Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2003
- A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates—Blake Bailey
- Notes on a Scandal—Zoë Heller (released in the U.S. as What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal)
- Being John McEnroe—Tim Adams
- Stop-Time—Frank Conroy
- The Fortress of Solitude—Jonathan Lethem
- Desperate Characters—Paula Fox
- Notes on a Scandal—Zoë Heller
- Where You’re At—Patrick Neate
- Feel Like Going Home—Peter Guralnick
- The People’s Music—Ian MacDonald
- A Tragic Honesty—Blake Bailey (unfinished)
- How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good—Gillian Riley
- Quitting Smoking—The Lazy Person’s Guide!—Gillian Riley
If you write books—or a certain kind of book, anyway—you can’t resist a scan round the hotel swimming pool when you go on holiday. You just can’t help yourself, despite the odds: You need to know, straight off, whether anyone is reading one of yours. You imagine spending your days under a parasol watching, transfixed and humbled, as a beautiful and intelligent young man or woman, almost certainly a future best friend, maybe even spouse, weeps and guffaws through three hundred pages of your brilliant prose, too absorbed even to go for a swim, or take a sip of Evian. I was cured of this particular fantasy a couple of years ago, when I spent a week watching a woman on the other side of the pool reading my first novel, High Fidelity. Unfortunately, however, I was on holiday with my sister and brother-in-law, and my brother-in-law provided a gleeful and frankly unfraternal running commentary. “Look! Her lips are moving.” “Ha! She’s fallen asleep! Again!” “I talked to her in the bar last night. Not a bright woman, I’m afraid.” At one point, alarmingly, she dropped the book and ran off. “She’s gone to put out her eyes!” my brother-in-law yelled triumphantly. I was glad when she’d finished it and moved on to Harry Potter or Dr Seuss or whatever else it was she’d packed.
I like to think that, once he’d recovered from the original aesthetic shock, Jonathan Lethem wouldn’t have winced too often if he’d watched me reading The Fortress of Solitude by the pool this month. I was pinned to my lounger, and my lips hardly moved at all. In fact, I was so determined to read his novel on holiday that the first half of the reading month started with a mess. It went something like, Being The John McEnroe Stop-Time Fortress of Solitude. I’d just started Tim Adams’s short book on McEnroe when an advance copy of Fortress came in the post, and I started reading that—but because it seemed so good, so much my kind of book, I wanted to save it, and I went back to the McEnroe. Except then the McEnroe turned out to be too short, and I’d finished it before the holiday started, so I needed something to fill in, which is why I reread Stop-Time. (And Stop-Time turned out to be too long, and I didn’t get onto Fortress until the third day of the seven-day holiday.)
Last month I read a lot of Salinger, and he pops up in all three of these books. Tim Adams remembers reading Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters while queuing to watch McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1981; the seventeen-year-old Adams had a theory that McEnroe “was, in fact, a latter-day Holden Caulfield, unable and unwilling to grow up…. constantly railing against the phonies—dozing linesmen, tournament organizers with walkie-talkies—in authority.” Later, he points out that McEnroe went to Buck-ley Country Day School—“one model for Holden Caulfield’s Pencey Prep.” Frank Conroy, meanwhile, attended P.S. 6, “of J. D. Salinger fame.” (Adams’s book is great, by the way. It’s witty and smart, and has ideas about sport that don’t strain for significance. It’s also oddly English, because it’s about the collision of McEnroe and Wimbledon—in other words, McEnroe and one version of England—and about how McEnroe was a weirdly timely illustration of Thatcherism. My favorite McEnroe tirade, one I hadn’t heard before: “I’m so disgusting you shouldn’t watch. Everybody leave!”)
