Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2014
- The British Museum Is Falling Down—David Lodge
- Angel—Elizabeth Taylor
- My American—Stella Gibbons
- Eminent Hipsters—Donald Fagen
- The British Museum Is Falling Down—David Lodge
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—John le Carré
- Thunderstruck and Other Stories—Elizabeth McCracken
I have been thinking a lot about the past these last few weeks, for reasons both professional and personal—but then who hasn’t? Don’t we all think about the past, all the time, when we’re not thinking about the future (a.k.a. what we’re going to eat for lunch)? Maybe it’s because I’m old, and there’s more past than future now, or maybe it’s because I spend too much time on my own, but each day I wake up to a head full of childhood holidays, ten-year-old football results, school friends, ex-girlfriends, half-remembered and maybe half-read books, good times, bad times, former homes, jobs, teachers. I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense, except that rather than dead people I see department stores that don’t exist anymore. Everything is the past, it turns out. Life, after all, consists of things that have already happened.
Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s lovely book of essays, is mostly about the past, and when it isn’t about the past it’s about growing old: “With the Dukes of September,” the last piece in the collection, is a tour diary that describes, with a winning mordancy, what it feels like to go out on the road with other old geezers (Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald) and play night after night to similarly aging and occasionally indifferent audiences who want to hear only ’70s hits. The rest of the book is mostly about the musicians, broadcasters, and writers whose work nourished the Fagen soul just as its owner was preparing for his accomplished and enthralling career in jazz-rock. (You already knew that Donald Fagen was one half of Steely Dan, didn’t you? Good. Phew. Otherwise I wouldn’t know how to continue.) Essays about influence needn’t necessarily produce a book about the past, of course, unless one is talking in the most banal sense. Fagen could have been formed by—or could have chosen to write about—Miles Davis, Rembrandt, Aristotle, or Mark Twain. And those guys are still around, in the air that we breathe, creating new artists as we speak, so the past doesn’t come into it. But Fagen’s eponymous hipsters are a bunch of people who, I suspect, won’t speak to the young ever again. The Boswell Sisters—favorites of Fagen’s mother—Henry Mancini, Jean Shepherd, the Science Fiction Book Club, the all-night jazz DJ Mort Fega… You can hear Fagen’s great solo album, The Nightfly, start to come together in the gaps between those names, but you can hear something else, too: the cool, complicated changes of a very particular moment in postwar American history, when fear of impending nuclear obliteration combined with affluence and good radio to produce a generation that would end up making a whole ton of music and books and movies and ideas. I’m not sure any generation since could be carbon-dated quite as precisely, and while reading Eminent Hipsters I came to envy Fagen’s obvious sense of cultural security. He knew what was what back then, and that has given him the tools to know what’s what now. He might not be right, of course, but he’s equipped to adopt a position. I’m not sure I know what my time is, or was, or what it meant, and I don’t think I’d be able to take on the modern world with the weapons I picked up between the ages of twelve and twenty in the way that Fagen can. What was I given to fight with? There was punk, I suppose, but it didn’t add up to all that much in the end. And there was feminism, too, which taught me lots, but which has also resulted mostly in me being horrified by everything that young women currently seem to enjoy doing. Lucky Fagen, with his Harlan Ellison short stories and his Stan Getz records and his 1960s college education.
If you know and love Steely Dan, then you won’t be surprised to learn that his writing is super-smart, funny, grumpy, erudite, and allusive, and that the book is a joy. “‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,” Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. “Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.” Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that? Will the lead singers of indie bands be producing books like Eminent Hipsters (and Chronicles, and Just Kids) in twenty years’ time? It would appear that Donald Fagen, for one, doesn’t think so. “Actually, it always seemed to me that the Class of ’68 was the last bunch of kids not seriously despoiled in their youth by television (with its insidious brainworm commercials) and drugs.” He reserves his real contempt, though, for the Palm People, the texters and the tweeters and the compulsive picture-takers who have succeeded the TV Babies. “You know what? I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse. And you prove that every day, with everything you do and everything you say. Wake up, ya dope!”
The two novels I read this month, le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and David Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down, belong to the past, too. That’s not to say that they’re not worth reading—they are. But they were produced in, and describe, countries that no longer exist—literally so, in the case of the le Carré novel. Adam Appleby, the comic antihero of Lodge’s novel, is a twenty-five-year-old research student whose life is being crushed by his Catholicism: the only birth control he and his wife use is the rhythm method, and as a consequence they have been blessed with three children in the four years of their marriage, with another possibly on the way. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as you probably know, is a thriller set in the brutal, frightening, soul-dead world of espionage in a Europe still divided by the Iron Curtain. I bought a nice, signed hardback that uses a version of the original jacket, and there’s a quote on the front saying, “This is, in our view, a novel of the first order—a terrible novel, of great actuality and high political import.” So that’s a nice period detail right there. If my publishers wanted to tell everyone that I’d written a terrible novel, I’d try and stop them.
