Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2005
- The Plot Against America—Philip Roth
- Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul—Tony Hendra
- Chronicles: Volume One—Bob Dylan
- Little Children—Tom Perrotta
- Soldiers of Salamis—Javier Cercas
- The Book of Shadows—Don Paterson
- The Men Who Stare At Goats—Jon Ronson
- I Am Charlotte Simmons—Tom Wolfe
- Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood—Jennifer Traig
- Palace Walk—Naguib Mahfouz
- Just Enough Liebling—edited by David Remnick
The story so far: I have been writing a column in this magazine for the last fifteen months. And though I have had frequent battles with the Polysyllabic Spree—the fifty-five disturbingly rapturous and rapturously disturbing young men and women who edit the Believer—I honestly thought that things had got better recently. We seemed to have come to some kind of understanding, a truce. True, we still have our differences of opinion: they have never really approved of me reading anything about sport, and nor do they like me referring to books wherein people eat meat or farmed fish. (There are a whole host of other rules too ridiculous to mention—for example, you try finding “novels which express no negative and/or strong emotion, either directly or indirectly”—but I won’t go into them here.) Anyway, I was stupid enough to try to accommodate their whims, and you can’t negotiate with moral terrorists. In my last column, I wrote a little about cricket, and I made a slightly off-color joke about Chekhov, and that was it: I was banned from the magazine, sine die, which is why my column was mysteriously absent from the last issue and replaced by a whole load of pictures. Pictures! This is how they announce my death! It’s like a kind of happy-clappy North Korea round here.
I have no idea whether you’ll ever get to read these words, but my plan is this: not all the fifty-five members of the Spree are equally sharp, frankly speaking, and they’ve got this pretty dozy woman on sentry duty down at the Believer presses. (Sweet girl, loves her books, but you wouldn’t want her doing the Harold Bloom interview, if you know what I mean.) Anyway, we went out a couple of times, and I’ve told her that I’ve got the original, unedited, 600-page manuscript of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, her favorite novel. I’ve also told her she can have it if she leaves me unsupervised for thirty minutes while I work out a way of getting “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” into the magazine. If you’re reading these words, you’ll know it all came off. This is guerrilla column-writing, man. We’re in uncharted territory here.
They couldn’t have picked a worse time to ban me, because I read my ass off last month. Gravity’s Rainbow, Daniel Deronda, Barthes’s S/Z, an enormous biography of some poet or another that was lying around… It was insane, what I got through. And it was all for nothing. This month I read what I wanted to read, rather than what I thought the Spree might want me to read, and there was nothing I wanted to read more than Chronicles and The Plot Against America.
I’m not a Dylanologist—to me he’s your common-or-garden great artist, prone to the same peaks and troughs as anyone else and with nothing of any interest in his trash can. Even so, when I first heard about a forthcoming Dylan autobiography, I still found it hard to imagine what it would look like. Would it have a corny title—My Back Pages, say, or The Times, They Have A-Changed? Would it have photos with captions written by the author? You know the sort of thing: “The eyeliner years. What was that all about?!!?” Or, “Mary Tyler Moore and I, Malibu, 1973. Not many people know that our break-up inspired Blood On The Tracks.” Would he come clean about who those Five Believers really were, and what was so obvious about them? Even if you don’t have much time for the myth of Dylan, it’s still hard to imagine that he’d ever be able to make himself prosaic enough to write autobiographical prose.
Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat. In fact, after reading the book, you end up realizing that Dylan isn’t willfully obtuse or artful in any way—it’s just who he is and how his mind works. And this realization in turn has the effect of contextualizing his genius—maybe even diminishing it, if you had a lot invested in his genius being the product of superhuman effort. He thinks in apocalyptic metaphors and ellipses, and clearly sees jokers and thieves and five (or more) believers everywhere he looks, so writing about them is, as far as he is concerned, no big deal. Here he is describing the difference a change in his technique made to him: “It was like parts of my psyche were being communicated to by angels. There was a big fire in the fireplace and the wind was making it roar. The veil had lifted. A tornado had come into the place at Christmastime, pushed away all the fake Santa Clauses aside and swept away the rubble….” The boy can’t help it. (My favorite little enigmatic moment comes when Dylan tells us how he arrived at his new surname, an anecdote that includes a reference to “unexpectedly” coming across a book of Dylan Thomas’s poems. Where did the element of surprise come in, do you think? Did it land on his head? Did he find it under his pillow one morning?)
What’s so impressive about Chronicles is the seriousness with which Dylan has approached the task of explaining what it’s like to be him and how he got to be that way. He doesn’t do that by telling you about his childhood or about the bath he was running when he started humming “Mr. Tambourine Man” to himself for the first time; Chronicles is non-linear and concentrates on tiny moments in a momentous life—an afternoon in a friend’s apartment in New York in 1961, a couple of days in New Orleans in 1989, recording Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois. But he uses these moments like torches, to throw light backwards and forwards, and by the end of the book he has illuminated great swathes of his interior life—the very part one had no real hope of ever being able to see.
And Chronicles is a lot humbler than anyone might have anticipated, because it’s about wolfing down other people’s stuff as much as it’s about spewing out your own. Here is a random selection of names taken from the second chapter: The Kingston Trio, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Greil Marcus, Tacitus, Pericles, Thucydides, Gogol, Dante, Ovid, Dickens, Rousseau, Faulkner, Leopardi, Freud, Pushkin, Robert Graves, Clausewitz, Balzac, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Leadbelly, Judy Garland, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie…. Many of the writers on this list were apparently encountered for the first time on a bookshelf in that NYC apartment. I have no idea whether the shelf, or the apartment, or even the friend actually existed, or whether it’s all an extended metaphor; and nor do I care, because this is a beautiful, remarkable book, better than anyone had any right to expect, and one of the best and most scrupulous I can remember reading about the process of creativity. You don’t even have to love the guy to get something out of it; you just have to love people who create any art at all.
