Monday, December 31, 2012

Long Goodbyes: Ben Tanzer's "My Father's House"


In my work for Instafiction/Longform Fiction, it's gratifying to note the writers I admire whom I had no introduction to prior to my research. Some of these favorites are due to selections by my partner--Jeremy is responsible for my knowledge and subsequent love of Lindsay Hunter, Blake Butler, and Roxane Gay, to name a few, but I was happy to stumble upon the likes of David Yost, Amber Sparks, and, the focus of this post, Ben Tanzer. Tanzer is based in Chicago, and when I read his 2005 story "The Gift," I made a mental note to return to his stories and other writings. He's been very prolific over the years, appearing in tiny, independent journals and serving as a Writer-in-Residence for bigger publications (he recently did that stint for Necessary Fiction). I picked up a copy of his 2011 novella My Father's House with no knowledge of the plot or how it could potentially reflect the handful of stories of his I've read. As I made my way through the book, I was reminded of an idea I haven't mentioned in quite some time. I usually do my best to make connections (tangible or intangible) between different texts and authors, or between different books by the same writer. In a loose, roundabout way, I kept thinking back to Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, and, at least in my mind, I feel My Father's House is a sort of fictional mirror to O'Rourke's non-fiction work. In different ways, both works explore grief, the loss of a parent, and the subsequent activities of the narrator in fresh, unexpected, and intentionally unsentimental fashions.

The narrator of My Father's House is referred to by his first name once or twice, but is best referred to by the title rather than a name. After his father is diagnosed with cancer, his life becomes a revolving series of moments: internal thoughts while running along Chicago's lakefront; cross-country travels while his father seeks out new doctors and treatments; "unofficial" therapy sessions at a local bar, with some unexpected/unsavory reflections on his personality; complex, detailed conversations with his wife; and his work at a drop-in center for homeless addicts. As I mentioned before, the narrator is emotional without veering into needlessly sentimental ruminations. As the novella unfolds, the actions and happenings themselves are strong enough to stand on their own without any added emotions. This is evident from the very beginning. The work is established with clinical details, and Tanzer is smart enough to let the reader determine his or her own emotional involvement in the proceedings.

"I don't remember how this started exactly.
I know it was 1999 and I know that my father had a seizure. I know his blood didn't look right. And that there was something going on with his bone marrow that looked to be pre-cancerous, but needed to be confirmed with a genetic test.
I also know it turned out that he has myelodisplasia, a rare form of bone cancer that causes immature bone marrow cells to explode before reaching maturity; that these explosions are known as blasts and without treatment these blasts are going to escalate until he has full-blown Leukemia.....

My mom says people can walk in to see a doctor, hear they have this disease and die three months later. Of course, she also says that people who get bone marrow transplants can live five more healthy years (Tanzer 1)."

I know nothing about Tanzer's personal life, so I'm not going to assume this novel is autobiographical, but the sheer force of the clinical details feels like the proceedings are being explained by someone in the shock of realization. There's no denial, no acceptance, no rage, but a matter-of-fact, almost terse setting of where the work begins, but with no hint as to where it will end up going. As the story progresses, sadness and memories do come into play, but with no embellishments or ploys. The narrator does end up working through stages of grief, but not in any grand sense. He's cognizant of his mental state, and as he works through toward the end of his father's life, there's so much more he has to tackle beyond the imminent loss.

"'Yeah,' she says putting the book down and looking at me, 'I noticed that, but then again, you never have cried much.'

Which is true, I never liked crying, and I always thought I was above feeling anything that strongly, but I've changed, haven't I. You should have seen me at the end of the movie Affliction, I cried so hard I couldn't breathe. And yet, the tears don't come. Not when my heart feels heavy, nor, when I find myself pursing my lips or when my eyes start to brim with tears while looking at some dumb greeting card or just contemplating the what-ifs.

It might be denial of course. I am clearly not allowing myself to deal with this. Or it could be the surreal nature of this whole thing. I mean what exactly is going on? How did it happen? When did it happen? I don't care what the facts are (Tanzer 16)."

The narrator does deal with things, but in odd fashions that provide a crucial theme to the novel. He ends up cheating on his wife multiple times with the same woman, and at first, he tries to use the excuse of his mental state and stress.

"She's leaning in to talk and touching my leg, and she has long brown hair and a big smile, and I know I shouldn't do this, but tonight I deserve to act out and not act like myself, just once, don't I? How could anyone call me on this?
I'm in pain. I've got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it's okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father's house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless (Tanzer 29)."

