Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Troubling Patterns of James Patterson

This last Tuesday, September 27th, James Patterson's novel Don't Blink was published. For several years now, even with the help of co-authors, I've grown more and more shocked at the sheer number of books that he's published. To me, it was perversely fitting that this latest work was titled as it was, because it lends itself to an easy joke: "Don't blink, or you'll miss yet another James Patterson book." Before I continue, it's important to note that, by writing this post, I'm engaging in a habit that I never do, that being critiquing an author whose works I've never read. If I had to guess, I would say that I've read ten pages of fiction written by Mr. Patterson, and even if he only published works every few years or so, I would not consider myself a fan. However, the numbers keep piling up, with one or two more titles slated to be released in 2010, and it makes me uneasy. I'm defending myself and offering these understandings because I try to keep this blog above the fray. It's much too easy for someone to hide behind some paragraphs and say "so-and-so stinks" or "so-and-so is a bad writer." I've always been a firm believer in constructive criticism; however, it pains me that some people may view Patterson as an artist, rather than a brand.

I found a wonderful, detailed profile of Patterson's empire and style, written by Jonathan Mahler in the January 24th issue of the New York Times magazine. The title, "James Patterson Inc.," is a tip-off, but Mahler's essay does highlight some of Mr. Patterson's good qualities, namely his appreciation of his fans, and his commitment to children reading. It's not a stretch to assume that anybody who critiques Patterson is leaving him/herself open to charge of elitism or snobbery. However, the mass-market scene has always been booming, and with so much serious literature that has the ability to appeal to a mass audience, it's disheartening that Patterson has such a lion's share of the attention. Mahler must have known that excess criticism or excess deference would have drawn ire on either side, but his profile hints at problems with Patterson's using literature as a business model. It's cold, and while any struggling author dreams of publication and a modicum of success, Patterson has taken it to an entirely demanding level.

"Unsatisfied with publishing's informal approach to marketing meetings, Patterson had expected corporate-style presentations, complete with comprehensive market-share data and sales trends. 'A lot of authors are just grateful to be published,' Holly Parmelee, Patterson's publicist from 1992 to 2002, told me several weeks earlier. 'Not Jim. His attitude was that we were in business together, and he wanted us both to succeed, but it was not going to be fun and games (Mahler).'"

Patterson doesn't claim to be an an artist; on the contrary, he's upfront about his style."Patterson considers himself as an entertainer, not a man of letters (Mahler)." However, he's engaging in exactly the kind of hypocrisy that widens the gap between "elitism" and "everyday readers." While I've already written extensively about Jonathan Franzen as of late, I can't help but be reminded of one of his older statements. I don't have the exact quote, but he made the excellent point that writing a novel that you wouldn't want to read is the ultimate break of the contract between the writer and the reader. Patterson likes his style, but Mahler's profile paints two pictures, both of which are contradictory, and the last of which in one of the ultimate insults to writers and readers everywhere.

"Patterson's bookshelves are evenly divided between thrillers--books by Michael Connelly and Jeffrey Deaver--and more highbrow, literary fare like Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Denis Johnson. When I asked him what he was reading now, Patterson mentioned Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, and The Power Broker, Robert Caro's doorstop biography of Robert Moses. 'My favorite books are very dense ones,' Patterson told me. 'I love One Hundred Years Of Solitude and I'm a big James Joyce fan (Mahler).'"

The below citation is, to me, the aforementioned ultimate insult:

"'Jim was sensitive to the fact that books carry a kind of elitist persona, and he wanted his books to be enticing to people who might not have done so well in school and were inclined to look at books as a headache,' [former C.E.O. of Time Warner Book Group Larry] Kirbaum says. 'He wanted his jackets to say, 'Buy me, read me, have fun--this isn't Moby Dick (Mahler).'"

Again, there are scores of great books that has mass appeal--the works of J.D. Salinger, David Sedaris, and Margaret Atwood are just a few examples. But the fact that Patterson is such a supporter of important works, and such a prolific producer of, let's just say it, literary junk food, is hard to forgive. Just as literature is having a difficult time mixing with the digital age, it's also a unique art form in the sense that Patterson's empire would be hard to imagine in any other creative context. It would be akin to the Jonas Brothers extolling the brilliance of Radiohead, or Thomas Kinkade writing a critical analysis of the works of Jackson Pollock. Again, to quote Mr. Franzen: "I call it art, you call it entertainment, we both turn the pages."

