “long-zoom approach,” backing up far enough to have a bird’s-eye view of patterns of life and death. “One of my favorite parts of the book was attempting to figure out why the miasmatic theory [that cholera and other diseases were transmitted through the air and not the water, as we know today they are] stayed around as long as it did.” Johnson’s speculation on this point is one of the book’s most venerable aspects. Tying together parallel facets of bacterial and human evolution, microbial and urban consciousness, as well as medical and political history, Johnson compels his readers to undertake a collective self-assessment of the way they live now.

Asked why he took on the topic of Victorian disease, Johnson said, “The history of bad ideas is especially important to teach. Every age in the history of humankind has had an enormous blind spot that they don’t know about. A hundred years later, though, we can look back and see our mistakes.” Answers and revelations about these errors often come from those who “think across many fields of study at once,” Johnson said. Success, it seems, is the result of working on different levels simultaneously.

The Ghost Map closes with musings on the future of humans, cities, and diseases that love nothing more than densely populated areas. And though the epilogue, with its ruminations on the next one hundred years, is truly terrifying, it doesn’t lack a dose of optimism. The book’s last line is, “So let’s get on with it,” a simple declaration that works to capture Johnson’s confidence that the human race can do monumental amounts (both individually and communally) to change our world, but only when it finally chooses to do so. And the local dedicated novice—the heroic figure at the center of The Ghost Map—it turns out, might just be our greatest weapon against disease, terrorism, and global warming.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gesture in Identity: Found object, Vancouver, Washington, 2009

From the Library: Thoughts on how Updike's Rabbit runs in Updike's "Rabbit, Run"

Apologies for opening with a technical observation, but mid-way through John Updike's Rabbit, Run, he violates his established point-of-view. We have been with Rabbit Angstrom up to this point in the novel, closely following his movements and thought, until on 122 we zip into his girlfriend Ruth's head with the sentence "These eyes sting her and she turns her head away to hide the tears, thinking, That's one of the signs, crying easily." And then four pages later, after Rabbit has told Ruth that "If you have the guts to be yourself...other people'll pay your price," one turns the page and reads:
Making awkward calls is agony for Eccles; at least anticipation of them is. Usually, the dream is worse than the reality: so God has disposed the world. The actual presences of people are always bearable. Mrs. Springer is a plump, dark, small-boned woman with a gypsy look about her. Both the mother and the daughter have a sinister aura, but in the mother this ability to create uneasiness is a settled gift, throughly meshed into the strategies of middle-class life. With the daughter it is a floating thing, useless and as dangerous to herself as to others. Eccles is relieved that Janice is out of the house; he feels guiltiest in her presence. She and Mrs. Fosnacht have gone into Brewer to a matinee of Some Like It Hot. Their two sons are in the Springers' back yard. Mrs. Springer takes him through the house to the screened-in porch, where she can keep an eye on the children.
By that point it's clear that not only are we not in Rabbit's head, he's not even here. What started as a momentary zip across the room four pages earlier has now leapt away from our point-of-view character altogether.

And nicely done.

To readers who don't write fiction, the observation above might seem fussy, but when picking up Rabbit, Run in the wake of Updike's recent death, this reader was happily reminded of how loose, fresh, and confident Updike was with language, and how generous he was toward himself as a writer. When technical considerations or the following of standard point-of-view "rules" might prevent him from exploring certain aspects of his characters, Updike smoothly lets himself off the hook in order to explore the material he wants to explore and to keep the novel zipping forward.

Now, yes, they aren't rules, they're only guidelines. And yet a fiction isn't a fiction without dramatic tension, and one of the quickest ways to bore a reader is too let them know to much. The unknowns of the future, for instance, intrigue humans, while an omniscient god who knows the entirety of human history past and future has nothing to wonder about or look forward to. That god doesn't quite have "time" in the sense of that word meaning anything, in fact, and, even as a god, would only be able to write a novel in the usual way: leave some unknowns so that the reader wants to turn the page. Though there is something we call "omniscient point of view," that doesn't actually exist. And no one wants it.