And then, at the beginning of The Fortress of Solitude, I came across the following, describing a street ball game: “A shot…. which cleared the gates on the opposite side of the street was a home run. Henry seemed to be able to do this at will, and the fact that he didn’t each time was mysterious.” Compare that to this, from Seymour: An Introduction: “A home run was scored only when the ball sailed just high and hard enough to strike the wall of the building on the opposite street…. Seymour scored a home run nearly every time he was up. When other boys on the block scored one, it was generally regarded as a fluke…. but Seymour’s failures to get home runs looked like flukes.” Weird, huh? (And that’s all it is, by the way—there’s nothing sinister going on here. Lethem’s book is probably over a hundred thousand words long, and bears no resemblance to anything Salinger wrote, aside from this one tiny echo.) All three books are in part about being young and mixed-up and American, and even though this would appear to be a theme so broad that no one can claim it as their own, somehow Salinger has man-aged to copyright it (and you wouldn’t put it past him); there is clearly some law compelling you to acknowledge somewhere in your book, however obliquely, that he got there first.
A confession, for the record: I know Jonathan Lethem. Or rather, I’ve met him, and we have exchanged emails on occasions. But I don’t know him so well that I had to read his book, if you see what I mean. I could easily have got away with not reading it. I could have left the proof copy his publishers sent me sitting around unopened, and no social embarrassment would have ensued. But I wanted to read it; I loved Motherless Brooklyn, and I knew a little bit about this book before I started it—I knew, for example, that a lot of funk records and Marvel comics were mentioned by name. In other words, it wasn’t just up my street; it was actually knocking on my front door and peering through the letter-box to see if I was in. I was, however, briefly worried about the title, which sounds portentously and alarmingly Literary, until I was reminded that it refers to Superman.
The Fortress of Solitude is one of those rare novels that felt as though it had to be written; in fact, it’s one of those novels that deals with something so crucial—namely, the relationship between a middle-class white boy and black culture—that you can’t believe it hasn’t been written before. Anyone who has grown up listening to black music, or even white music derived from black music, will have some point of connection to this book; but Dylan Ebdus, Lethem’s central character, is a kind of walking, talking embodiment of a cultural obsession. He’s the only white kid in his street (in Brooklyn, pre-gentrification), and one of a handful of white kids in his school; Mick Jagger would have killed to for his experience, and Mick Jagger would have suffered in exactly the same ways.
This is a painful, beautiful, brave, poetic and definitive book (anyone who attempts to enter this territory again will be found out, not least because Lethem clearly knows where-of he speaks), and though it has its flaws, the right reader will not only forgive them but love them—just as the right listener loves the flaws in, say, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. They are the flaws that come of ambition, not of ineptitude. I think this is a book that people might argue about, but it will also be a book that a sizable number of people cherish and defend and reread, despite its density and length, and as an author you can’t really ask for much more than that.
Three of the books on the “read” list—by Patrick Neate, Ian McDonald, and Peter Guralnick—I reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, and I’m not going to write about them again at any length here. But Where It’s At is in part about a middle-class white boy’s obsession with hip-hop, and “Feel Like Going Home” is fuelled by a middle-class white boy’s love for R&B and blues; reading them only served to underline why The Fortress of Solitude is so necessary.
I do seem, however, to have spent a disproportionate amount of time reading about Stuyvesant High School this month. That’s where Dylan Ebdus escapes to, and it’s also where Frank Conroy went, when he could be bothered. I’m guessing that Stuyvesant is decent enough, but I’m sure its students would be perplexed to hear that an Englishman spent an entire holiday in France reading about alumni both fictional and real. I even ended up checking out the Stuyvesant website, just to see what the place looked like. (It looked like a high school.)
I reread Stop-Time because Frank Conroy is so eloquent and moving about books and their power at the end of The Stone Reader. I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. (I recently dis-covered that a friend who was rereading Bleak House had done no other Dickens apart from Barnaby Rudge. That’s just weird. I shamed and nagged him into picking up Great Expectations instead.) But when I tried to recall anything about it other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy’s Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty, I haven’t even read the books I think I’ve read. I can’t tell you how depressing this is. What’s the fucking point?
