Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2011
- Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste—Carl Wilson
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson—John Green and David Levithan
- The Anthologist—Nicholson Baker
- Brooklyn—Colm Tóibín
- Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges—Donald Spoto
- Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste—Carl Wilson
It’s a wet Sunday morning, and I’m sitting on a sofa reading a book. On one side of me is my eldest son, Danny, who is seventeen and autistic. His feet are in my lap, and he’s watching a children’s TV program on his iPad. Or rather, he’s watching a part of a children’s TV program, over and over again: a song from Postman Pat entitled “Handyman Song.” Danny is wearing headphones, but I’ve just noticed that they’re not connected properly, so I can hear every word of the song anyway. On my other side is another son, my eight-year-old, Lowell. He’s watching the Sunday morning football highlights program Goals on Sunday. I’m caught between them, trying to finish Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist.
“Look at this, Dad,” Lowell says.
He wants me to watch Johan Elmander’s goal for Bolton at Wolves, the second in a 3–2 win. It’s one of the best goals of the season so far, and at the time of writing has a real chance of winning the BBC’s Goal of the Month award, but I only have thirteen pages of the novel to go, so I only glance up for a moment.
“Close the book,” Lowell says.
“I saw the goal. I’m not going to close the book.”
“Close the book. You didn’t see the replay.”
He tries to grab the book out of my hand, so we wrestle for a moment while I turn the corner of the page down. I watch the replay. He’s satisfied. I return to The Anthologist, football commentary in one ear and the Postman Pat song in the other.
Would Nicholson Baker mind? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t choose for me to be reading his work under these circumstances, and I’m with him all the way. I’d rather be somewhere else, too. I’d rather be on a sun-lounger in southern California, in the middle of a necessarily childless reading tour, just for the thirty minutes it’s going to take me to get to the end of the novel. I would savor every single minute of the rest of a wet English November Sunday with three sons, just so long as I was given half an hour—not even that!—of sunshine and solitude. I hope Baker would be pleased by my determination and absorption, though. I wasn’t throwing his book away by submitting it to the twin assaults of Postman Pat and Goals on Sunday. I was hanging on to it for dear life.
It’s a wonderful novel, I think, unusual, generous, educational, funny. The eponymous narrator, Paul Chowder, is a broke poet whose girlfriend has just left him; he’s trying to write an introduction to an anthology of verse while simultaneously worrying about the rent and the history of rhyme. Chowder loves rhyme: he thinks that the blank verse of modernism was all a fascist plot, and that Swinburne was the greatest rhymer “in the history of human literature.” Indeed, The Anthologist is full of artless, instructive digressions about all sorts of people (Swinburne, Vachel Lindsay, Louise Bogan) and all sorts of things (iambic pentameter) that I knew almost nothing about. Chowder might be an awful mess, but you trust him on all matters relating to poetry.
I developed something of a crush on Elizabeth Bishop after reading The Anthologist. I downloaded an MP3 of her reading “The Fish,” and on an overnight work trip to Barcelona I took with me a copy of Bishop’s collected poems but no clean socks, which is exactly the sort of thing that Paul Chowder might have done. I would say that in my half century on this planet so far, I have valued clean socks above poetry, so The Anthologist may literally have changed my life, and not in a good way. Luckily, it turns out that you can buy socks in Barcelona. Nice ones, too.
Pretty much everything I have read in the last month is related to the production of art and/or entertainment. Unlike all the others, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is not about art (and don’t get sniffy about Céline Dion until I tell you what Carl Wilson has to say about her); it’s about a young girl emigrating to the U.S. from a small town in Ireland in the 1950s. But as I am currently attempting to adapt Brooklyn for the cinema, it would be disingenuous to claim that the production of art and/or entertainment didn’t cross my mind while I was re-reading it.
I haven’t read a novel twice in six months for decades, and the experience was illuminating. It wasn’t that I had misremembered anything, particularly, nor (I like to think) had I misunderstood much, first time around, but I had certainly forgotten the proximity of narrative events in relation to each other. Some things happened sooner than I was prepared for, and others much later—certainly much later than I can hope to get away with in a screenplay. You can do anything in a novel, provided the writing is good enough: you can introduce rounded, complex characters ten pages from the end, you can gloss over years in a paragraph. Film is a clumsier and more literal medium.
One thing that particularly struck me this time around is that though Tóibín’s prose is precise and calm and controlled, Brooklyn is not an internal book. This is good news for a screenwriter, in most ways, but it did occur to me that if you strip away, as I have to do, all the control, then the story becomes alarmingly visceral. When Eilis travels third class on a ship to New York and ends up getting violently seasick and expelling her dinner through every available orifice…. Well, if we show that onscreen, it will lose Tóibín’s Jamesian poise. What you’ll see, in fact, is a poor girl shitting copiously into a bucket. And Colm’s devoted fans, aesthetes all, will say, Jesus, what has this hooligan done to our beautiful literary novel? There might be art riots, in fact, similar to those that greeted The Rite of Spring when it was first performed in 1913. People will throw stuff at me, and I’ll be running out of the premiere shouting, “There was diarrhea in the book!”, but nobody will believe me. I’m going to blame the director. Who made the Porky’s movies? We should hire him.