Someone may read this post and think "Well, this is just your opinion." And yes, that's absolutely true. But James Patterson is not an artist, and I do not mean that in the stereotypical "starving and lambasting people who do not understand him" sense. He's a corporation all to himself, even in conjunction with his publishers. He's going to keep churning out his works (most of which, as explained by Mahler, he only writes the outlines for; the co-authors do most of the work). People are going to keep buying them. But at the same time, actual writers are going to be doing the same thing. There's plenty of space on the best-seller lists for Patterson and the likes of actual contemporary writers. The other writers will never match his sales numbers, but the fact that their focus is primarily on creativity says it all. If Patterson would just come out and say that he's in it for the money, these critiques would die down considerably. I'm going to put him out of my mind for now, at least for the next month or two, until I go into a bookstore and see yet another of his mass-produced works occupying the shelf. If that makes me a literary snob, then I'll gladly accept that label.

Work Cited:
Mahler, Jonathan. "James Patterson Inc." The New York Times Magazine, January 24th, 2010.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oprah and Jonathan: Take Two

Just over a week ago, following many speculations and whisperings, Oprah Winfrey selected Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as her latest Book Club pick. This didn't come as as shock to me when it was announced; as a bookseller, I had seen copies of the book affixed with the Oprah sticker (as a side note, it's a relief that the sticker actually matches the color scheme of the novel's cover, so it's not such an aesthetic eyesore). Before the announcement, some anonymous booksellers had leaked photos of Freedom as the Oprah Book Club title, thereby rendering any speculation as fact. The literary world normally doesn't lend itself to gossip, and this is fairly tame.

Whenever Oprah announces a Book Club title, said work becomes an instant best-seller, not that Franzen's latest needed any help. However, the selection would not have been such a major event had it not been for the tension between the two people back in 2001. Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, had been selected by Oprah, and afterward, Franzen gave an interview to, and his comments on Oprah, in addition to being both critical and praising at the same time, were very easy to take out of context. The interview can be read here in its entirety, and this part of the conversation was the center of the ensuing uproar, which led to Winfrey disinviting Franzen from her show, since he was "seemingly uncomfortable" with the invitation.

Dave [Weich]: I had recommended The Corrections to a friend. A few days later, Oprah announced that it would be her new Book Club pick. My friend soon emailed me to ask if I really thought he should read it.

Franzen: Now I've signed a big label deal and I'm playing stadiums, how good can I be?

Dave: Exactly. But this is someone I very much respect, and I don't think his asking that question can be considered at all unusual. I'm sure thousands of people won't read this book for no other reason than the fact that Oprah recommended it. If you're that popular, the thinking goes, if you speak to the masses, you can't possibly be saying anything too intelligent.

Whereas from where I sit the authors that matter are the ones that can say something intelligent and thought provoking that a reasonably smart person can digest and enjoy. If you need a scholarly background to decode it, it might be great art but to what end? You might as well be writing in Latin.

Franzen: That's one of the perverse, not to say fetishistic responses to the obliteratively ubiquitous presence of buying in our lives: to say, "I don't buy the popular stuff, I buy the small label stuff," as if that makes you any less of a consumer. But I'm somewhat guilty of it myself, and it follows a pattern. Certainly in music, suddenly the band you like because it was not produced goes to a major label and becomes heavily produced. It's hard to think of a major label Mekons recording, for example. It's impossible because they would never do it.

But I'm with you, I don't think the same applies to fiction. The problem in this case is some of Oprah's picks. She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight. And she's an easy target.

There were other quotes that added fuel to this fire, namely Franzen's wondering about his place in "the high-end literary tradition" and his concern about reaching a male audience. Strangely, in all of the discussions over Franzen's comments, nobody made any mention of Weich's words, some of which seem, in context, more scathing than Franzen's comments. This led to a lot of backlash, and despite Franzen's honest apologies, he was derided as (in his words): "a pompous snob, a real asshole." Naturally, nine years was enough time for this to die down, but with Oprah's Book Club focusing on Freedom, the old "feud" has been receiving some perverse nostalgia. When I heard about the selection, my gut instinct was that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt. These initial reactions also gave way to some positives, and the praises and critiques were equally given to both Winfrey and Franzen.

Winfrey (praise): She genuinely loved Freedom, and didn't let an old, unnecessary quibble get in the way of highlighting one of the best books of the year.