This is all to say that, as has been pointed out by many readers over the last fifty years, Updike is a master of language--and yet one of the pleasures of reading an early novel like Rabbit, Run is that one sees him fine tuning the way in which he handles the technical challenges of crafting a novel in order to maximize his opportunities to explore (and, yes, occasionally to flex or preen) that linguistic facility. The scene above, in which Jack Eccles visits Rabbit's mother-in-law, goes on to include the following:
She leads him slowly; both of her ankles are bound in elastic bandages. The pained littleness of her steps reinforces his illusion that her lower body is encased in a plaster cast. She gently lets herself sink onto the cushions of the porch glider and startles Eccles by kicking up her legs as with a squeak and sharp sway the glider takes her weight. The action seems to express childish pleasure; her bald pale calves stick out stiff and her saddle shoes are for a moment lifted from the floor. These shoes are cracked and rounded, as if they've been revolved in a damp tub for years
It's silly to act as if writing is a competition, and yet: many of us would have made do with the workmanlike "Stiffly, she sat down." And if we workshopped it, we would probably be informed that we need to cut the scene, anyway, because we haven't stayed with our POV character. So the place Updike has gotten to at this point in the novel is a place we would never get to. And his handling of the moment is better than ours would have been, anyway.

There is a rather shocking attention to and stacking up of images in Rabbit, Run. There is verb play, body-ogling, stream-of-consciousness, and the linguistic fingering, hefting, and holding of many objects in the novel's world. We don't watch the characters in Rabbit, Run; we swim along beside them.

Though this is the first Rabbit novel, it isn't one of the Rabbit pieces that won a big prize. And yet this reader zipped happily through the 255 skillful pages here. And, yes, occasionally made a note in the margin: "POV?" The question mark, perhaps, will be erased.

Friday, April 10, 2009

From the Library: "Five Skies," along with some thoughts by author Ron Carlson

There are certain books you read that once you’re finished you can’t believe you ever existed having not vicariously lived through the experience on which the book hinges. This feeling is often accompanied by an introduction to an author you can’t believe you didn’t know had been writing all these years while you read one mediocre memoir and unaffecting novel after another. It’s like meeting someone out of the blue one day and somehow having an intensely immediate bond after only a few bits of conversation in a bar or cafe.

But this, in fact, is exactly what happens with Ron Carlson’s most recent novel Five Skies. Radically simple, the novel involves three men who are hired and descend on a barren expanse of Idaho to build an enormous ramp that will be used in a daredevil stunt. Not knowing one another beforehand, the men work day in and day out as summer blooms and their own troubled pasts come to light. As anyone who has been there knows full well, there are hardly any hiding places on the grassy Western plains and accordingly, Darwin Gallegos, Arthur Key, and Ronnie Panelli find little to do there but work and think, think and work. And work, it turns out, is what Carlson himself believes the book is fundamentally about. Via telephone, Carlson told PDXWD he thought Five Skies showcased “people solving their problems by using [their] bodies to combat abstraction.”

When we asked Carlson if there were any overt influences on his creating Five Skies, the author said that his writing it “paralleled the way the men in the novel build the ramp—step by step, over many years.” Five Skies, in fact, is only the second novel Carlson has published in the last 25 years. “I kept interrupting it with other work,” Carlson said, unaware, it seems, of the irony of his statement. “My father was an engineer, a brilliant and very careful person. We talked a lot about that, using oneself to make something happen, to achieve something.”

Carlson, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine and who has written four collections of short stories and three other novels, considers the various distinctions his novel has garnered “pure gravy.” His sentiment, like many of the phrases and scenes that make up Five Skies, seems not only completely honest, but also perfectly descriptive, one of the author’s and the novel’s greatest attributes.

All told, Five Skies may end up reminding readers of Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea, especially in the sense that the characters are all forced to confront their mortality as each participates in, as Carlson’s character Gallegos puts it, an argument with God. “There’s a dichotomy of having a heart, but also having skin and a body—that outer/inner struggle,” Carlson said. “I wanted to write a book that dealt with that dichotomy because I distrust the easy generalization. I don’t know that we learn anything by the easy epiphany or the visceral realization. Decisions are complicated and messy.”

The novel is certainly not all flowers and gems of self-realization, however, like a lesser book would be. Even more thoroughly, if subconsciously, linking himself with Hemingway, when asked if there was any one thing he really hoped readers would take from Five Skies, Carlson said, “A simple story that’s as true as possible. That’s what I want them to get and take, because a day’s writing is something I can stand on.”