Apart from Stuyvesant and Salinger, the recurring theme of the month was Paula Fox. Fox has given blurbs for both The Fortress of Solitude and Zoë Heller’s novel; Lethem has given a blurb to Desperate Characters. I know I’m wrong about this book, because everyone else in the world, including writers I love, thinks it’s fantastic, but it Wasn’t For Me. It’s brilliantly written, I can see that much, and it made me think, too. But mostly I thought about why I don’t know anyone like the people Fox writes about. Why are all my friends so dim and unreflective? Where did I go wrong?
Towards the end of the book, Otto and Sophie, the central couple, go to stay in their holiday home. Sophie opens the door to the house, and is immediately reminded of a friend, an artist who used to visit them there; she thinks about him for a page or so. The reason she’s thinking about him is that she’s staring at something he loved, a vinegar bottle shaped like a bunch of grapes. The reason she’s staring at the bottle is because it’s in pieces. And the reason it’s in pieces is because someone has broken in and trashed the place, a fact we only discover when Sophie has snapped out of her reverie. At this point, I realized with some regret that not only could I never write a literary novel, but I couldn’t even be a character in a literary novel. I can only imagine myself, or any character I created, saying, “Shit! Some bastard has trashed the house!” No rumination about artist friends—just a lot of cursing, and maybe some empty threats of violence.
Zoë Heller’s Notes from a Scandal, about a fortysomething pottery teacher who has an affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil, was moving along nicely until a character starts talking about football. He tells a teaching colleague that he’s been to see Arsenal, and that “Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0”. Readers of this column will have realized by now that I know almost nothing about anything, but if I were forced to declare one area of expertise, it would be what people say to each other after football matches. It’s not much, I know, but it’s mine. And I am positive that no one has ever said “Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0” in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English language. “Beat,” “thrashed,” “did” or “done,” “trounced,” “thumped,” “shat all over,” “walloped,” etc., yes; “won,” emphatically, no. And I think that my dismay and disbelief then led me to question other things, and the fabric of the novel started to unravel a little. Can you really find full-time pottery teachers in modern English state schools? Would a contemporary teenager really complain about being treated as “the Kunta Kinte round here” when asked to do some housework? I like Zoë Heller’s writing, and this book has a terrific narrative voice which recalls Alan Bennett’s work; I just wish I wasn’t so picky. This is how picky I am. You know the Arsenal bit? It wasn’t just the unconvincing demotic I objected to; it was the score. Arsenal haven’t beaten Liverpool 3-0 at Highbury since 1991. What chance did the poor woman have?
I haven’t finished the Richard Yates biography yet. I will, however, say this much: It is 613 pages long. Despite the influence Yates had on a generation of writers, it’s hard enough finding people who’ve read the great Revolutionary Road, let alone people who will want to read about its author’s grand-parents. I propose that those intending to write a biography should first go to the National Biography Office to get a permit which tells you the number of pages you get. (There will be no right of appeal.) It’s quite a simple calculation. Nobody wants to read a book longer than—what?—nine hundred pages? OK, a thousand, maybe. And you can’t really get the job done in less than 250. So you’re given maximum length if you’re doing Dickens, say—someone who lived to a ripe old age, wrote enormous books, and had a life outside them. And everyone else is calculated using Dickens as a yardstick. By this reckoning, Yates is a three-hundred-page man—maybe 315 tops. I’m on page 194 as we speak, and I’m going to stick with it—the book is compelling and warm and gossipy. But on page 48, I found myself reading a paragraph about the choice of gents’ outfitters facing the pupils at Yates’s school; I felt, personally speaking, that it could have gone.
I reread two other books this month: How to Stop Smoking and Stay Stopped for Good, and Quitting Smoking—The Lazy Person’s Guide! I reread them for obvious reasons; I’ll be rereading them again, too. They’re good books, I think, sensible and helpful. But they’re clearly not perfect. If I do stop smoking, it may be because I don’t want to read Gillian Riley anymore.