Winfrey (critique): It's a publicity stunt. It's the last season her talk show, and what better way to drum up some attention than by inviting an author with whom she's had issues with in the past?

Franzen (praise): He sent Winfrey a galley copy of his novel, along with a note, and was gracious enough to accept her Book Club selection, since genuinely considers himself an artist who wants to reach most people, not a select few.

Franzen (critique): Well, pretty much the same as Oprah's.

So when the Book Club pick was made, I was fully expecting a lot more buzz than has been given this event. Sure, quite a few writers and bloggers have made note of it, just like how I'm doing now. However, it has not been the overblown "stunt" that I thought it was going to be. Freedom is still
on top of the best-seller lists, as it was before Oprah's selection. Perhaps more will be made of this once Franzen appears on her show. However, there's much beauty in the relative silence over the issue: it proves that there is none. One can be a literary artist and mesh well with a mainstream forum. It worked for Toni Morrison, it worked for Cormac McCarthy, and it will undoubtedly work for Franzen.

To close, I'd like to return to an earlier statement regarding Franzen's concern about reaching a male audience. While it definitely appears sexist at first, with a little more understanding, it's not that way at all. My essay on Freedom discussed the very important topic that female writers do not get the attention of their male counterparts. However, on the opposite end, it's very telling that men are generally less inclined to read novels than women. Last week, I had the very good fortune to attend a discussion held in Chicago with writer Gary Shteyngart. During his talk, he made explicit mention of the fact that male readers make up a dwindling percentage of readers in general. Yes, there are the insufferable categories of "chick lit" and "dick lit." But, as literature moves further into the twenty-first century, female writers need more respect, and something needs to be done to avert the trend of non-reading men. A novel like Freedom, at least in my selling of it, has been scooped up by equal numbers of men and women. An intangible subject like literature really shouldn't have to be broken down by gender, but there are still many strides that need to be made. I personally don't have any answers, but the subject is alive and being discussed, and that's a great start, especially in literary websites and blogs. What better way to tackle the problems of reading and writing than reading and write about them?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's (And Our) America

"Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that [Jonathan] Franzen's predecessors wrote--not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote. The American scene is just too complex--and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it again. But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now. It doesn't back down from the complexity."--Lev Grossman, Time Magazine, August 23rd 2010.

I was genuinely hoping to write a review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom without any mention of The Great American Novel. I've mentioned it here before, in varying capacities, but trying to define that term is often done to fill space, has a tendency to be needlessly rhetorical, or causes some needless hand-wringing. Franzen's latest novel has inspired both claims of being a contender for said title, but has also provoked some much needed, thoughtful dialogues on literature and gender studies (more on this later). However, in previous years, Franzen has been a leading defender of both the novel as a social tool, and as well as the novel as a tool in general (Let's get another tiresome question out of the way: Is the novel dead? Short answer: Not at all). In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the idea of sitting down with a big novel may seem strange to some, or, as Franzen has put it in much more eloquent terms, an extravagant luxury. Even in times that are both uncertain and in constant flux all at once, the novel is still a medium that can capture emotions and states and not be outdated within five years. A novel like Freedom can explore sociological norms of an era and mention names and items that may end up being put in the "history" pile, but these outer themes take second billing to the true, timeless issues: those of family, people, emotions, and life in general. These may be very broad categories, but emotions never really change, only in response to their surroundings.

Freedom is a novel in which no fewer than four characters could be classified as the "main character." In 1980s St. Paul, Minnesota, Walter and Patty Berglund, the epitome (and anti-definition) of the liberal family, are the cause of much gossip and worry in their neighborhood. Walter is an upstanding lawyer with 3M and a tireless crusader for natural and sociological projects. Patty is a former NCAA basketball star, now (seemingly) content to be a stay-at-home mother. A good friend of mine who read Freedom at the same time, consistently mentioned that she found a lot of the characters to be caricatures. This is evident from the beginning, but reading the novel as a whole reveals that the initial opinions are more than likely intentional caricatures. Patty's actions as a new transplant to the neighborhood is both intensely earnest and an honest exaggeration of her desire to make good, or to at least appear to be the model of a Good Wife and Good Mother. But, like any real human being, her personality is rife with contradictions, and this also goes for the other characters.

