Stuff I’ve Been Reading: November 2003
- Bush at War—Bob Woodward
- Six Days of War—Michael B. Oren
- Genome—Matt Ridley
- Isaac Newton—James Gleick
- God’s Pocket—Pete Dexter
- The Poet and the Murderer—Simon Worrall
- Sputnik Sweetheart—Haruki Murakami
- Lie Down in Darkness—William Styron
- Leadville—Edward Platt
- Master Georgie—Beryl Bainbridge
- How to Breathe Underwater—Julie Orringer (two copies)
- A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates—Blake Bailey (completed)
- Wenger: The Making of a Legend—Jasper Rees
- How to Breathe Underwater—Julie Orringer
- Bush at War—Bob Woodward (unfinished)
- Unnamed Literary Novel (abandoned)
- Unnamed Work of Nonfiction (abandoned)
- No Name—Wilkie Collins (unfinished)
LITERARY CDS BOUGHT AND LISTENED TO:
- The Spoken Word—Poets
- The Spoken Word—Writers
Unfinished, abandoned, abandoned, unfinished. Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. In the first of these columns, I voiced the suspicion that my then-current reading jag was unsustainable: I was worried, I seem to recall, about the end of the summer, and the forthcoming football season, and it’s true that both of these factors have had an adverse effect on book consumption. (Words added to ongoing novel since autumnal return to work: not many, but more than the month before. Football matches watched in the last month: seven whole ones, four of them live in the stadium, and bits and pieces of probably half a dozen others.) Of the two books I started and finished this month, one I read in a day, mostly on a plane, during a day trip to Amsterdam. And it was a book about football.
It is not only sport and work that have slowed me up, however; I would have to say that the ethos of this magazine has inhibited me a little too. As you are probably aware by now, The Believer has taken the honorable and commendable view that, if it is attacks on contemporary writers and writing you wish to read, then you can choose from an endless range of magazines and newspapers elsewhere—just about all of them, in fact—and that therefore The Believer will contain only acid-free literary criticism.
This position is, however, likely to cause difficulties if your brief is simply to write honestly about the books you have been reading: Boredom and, very occasionally, despair is part of the reading life, after all. Last month, mindful of The Believer’s raison d’être, I expressed mild disappointment with a couple of the books I had read. I don’t remember the exact words; but I said something to the effect that, if I were physically compelled to express a view as to whether the Disappointing Novel was better or worse than Crime and Punishment, then I would keep my opinion to myself, no matter how excruciating the pain, such was my respect for the editorial credo. If, however, the torturers threatened my children, then I would—with the utmost reluctance—voice a very slight preference for Crime and Punishment.
Uproar ensued. Voicing a slight preference for Crime and Punishment over the Disappointing Novel under threat of torture to my children constituted a Snark, it appeared, and I was summoned to appear before The Believer committee—twelve rather eerie young men and women (six of each, naturally), all dressed in white robes and smiling maniacally, like a sort of literary equivalent of the Polyphonic Spree. I was given a severe dressing-down, and only avoided a three-issue suspension by promising never to repeat the offense. Anyway, We (i.e. the Polysyllabic Spree) have decided that if it looks as though I might not enjoy a book, I will abandon it immediately, and not mention it by name. This is what happened with the Literary Novel and the Work of Nonfiction—particularly regrettable in the latter case, as I was supposed to be reviewing it for a London newspaper. The loss of income there, and the expense of flying from London to San Francisco to face the Committee (needless to say, those bastards wouldn’t stump up), means that this has been an expensive month.
I did, however, finish Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates that I started last month. I haven’t changed my view that it could easily have afforded to shed a few of its six-hundred-plus pages—Yates doesn’t sell his first story until page 133—but I’m glad I stuck with it. Who’d have thought that the author of Revolutionary Road wrote speeches for Robert Kennedy, or provided the model for Alton Benes, the insane writer-father of Seinfeld’s Elaine? (Yates’s daughter Monica, an ex-girlfriend of Larry David, was apparently an inspiration for Elaine herself.) And who’d have thought that the author of an acknowledged American classic, as well as several other respected novels and an outstanding collection of short stories, could have ended up living and then dying in such abject penury? A Tragic Honesty, like the Ian Hamilton biography of Lowell that I read recently, is a sad and occasionally terrifying account of how creativity can be simultaneously fragile and self-destructive; it also made me grateful that I am writing now, when the antidepressants are better, and we all drink less. Stories about contemporary writers being taken away in a straitjacket are thin on the ground—or no one tells them to me, anyway—but it seemed to happen to Lowell and Yates all the time; there are ten separate page references under “breakdowns” in the index of A Tragic Honesty.
Just as frightening to anyone who writes (or who is connected intimately to a writer) is Yates’s willingness to cannibalize his life—friends, lovers, family, work—for his fiction: Just about everyone he ever met was able to find a thinly disguised, and frequently horrific, version of themselves in a novel or a story somewhere. Those who have read The Easter Parade will recall the savagely-drawn portrait of Pookie, the pathetic, vain, drunken mother of the Grimes sisters; when I tell you that Yates’s mother was known to everyone as “Dookie,” you will understand just how far Yates was prepared to go.
It was something of a relief to turn to Jasper Rees’s biography of Arsene Wenger—not just because it’s short, but because Wenger’s career as a football manager is currently both highly successful and unfinished. I don’t often pick up books about football any more—I wrote one once, and though the experience didn’t stop me from wanting to watch the sport, as I feared it might, it did stop me from wanting to read about it—but I love Arsene, who, weirdly and neatly, coaches my team, Arsenal, and who would probably feature at about number eight in a list of People Who Have Changed My Life for the Better. He transformed a mediocre, plodding side into a thing of beauty, and on a good day, Arsenal plays the best football that anyone in England has ever seen. He was the first foreign manager to win an English championship, and his influence is such that everyone now wants to employ cool, cerebral Europeans. (The previous fashion was for ranting, red-faced Scotsmen.) Even the English national team has one now, much to the disgust of tabloid sportswriters and the more rabidly patriotic football fan.