I am reading books written in the 1960s because I’m writing a novel set in the 1960s, and contemporary novelists, in theory, at least, have a better shot at capturing the language and mores of the time than social historians years later. The trouble is that a lot of novelists with literary ambition care so much about bloody posterity that they chuck the good stuff out—their characters don’t use slang, or pay for anything in shops, or watch television. Thank heavens, then, for Lodge and le Carré, both of whom are commendably interested in the quotidian lives of their characters. When le Carré’s Leamas isn’t being beaten up by East German thugs, he’s taking jobs in psychical-research libraries and wondering whether petulant men in pale green shirts are “pansies.” Adam Appleby rides an old scooter, gets drunk on sherry at faculty parties, and is lumbered with a nosy landlady. (Appleby’s wife, Barbara, doesn’t work, and it seems likely to me that any twenty-first-century research student trying to raise three children in London without a proper income would have to eat at least one of them, and use the other two for firewood.) Also, The British Museum Is Falling Down contains the first reference to the Beatles that I have come across in my ’60s reading: Appleby gets caught up in some troublesome Beatlemania on his way to work.
At the back of my replica copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—which, by the way, is still, after all these years, a terrible novel of great actuality and high political import, as well as being kick-ass—there is a selection of archival material, including a reprint of the New York Times best-seller list of August 1964. Le Carré is at number one in his thirty-second week on the list; Gore Vidal is at number four, Terry Southern’s Candy is at five, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group is at number six. Hemingway is top of the non-fiction chart with A Moveable Feast. Donald Fagen would have been fifteen years old. What’s the betting that he’d already read the lot? And will we see a bunch of books that good anywhere near the top of the best-seller lists in the remainder of our lives?
The other book I read this month is by a relatively young woman, and, as far as I’m concerned, anything new by her is an excuse for wild, drunken celebration. In my experience, people use the phrase “favorite writer” loosely. When someone tells me I’m their favorite writer, I find myself secretly and pathetically looking forward to detailed conversations about obscure short stories I’ve written, and uncollected essays, and maybe the Italian film adaptations of my work. (There’s only one, actually, but true fans should have seen it more than once.) I often discover, however, that the besotted fan hasn’t even heard of half the novels I’ve written. And of the ones they have read, it usually turns out that someone else wrote two of them.
None of us, though, quite know what we mean when we are asked the FW question. Most of the time we ignore the novelists we love. Quite often we haven’t read them for years—decades, sometimes, if they’re no longer writing, because we wolfed down their entire output in one besotted binge. And if we do go back and re-read, we find that the connection has been lost, that we no longer value that kind of prose or story. And surely a favorite writer has to have put together something that resembles a body of work? Harper Lee can’t be your favorite writer, I don’t think, unless you really don’t like reading very much. She may well have written your favorite book, but that’s the answer to a different question. I tend to squirm out of naming names. Names fix you, and never reflect your inner life with the accuracy or detail that you’d like.
But Elizabeth McCracken is one of my favorite writers. Or, to put it another way: I’ve read everything she’s written—everything that has been published in book form, anyway, with her name on the cover—and there’s nothing I haven’t liked and admired enormously. I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading her memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, because I though it was going to be too sad and maybe too specific to her circumstance: it’s about the experience of her first child dying during her pregnancy and the subsequent stillbirth. But I was wrong, and the book turned out to be marvelous—painful, yes, but also transcendent and even funny. Meanwhile, her two novels, The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again, are in my view modern classics. She writes with acuity, soul, and a kind of easy grace that probably kills her, about characters whom she has created to love, in the religious sense of the word. It hasn’t done me that much good, though, choosing McCracken as a favorite writer. I have been writing this column for ten years, and Thunderstruck and Other Stories is the first fiction she has given us in that time. I’m sure she’ll understand when I say that I’ve resorted to reading other people.
The stories in this new collection are all sad, in the way that the memoir is sad—in other words, they deal with real, sometimes unbearably painful subjects (seven of the nine stories deal with death, dying, or a bereavement of some kind), but they do so in a way that you don’t come across very often, if ever. There is very little elegy here, or portentousness, or the usual exhausted stoicism; instead, there’s always life, paradoxically, and energy, and wryness, and a kind of sparky bemusement. In “Hungry,” Sylvia finds herself looking after her odd, difficult granddaughter on Bicentennial Day while her son, the child’s father, is dying in a hospital a long way away; in “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey,” a man dying of pancreatic cancer pays a last visit to a close friend who sold him up the river years before, and finds himself talking about metaphorical wolves with his friend’s young children. Quite often, McCracken seems to be pointing out, death involves a quickening complication of life elsewhere.
I don’t know whether the title story is the best story, but it’s the longest, and when you’ve waited a long time for new stuff, then more is good. “Thunderstruck” showcases all the things this remarkable writer is so good at: the eccentric but illuminating metaphors, the deft characterization, the heart-lurching narrative development, the tenderness, the fantastic aphorisms. It’s about, among other things, the impossibility of parenting: Helen, the twelve-year-old daughter of Wes and Laura, is causing her mother and father trouble that will eventually prove catastrophic. “They were exhausted, unslept. Helen seemed like an intelligence test they were failing, had been failing for years.” If that isn’t a perfect articulation of your current situation, it’s only because you don’t have kids. Helen will eventually break their hearts, while at the same time requiring every single ounce of their love and strength.
“Once an insatiable reader, I don’t read so much any more,” says Donald Fagen in Eminent Hipsters. “I’m not at the age—sixty-four—where so many sad things have happened that I’m too broken and anxious to read.” I’m guessing that I won’t be able to persuade him to pick up Thunderstruck and Other Stories, but, in this respect, I’m glad I’m not him. The sadder life gets, the more broken and anxious I feel, the more I want to read. I don’t want to read just anyone, though. I want to read my favorite writers, and I want them to hurry up and produce more books, while I still have the eyes and the comprehension to read them.