"To Seth Paulsen, who talked about Patty a little too often for his wife's taste, the Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege. One problem with Seth's theory was that the Berglunds weren't all that privileged; their only known asset was their house, which they'd rebuilt with their own hands. Another problem, Merrie Paulsen pointed out, was that Patty was no great progressive and certainly no feminist (staying home with her birthday calendar, baking those goddamned birthday cookies) and seemed altogether allergic to politics. If you mentioned an election or a candidate to her, you could see her struggling and failing to be her usual self--see her becoming agitated and doing too much nodding, too much yeah-yeahing (Franzen 7)."

If anything seems amiss with the Berglunds, that's because everything is amiss. Walter struggles with his son Joey, a rebellious figure who eventually moves in next door with his girlfriend's Republican family; Patty devotes too much attention to Joey and too little attention to her daughter Jessica, an issue that flares up years later; as the novel progresses, it's revealed that Patty is suffering from depression and the hints of alcoholism. Freedom alternates between the past and the present, with large sections formed as Patty's autobiography, a work that's done at the suggestion of her therapist, but takes on greater significance later on. Patty and Walter meet in college, but their relationship takes awhile to develop. Patty is "friends" with an unstable drug addict named Eliza, who introduces her to Richard Katz, an up-and-coming rock musician who happens to be Walter's best friend. Richard is a defiant womanizer, and both his magnetism and repulsiveness make him attractive to both Patty (sexually) and Walter (vicariously). As Patty sinks further into her depression, seemingly inexplicable events occur. The family moves to Washington, D.C., where Walter takes a job with a coal company under the guise of establishing protected breeding habitats for a species of bird called the cerulean warbler, which also sets the stage for unprotected mountaintop coal removal. In addition, he also begins to fall for his younger assistant. Joey's college life leads to a job securing parts for a mysterious corporation selling substandard auto parts to the United States Military, all while his relationship with his girlfriend spins between breaking and becoming seriously unhealthy, not to mention his constant attractions to various other women.

While Patty, Walter, and Richard take equal turns being the focal point of the story, Patty's depression and actions not only make up a lot of the narrative, but has a trickle-down effect on everyone she knows. My aforementioned friend was irritated by how it was possible that Patty could be able to write long, detailed remembrances, along with detailed dialogues written, seemingly, word for word. While I completely understand this criticism, Franzen's writing and knack for dialogue (in Grossman's profile, he mentions how Franzen reads his dialogue aloud while writing, in order to achieve maximum success) more than makes up for this. The majority of the scenes between Patty and Richard are stunningly detailed, capturing nuances, unspoken attractions, and the constant verbal games they play. At one point, they're alone together while Richard, in his part-time job, builds the deck on Patty and Walter's summer home.

"She must have betrayed him in the way she said that, because Richard gave her a little frown. 'You OK?'
'No no no,' she said, 'I love being up here. I love it. This is my favorite place in the world. It doesn't solve anything, if you know what I mean. But I love getting up in the morning. I love smelling the air.'
'I meant are you OK with my being here.'
'Oh, totally. God. Yes. Totally. Yah! I mean, you know how Walter loves you. I feel like we've been friends with you for so long, but I've hardly ever really talked to you. It's a nice opportunity. But you truly shouldn't feel you have to stay, if you want to get back to New York. I'm so used to being alone up here. It's fine.'
This speech seemed to have taken her a very long time to get to the end of. It was followed by a brief silence between them.
'I'm just trying to hear what you're actually saying,' Richard said. 'Whether you actually want me here or not.'
'God,' she said. 'I keep saying it, don't I? Didn't I just say it (Franzen 160-161).'"

It's been quite awhile since my last reading of The Corrections, but I found that Freedom contains wonderful descriptions of the so-called "everyday moments." Given its long, painstaking sketches of city and rural life, political and corporate maneuverings, and the joys and pains of romantic and familial relationships, the smaller details are rendered just as striking, even though they could play into one of the usual criticisms of Franzen, his penchant for overflowing literary descriptions. But several passages made me smile with their reality and detail:

"That evening in Philadelphia, there was a brief dismal episode: she went down to the hotel bar with the intention of picking somebody up. She quickly discovered that the world is divided into people who know how to be comfortable by themselves on a bar chair and people who do not (Franzen 181)."

"Staying in hotels with Lalitha had become perhaps the hardest single part of their working relationship. In Washington, where she lived upstairs from him, she at least was on a different floor, and Patty was around to generally disturb the picture. At the Days Inn in Beckley, they fitted identical keycards into identical doors, fifteen feet from each other, and entered rooms whose identical profound drabness only a torrid illicit affair could have overcome (Franzen 303)."