The invention of the iPad means, as I’m sure you have discovered by now, that you can watch Preston Sturges movies pretty well anywhere you want. I have seen Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story, and though Sullivan’s Travels remains my favorite, the minor characters in The Palm Beach Story are Dickensian in their weirdness and detail. It occurred to me that I know a lot more about, say, Montaigne and Richard Yates, having read very good books about them, than I do about Preston Sturges—a regrettable state of affairs, seeing as Sturges means more to me than either.
After reading Sarah Bakewell’s brilliant How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, I came to understand how Montaigne invented soul-searching; after reading Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, I saw why Yates’s books are so incredibly miserable. Well, Donald Spoto’s Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges tells you everything you need to know about the pace of Sturges’s movies: He lived that fast himself. He hung out with Isadora Duncan and Marcel Duchamp, took a job as assistant stage manager on Duncan’s production of Oedipus Rex, traveled throughout Europe, ran branches of his mother’s cosmetics company in New York and London, turned down a job as a one-hundred-dollar-a-week gigolo, and was honorably discharged from the U.S. military. And then he turned twenty-one, and things got really interesting.
Sturges didn’t really start writing until he was thirty; he began work on his first successful play, Strictly Dishonorable, on June 14, 1929, and finished it on June 23. (According to his diary, he did no work on the fifteenth, sixteenth, or twenty-second.) He received a telegram from a producer on July 2 suggesting an August production, and Strictly Dishonorable was one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1930s. It made him a fortune. Even so, we here at the Believer recommend a ten- or fifteen-year gestation period for a first novel, play, or screenplay, five years of writing, and then another five years of rewriting and editing. (“June 23: Strictly Dishonorable finished 5.40 this afternoon. Will polish tonight. Later: did so and drew set plans.”) Yes, Sturges went on to write and direct Sullivan’s Travels, and in 1947 was paid more than either William Randolph Hearst or Henry Ford II. But the slow, careful approach is unarguably more authentic and artistic, and will almost certainly result in a literary prize, or at least a nomination. (In defense of your creative-writing professors, Sturges did write a lot of stinkers for the stage. Robert Benchley, in the New Yorker, observed that “the more young Mr. Preston Sturges continues to write follow-ups to Strictly Dishonorable, the more we wonder who wrote Strictly Dishonorable.” You’re not allowed to write cruel lines like that in this magazine, which is the only reason why I don’t.)
I had no idea that Sturges’s life had been so dizzyingly eventful; no idea, either, that he had changed the history of cinema by becoming the first Hollywood writer/director. He crashed and burned pretty spectacularly, too. He sank every dollar he had and a few hundred thousand more into a money-pit of a club; and after a hot streak of seven good-to-great films between 1940 and 1944, it was effectively all over for him by 1949. He made only one more, apparently very bad, movie before he died in 1959. Spoto’s book can’t help but zip along, although I did find myself skipping over the synopses of some of Sturges’s Broadway farces. Farce, it seems to me, is curiously resistant to synopsis: “He then makes his move to seduce Isabelle, but the judge enters, claiming it’s his birthday and everyone must have champagne…. The opera singer then reenters with pajamas for Isabelle…. Gus puts pajama top over her head, and as it slips down her teddy falls to the floor….” I am sure that, in 1930, Strictly Dishonorable was the hottest ticket in town, and that had I been alive to see it, I’d have promptly died laughing. But nothing, I fear, can bring the magic back to life now.
It is not stretching a point to say that the rapidly shifting sands of critical and popular approbation are the subject of Carl Wilson’s brilliant extended essay about Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, another in the excellent 33 1⁄3 series. Most of the others I’ve read (with the exception of Joe Pernice’s novella inspired by the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder) are well-written but conventional songs of praise to an important album in rock’s history—Harvest, Dusty in Memphis, Paul’s Boutique, and so on. This one is different. Wilson asks the question: Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question Why do
I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are—especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us! In a few short devastating chapters, Wilson chops himself and all of us off at the knees. “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness,” Wilson observes.
Let’s Talk About Love belongs on your bookshelf next to John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?; they both cover similar ideas about the construct of taste, although Wilson finds more room for Elliott Smith and the Ramones than Professor Carey could. And in a way, taking on Dion is a purer and more revealing exercise than taking on some of the shibboleths of literary culture, as Carey did. After all, there is a rough-and-ready agreement on literary competence, on who can string a sentence together and who can’t, that complicates any wholesale rejection of critical values in literature. In popular music, though, a whole different set of judgments is at play. We forgive people who can’t sing or construct a song or play their instruments, as long as they are cool, or subversive, or deviant; we do not dismiss Dion because she’s incompetent. Indeed, her competence may well be a problem, because it means she excludes nobody, apart from us, and those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that can’t exclude: it’s confusing, and it doesn’t help us to meet attractive people of the opposite sex who think the same way we do.
Wilson’s book isn’t just important; it has good facts in it, too. Did you know that in Jamaica, Céline is loved most of all by the badasses? “So much that it became a cue to me to walk, run or drive faster if I was ever in a neighborhood I didn’t know and heard Céline Dion,” a Jamaican music critic tells Wilson. And did you know that the whole highbrow/middlebrow thing came from nineteenth-century phrenology, and has racist connotations? Why aren’t I surprised?
I may well have to insist that you read this book before we continue our monthly conversation, because we really need to be on the same page. My own sense of self has been shaken, and from this moment on, there may be only chaotic enthusiasm (or sociological neutrality) where there was once sensible and occasionally inspired recommendation. I may go and have a look at that Elmander goal again. It might help to ground me. You can still have good goals and bad goals, right? Right?