I gave an interview to Rees for his book, but despite my contribution, it’s a pretty useful overview of his career to date. I couldn’t, hand on heart, argue that it transcends the genre, and you probably only really need to read it if you have an Arsenal season ticket. And if there is one single Believer reader who is also an Arsenal season ticket holder, I’ll buy you a drink next home game. What the hell—I’ll buy you a car.
I received How to Breathe Underwater and the Wilkie Collins novel in the same Jiffy envelope, sent to me by a friend at Penguin, who publishes all three of us in the UK; this friend is evangelical about both books, and so I began one, loved it, finished it, and then started the other. Usually, of course, I treat personal book recommendations with the suspicion they deserve. I’ve got enough to read as it is, so my first reaction when someone tells me to read something is to find a way to doubt their credentials, or to try to dredge up a conflicting view from the memory. (Just as stone always blunts scissors, a lukewarm “Oh, it was OK,” always beats a “You have to read this.” It’s less work that way.) But every now and again, the zealous gleam in someone’s eye catches the attention, and anyway Joanna, jaded as she is by her work, doesn’t make loose or unnecessary recommendations. She keeps her powder dry.
She was right, luckily for her: How to Breathe Underwater is an outstanding collection of stories. Orringer writes about the things that everyone writes about—youth, friendship, death, grief, etc.—but her narrative settings are fresh and wonderfully knotty. So while her themes are as solid and as recognizable as oak trees, the stuff growing on the bark you’ve never seen before. If you wanted to be reductive, “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones” would collapse neatly into a coming-of-age story, with a conventional two-girls-and-a-guy triangle at its core. But one of the girls comes from a ferociously orthodox Jewish family, and the other one has a mother who’s in the hospital after the loss of a baby, and the boy has this pornographic book stashed away, and the whole thing is so beautifully and complicatedly imagined that you don’t want to boil it down to its essence. “Pilgrims,” the first story in the book, makes you feel panicky and breathless, and is destined, I suspect, to be taught in creative writing classes everywhere. The moment I’d finished I bought myself a first edition, and then another, for a friend’s birthday. It’s that sort of book. I’ll tell you how much I liked it: One paragraph in the story “When She Is Old and I Am Famous” contained the words “gowns,” “pumps,” “diva hairdos,” “pink chiffon,” “silk roses,” “couture,” and “Vogue,” and, after the briefest shudder, I read on anyway.
I’m a couple of hundred pages into No Name, and so far it’s everything I’d hoped it would be. It was sold to me—or given to me free, anyway—as a lost Victorian classic (and I’d never even heard of it), and it really hits the spot: an engrossing, tortuous plot, quirky characters, pathos, the works. If you pick up the Penguin Classics edition, however, don’t read the blurb on the back. It more or less blows the first (fantastic) plot twist, on the grounds that it’s “revealed early on”—but “early on” turns out to be page ninety-six, not, say, page eight. Note to publishers: Some people read nineteenth-century novels for fun, and a lot of them were written to be read that way too.
I should, perhaps, attempt to explain away the ludicrous number of books bought this month. Most of them were secondhand paperbacks; I bought the Pete Dexter, the Murakami, and The Poet and the Murderer on a Saturday afternoon spent wandering up and down Stoke Newington Church Street with the baby, and I bought Leadville and Master Georgie from a bookstall at a local community festival. Leadville is a biography of the A40, one of London’s dreariest arterial roads, and the desperately unpromising nature of the material somehow persuades me that the book has to be great. And I’d like to point out that The Poet and the Murderer is the second cheap paperback about a literary hoax that I’ve bought since I started writing this column. I cannot really explain why I keep buying books about literary hoaxes that I never seriously intend to read. It’s a quirk of character that had remained hitherto unrevealed to me.
I picked up the Styron in a remainder shop while I was reading the Yates biography—Yates spent years adapting it for a film that was never made. Genome and Six Days of War I bought on a visit to the London Review of Books’ slightly scary new shop near the British Museum. I’m not entirely sure why I chose those two in particular, beyond the usual attempts at reinvention that periodically seize one in a bookstore. (When I’m arguing with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, I’m going to tell him to ignore the Books Read column, and focus on the Books Bought instead. “This is really who I am,” I’ll tell him. “I’m actually much more of a Genome guy than an Arsene Wenger guy. And if you let me in, I’m going to prove it, honest.”) I got the CDs at the LRB shop, too. They’re actually pretty amazing: The recordings are taken from the British Library Sound Archive, and all the writers featured were born in the nineteenth century—Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Yeats, Kipling, Wodehouse, Tolkien, and, astonishingly, Browning and Tennyson, although to be honest you can’t really hear Browning, who was recorded at a dinner party in 1889, trying and failing to remember the words of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.” Weirdly, everyone sounds the same, very posh and slightly mad.
I read about a third of Bush at War, and I may well return to it at some stage, but the mood that compelled me to begin it passed quickly, and in any case it wasn’t quite what I wanted: Woodward’s tone is way too matey and sympathetic for me. I did, however, learn that George W. Bush was woken up by the Secret Service at 11:08 p.m. on 9/11. Woken up! He didn’t work late that night? And he wasn’t too buzzy to get off to sleep? See, if that had been me, I would have been up until about six, drinking and smoking and watching TV, and I would have been useless the next day. It can’t be right, can it, that world leaders emerge not through their ability to solve global problems, but to nod off at the drop of a hat? Most decent people can’t sleep easily at night, and that, apparently, is precisely why the world is in such a mess.