Earlier, I mentioned that the recent applause over Freedom has been met with some relevant, honest critiques, but not of the work itself or of the author. Poet and literary critic Meghan O'Rourke published a wonderful article in Slate, and the title immediately brings up the concern: "Can a Woman Be a Great American Novelist?" Quite a few strong essays, even ones by Franzen himself, highlight the tendency of "literature" to be the domain of middle-aged white males. Of course, there have been great strides to the variety of literature. O'Rourke mentions Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison, and personally, I've been anxiously awaiting the new novel by Nicole Krauss. Both on this blog and in private conversations, I've been concerned about adding more essays on female writers, and in all of the excitement over Freedom, O'Rourke poses an excellent suggestion.

"A thought exercise, perhaps specious: If this book had been written by a woman (say, Jennifer Franzen), would it have been called 'a masterpiece of American fiction' in the first line of its front-page New York Times review; would its author, perhaps with longer hair and make-up, have been featured in Time as a GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST; would the Guardian have called it the 'Book Of the Century'? Without detracting from Franzen, I think we can say it would not have received this trifecta of plaudits, largely because we don't ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men, and our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white)(O'Rourke)."

These are essential thoughts, and the fact that someone took the time to disparagingly edit O'Rourke's Wikipedia page ("Despite her Yale education and privileged life, she believes she is at a great disadvantage as a writer because she is a not a (yawn) white male") proves her point that bias still abounds. However, to put a happier spin on this without taking away from the argument, it's a testament that a major literary novel can have this trickle-down effect, being both a major piece of art in its own right and highlighting the contributions of other writers. This could be another essay in its own right, but despite the respect gained by the likes of Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few, it's true that women writers don't always spring to mind immediately (O'Rourke mentions being guilty of this herself). To borrow her phrase, "unconscious bias" is still bias.

This may seem like a sidetrack, but O'Rourke's essay can be an answer (one of many) to the question that has been posed, either explicitly or otherwise, in virtually every review of Freedom that I've read: "What is it about?" Really, take your pick. If you want it to be about urban gentrification, go ahead. If you want it to be about the overlap and problems of both liberal and conservative personal politics, there are plenty of examples. If you want it to be a look at fractured families and regretful yet necessary sexual relationships, there are a lot of pages devoted to those, too. It's too easy to say that Freedom is about our modern times, but the blending of the sociological and the personal makes it both large and small.

Franzen has been called pompous and an elitist, for his literary acumen, his writing style, and his anger at the novel being perceived as a less-than-serious enterprise. However, his latest work speaks for itself, and its near-universal praise shows what a lot of readers have known all along, and is stated perfectly by Grossman: "He's one of contemporary fiction's great populists and a key ally of the beleaguered modern reader."

Works Cited:
Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen.

O'Rourke, Meghan. "Can a Woman Be a 'Great American Novelist?'" Slate Magazine. September 14, 2010.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Delightfully Scattered

I imagine that Sufjan Stevens has the potential to be one of the more polarizing figures in American music. He's a tremendous singer, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, and a songwriter who has the ability to shine with both symphonic, lyrically-packed epics as well as softer, more "singer-songwriter" fare. Despite these observations, my best friend, a man who studies and knows more about music than virtually anyone else I know, cannot stand Stevens's music, either lyrically or melodically. While everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, it would be impossible to deny the fact that Stevens always aims high in his work and resists any attempts to be pigeon-holed or strictly classified in a given genre. He's released works that can fall under the literal banner of folk music (Michigan and Illinois) or experimental (Enjoy Your Rabbit). I've heard Stevens referred to, musically, as a minimalist, which never fails to surprise me, since his albums are anything but: his "50 States" albums, while only two deep, are almost shocking in their expansiveness, research, and use of a wide array of instruments. Last month, with little fanfare, Stevens released All Delighted People, an EP in name only, since the work runs over an hour. The album seems intent on combining every reactionary feeling or definition that listeners want to apply to Stevens, and the result is, to put it mildly, compelling.