For a brief moment, as I put down Chronicles and picked up The Plot Against America, neither of them published for longer than a fortnight, I felt like some kind of mythical reader, dutifully plowing through the “new and noteworthy” list. I knew almost enough about what’s au courant to throw one of those dinner parties that the newspaper columnists in England are always sneering at. They’re invariably referred to as “Islington dinner parties” in the English press, because that’s where the “liberal intelligentsia”—aka the “chattering classes”—are supposed to live, and where they talk about the new Roth and eat foccacia, which is a type of bread that the “chattering classes” really, really like, apparently. Well, I live in Islington (there’s no entrance exam, obviously), and I’ve never been to a dinner party like that, and this could have been my moment to start a salon. I could have bought that bread and said to people, “Have you read the new Roth?” as they were taking off their coats. And they’d have gone, like, “What the fuck?” if they were my friends, or “Yes, isn’t it marvelous?,” if they were people I didn’t know. Anyway, it’s too late now. The books have been out for ages. It’s too late for the dinner party, and it’s too late even to impress readers of this column. The Spree took care of that with their pictures. This was the one chance I had to show off, and they ruined it, like they ruin everything.
What’s even more galling is that I had something to say about The Plot Against America, and that almost never happens. The truest and wisest words ever written about reviewing were spoken by Sarah Vowell in her book Take the Cannoli. Asked by a magazine to review a Tom Waits album, she concludes that she “quite likes the ballads,” and writes that down; now all she needs is another eight-hundred-odd words restating this one blinding aperçu. That’s pretty much how I feel about a lot of things I read and hear, so the realization that I actually had a point to make about Roth’s novel came as something of a shock to me. You’ll have heard my point a million times by now, but tough—I don’t have them often enough to just let them float off.
Actually, if I put it this way, my point will have the virtue of novelty and freshness: in my humble and partial opinion, my brother-in-law’s alternative-history novel Fatherland was more successful as a work of fiction. (You’ve never heard anyone say that, right? Because even if you’ve heard someone compare Roth’s book to Fatherland, they won’t have begun the sentence with “My brother-in-law….” My brother could have said it, but I’ll bet you any money you like, he hasn’t read the Roth. He probably lied about having read Fatherland, come to think of it.) The Plot Against America is a brilliant, brilliantly-argued, and chilling thesis about America in the twentieth century, but I’m not sure it works as a novel, simply because one is constantly reminded that it is a novel—and not in a fun, postmodern way, but in a strange, slightly distracting way. As you will know, The Plot Against America is about what happened to the U.S. after the fascist-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election, but for large chunks of the book, this is precisely what it’s about: the alternative history drives the narrative, and as a consequence, you find yourself wondering why we’re being told these things. Because if Lindbergh became U.S. president in 1940—and this book asks us to believe that he did, asks us to inhabit a world wherein this was a part of our history—then surely we know it all already? Surely we know about the rampant anti-semitism and the ensuing riots, the heroic role that Mayor LaGuardia played, and Lindbergh’s eventual fate? We read on, of course, because we don’t know, and we want to know; but it’s an uncomfortable compulsion, working as it does against the novel’s easy naturalism. When Roth writes, for example, that “the November election hadn’t even been close… Lindbergh got 57 percent of the popular vote,” the only thing the sentence is doing is providing us with information we don’t have; yet at the same time, we are invited to imagine that we do have it—in which case, why are we being given it again?
In Fatherland, my brother-in-law—Harris, as I suppose I should call him here—takes the view that in an alternative-history novel, he must imagine not only the alternative history, but the historical consciousness of his reader; in other words, the alternative history belongs in the background, and the information we need to understand what has taken place (in Fatherland, the Nazis have won WWII) is given out piecemeal, obliquely, while the author gets on with his thriller plot. Roth chooses to place his what-if at the center of his book, and so The Plot Against America ends up feeling like an extended essay.
The thing is, I don’t even know if I care. Did any of this really spoil my enjoyment of The Plot Against America? Answer: no. I could see it, but I didn’t feel it. Who wouldn’t want to read an extended essay by Philip Roth? It’s only on the books pages of newspapers that perceived flaws of this kind inhibit enjoyment, and that’s because book reviewers are not allowed to say “I quite like the ballads.”
I now see that just about everything I read was relatively new: Tom Perrotta’s absorbing and brave satire Little Children, Tony Hendra’s mostly lovable Father Joe…. Soldiers of Salamis is, I think, the first translated novel I’ve read since I began this column. Is that shameful? I suppose so, but once again, I don’t feel it. When you’re as ill-read as I am, routinely ignoring the literature of the entire non-English-speaking world seems like a minor infraction.
In Scottish poet Don Paterson’s clever, funny, and maddeningly addictive new book of epigrams, The Book of Shadows, he writes that “nearly all translators of poetry… fail to understand the poem’s incarnation in its tongue is all there is of it, as a painting is its paint.” I suppose this can’t be true for novels, but there is always the sense that you’re missing something. Soldiers of Salamis is moving and informative and worthwhile and well-translated and blah blah, and on just about every page
I felt as though I were listening to a radio that hadn’t quite been tuned in properly. You don’t need to write in to express your disgust and disappointment. I’m disappointed enough in myself.
The Book of Shadows, though, came through loud and clear—FM through Linn speakers. Thought for the day: “Anal sex has one serious advantage: there are few cinematic precedents that instruct either party how they should look.” Your bathroom needs this book badly.