All Delighted People doesn't appear to be a strictly thematic album, but retains the standard "everything but the kitchen sink" model of Stevens's music. The opening title track is eleven minutes long, and has been likened to a grand homage to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound Of Silence." It's a terrific example of everything that's made Stevens famous. He's joined by a wonderful backing chorus, and the song grows (both literally and figuratively) with swelling voices, orchestral echoes, and sometimes haunting switches between sheer optimism ("all delighted people raise their hands") and despair ("I'm still afraid/of letting go of choices I have made"). As exhilarating as it is, it could also be used as an example of why people, such as my friend, dislike his sounds. It's long, varying in its beats and structure, and is either a great piece of bombastic music or a needlessly overblown extravaganza. However, as a possibly unintentional counter, Stevens repeats the song later on in the album, presented as a "Classic Rock Version," drastically scaled down, but losing none of the musical power of the previous version. These two versions of the same track also work in highlighting what I mentioned above, the constant dynamic between Sufjan's ability to go all out or scale back heavily, but, depending on the song, not losing or sacrificing any intangible qualities.

Jumping to the end, the bulk of All Delighted People is devoted to a nearly twenty minute track entitled "Djohariah," named for Stevens's sister. It's even more expansive than the opening, incorporating a lazy brass opening before quickly working its way to scaled back vocals and a guitar interlude that's scattered and broken up, but somehow meshes perfectly in its opposition to the continuing vocal backgrounds. This continues, almost drone-like, for the majority of the track, creating (again, depending on one's opinion of Stevens or his style in general) a curiously meditative piece of sound or repetitive meandering. It then switches directions, becoming a beautiful dedication, full of little bits of life advice ("Don't be ashamed don't hide in your room") and simple, funny rhymes that work well in their simplicity ("glorious victorious"), especially given the complexities of the song's previous fifteen minutes.

To tip my cap with another Simon and Garfunkel reference, "All Delighted People" and "Djohariah" make strong, expansive bookends to the middle of the album, songs that, by themselves, would be much more deserving of the EP status. The other tracks are much more standard, but nonetheless delightful and excellent entries into the Stevens canon. There's the semi-religious track with obvious folk influences ("From the Mouth of Gabriel"), and a beautiful song that, while not place-specific, feels like it could fit very nicely on Illinois: "Enchanting Ghost." Stevens's voice and a piano is all that's really needed for a beautiful, soft track that contains a wealth of emotion without the intense productions of the the longer songs. The same goes for "Heirloom," with the only major difference being the substitute of an emphasis on guitar backings rather than piano.

Of course, as mentioned before, if you don't consider yourself a Sufjan Stevens fan, there's nothing on the album that will change your mind. However, for his admirers, this is a wonderful little collection that highlights the many dimensions of his skills. There's no real connection or unifying message, but rather a wonderful album of musical simplicity and expansion. Given the disc's quiet release, it's been gaining a lot of attention from the major music websites, but really, the beauty lies in the feeling that this is just a small offering in between his major releases. He's normally a master of the concept album, but even this culled-together gem works as its own idea, that a seemingly mixed collection can stand on its own. Perhaps the praise is giving All Delighted People more attention than Stevens anticipated, but to close with a line that I've used all too often, it's telling when an album like this is still better than a good ninety percent of the other music being released today. His latest full-length album, The Age of Adz, will be released in October, and based on the album's description on Stevens's website, listeners could be in for another side of his talents, or All Delighted People was a thematic preview of "the lack of conceptual underpinnings."

"The Age of Adz (pronounced odds) is Sufjan Stevens’ first full-length collection of original songs since 2005’s civic pop opus Illinois. This new album is probably his most unusual, first, for its lack of conceptual underpinnings, and second, for its preoccupation with Sufjan himself."

*All Delighted People is available as a $5 download from the Sufjan Stevens website.*

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Immensity Of Spaces: "Antwerp"

"When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after--memoria hospitis unius diei praetereunitus--the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me. I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?"--Pascal (opening quote of Antwerp)

My readings and essays have been unusually current in the past month, and the review I'm posting to open September is no different. After my readings of David Mitchell and Gary Shteyngart, and before I began reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which was published last week, I decided to bridge the gap with a look at Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp, a very slim early novel, one of several published this year by New Directions. Reviews and fanfare of this work are very minimal; casual Google searches have yielded few discussions or analysis, but I happily stumbled upon another book blog called The Mookse and the Gripes. In addition to being an excellent contemporary resource, the author of the site's Antwerp review made a simple statement, but one that highlights some of the critiques of Bolaño: "I always have doubts when I approach Bolaño, like I’ll realize what many suspect: that there’s nothing there." In past reviews, I hinted at the overwhelming speed at which the late author's works have been published. While I've long been a furious supporter of Bolaño's works, I can see the argument. He considered himself a poet more than a novelist, and many of his novels, even his greatest ones--The Savage Detectives and 2666--are long on beautiful stretches of narrative that may or may not advance the plots of the given works. As I found in Antwerp, even his sketches can be read as poetry in novel's clothing.

The novel (or, more appropriately, novella...or, even more appropriately, poetic novella) was published in English this year, and represents one of the earliest pieces by Bolaño. As he writes in the introduction: "I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can't be sure of. For a long time these were just loose pages that I reread and maybe tinkered with, convinced I had no time. But time for what?" It's composed of fifty-six chapters, none of which exceed two pages in length, and revolves around distinct yet intentionally blurry characters. Bolaño himself appears as the narrator, alongside a hunchback, an Englishman, a young woman in a possibly dangerous sexual relationship with a police officer, and unsolved murders at a campground. The natural inclination is that Antwerp is a mystery novella, but the reader isn't meant to solve anything. The characters come and go, and the initial confusion is filled in with incredibly detailed descriptions.

"The Englishman spotted him through the bushes. He walked away, treading on pine needles. It was probably eight o'clock and the sun was setting in the hills. The Englishman turned and said something to him but he couldn't hear a thing. It occurred to him that it had been days since he'd heard the crickets chirping. The Englishman moves his lips but all that reached him was the silence of the branches moving in the wind. He got up, his leg hurt, he felt for cigarettes in the pocket of his jacket (Bolaño 40)."

There are also semi-philosophical musings that, depending on one's appreciation of Bolaño, can be viewed as insightful or nonsensical:

"To name is to praise, said the girl (eighteen, a poet, long hair). The hour of the ambulance parked in the alley. The medic stubbed out his cigarette on his shoe, then lumbered forward like a bear. I wish those miserable people in the windows would turn out the lights and go to sleep. Who was the first human being to look out a window? (Applause.) People are tired, it wouldn't surprise me if one of these days they greeted us with a hail of bullets. I guess a monkey. I can't string two words together. I can't express myself coherently or write what I want. I should probably give up everything and go away, isn't that was Teresa of Avila did (Bolaño 12)?"

The quote on the back of the English publication of Antwerp is one that has been quoted numerous times. Bolaño stated that Antwerp was "the only novel that doesn't embarrass me." While this may be an unabashed defense of the writer, I feel that two different hypotheses could be used to counteract any criticism levied on this title. One, he never intended to have it published. As he said in the quote I cited above, it began as a scattered collection. Perhaps (and this is obviously just my own opinion) he viewed Antwerp as less embarrassing is precisely the same reason it might be viewed as one of his lesser works. It's definitely his least "novel-like" story, and while it may be the trials and errors of someone discovering his literary voice, there's a definite atmosphere of someone more inclined to poetry attempting to fashion a novel. Two, it reads like a personal notebook draft. Yes, it could have been edited and shaped into a more coherent, "tidy" work, but it holds up well on its own, and virtually demands re-readings (I'm currently up to two, not including multiple looks at the varying chapters). Will this only appeal to Bolaño completists? Perhaps. But even in his younger years, his intelligence, gift for descriptions, and confidence are very evident. One of the best examples is Chapter 20, entitled "Synopsis. The Wind." In the chapter, which I'll cite in its entirety, Bolaño sums up the plot of Antwerp, adds a few poetic flourishes at the end, and seems to present it as a tongue-in-cheek look at the book as a whole. I do recommend Antwerp, because in all of its confusion and possible meanings, it requires a lot of thought, and at the very least, provides wonderful poetic inclinations and healthy surrealism, depending on a reader's state of mind.

"Synopsis. The hunchback in the woods near the campground and the tennis courts and the riding school. In Barcelona a South American is dying in a foul-smelling room. Police dragnets. Cops who fuck nameless girls. The English writer talks to the hunchback in the woods. Death throes and an asshole from South America, on the road. Five or six waiters return to the hotel along a deserted beach. Stirrings of fall. The wind whips up sand and buries them (Bolaño 29)."

Work Cited:
Bolaño, Roberto. Antwerp. Copyright 2002 by Roberto Bolaño. Translation copyright 2010 by Natasha Wimmer.

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