He knows what he's doing is wrong, and one gets the feeling that his excuses are merely that--it's an easy card to play. What I get from Tanzer's prose is the understanding that human frailty and bad decisions are parts of life that don't stop when faced with loss and dramatic changes. To be blunt, the narrator can be an asshole at times. But this is rendered very realistically. There are no dramatic realizations, no overt confrontations, and most importantly, no apologies on the part of the author. Perhaps the narrator wouldn't give into his impulses if not faced with his father's demise, but his faults march on even when the reader should be giving him sympathy. He's not completely without redeeming qualities. While he notes his attraction to his therapist, there's the implied realization that he's attempting to sort through his problems, even if the therapy sessions intentionally leave us with more questions than closures.



Tanzer also provides some unexpected detours into the sociology of death and the reactions it garners. The narrator makes comparisons between his father's looming death and the news coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course the deaths of famous people receive more coverage than everyday citizens, but when these differences are explored in the text, they provide for some curious explorations of how public and private grief are such different animals.

"Of course, it has nothing to do with what he has done, but who he is. JFK, Jr. is a rock star. No, he's more than that, and he's more than a celebrity. Maybe he's even royalty. Well, no matter what he is, he will always be the little boy saluting his dead father. So yeah, I know why he's getting all of this attention, and maybe, maybe even why he's being called a hero, but it doesn't change the fact that my father who is likely to die sometime soon won't receive anything remotely similar.

Is JFK Jr. a bigger hero than my father? I don't know if either of them are heroes, but one of them has the dead father, and the assassinated uncle, and the endless family history of pain, and so somehow his loss is more tragic. The thing is, even as we lie here in our air-conditioned hotel room, trying to protect my dad from whatever horrible things lurk outside I just don't know what's going to happen or if it even matters (Tanzer 21-22)."

The fact that my review is focused more on the surrounding events rather than the main plot line shows how My Father's House provides a complex exploration of such a common life event. Some of the happenings in the work were well written, but didn't speak to me. The narrator deals with a series of confrontations with the jealous boyfriend of a woman in his care, which leads to a mutual understanding between the two men about the nature of honesty and perceptions. These sections of the plot are just another stress dealt with by the narrator, but I didn't find them as compelling as his other ways of acting out and dealing with his upheaval. Again, I don't want to make any assumptions of autobiographical undertones, but some of the scenarios feel just specific enough for me to wonder. I'm not implying that there are "throwaway" sections in such a slim work, but I simply found more value in the other chapters. Tanzer provides meticulous details of hospitals, the physiology of his father's disease, and the variety of treatments, but I was more drawn to the psychological impulses of the narrator. The medical side of the book provides realistic material in a work that is just as realistic in its fictional depictions of how we deal with grief. Returning to The Long Goodbye, the similarities I found between Tanzer and O'Rourke were thematic rather than literal. O'Rourke's biographical examinations of her mother's death also contained references to running, sexuality, and the trials of everyday life continuing in the face of such a monumental occurrence. Tanzer's fiction is a little more emphatic on the narrator's shortcomings, whereas O'Rourke grapples more with her guilt and pain. But both works are two touching, literary additions to writings about death, which will never stop being written and will always highlight such universal and unique reactions.

I genuinely don't like ending this review on a criticism that might seem trivial, but it's more an act of tough love due to my support of independent publishing. My Father's House was published by Main Street Rag, a publishing company based in North Carolina. The passages cited above are done word for word, and there are occasional, slight typos throughout the work. Independent publishing is quite often a labor of love, since most small houses don't have the recognition and advertising power of the bigger publishing companies--their strength is the art of the writers, and I found it disheartening to note a handful of typographical mistakes. Am I being picky? Perhaps, but these mistakes jumped out at me in an otherwise worthwhile reading experience. Have I made my own typos and mistakes in my own writings? Of course. But when a publisher has a chance to put out a work by a respected writer, there should be more of an emphasis on editing, even when pressed for time and resources. I bring this up because I've read Tanzer's work in other publications without issue. I'm not at all doubting or picking on the people behind Main Street Rag, but these small details are important to me.

And on a final, happier note: Happy New Year. I'm looking forward to reading, reviewing, and promoting more writers and independent publishers in 2013. Thanks for reading this blog, and here's to a productive, enlightening, and creative new year.

Work Cited:
Tanzer, Ben. My Father's House. Copyright 2011 by Ben Tanzer.



Monday, December 24, 2012

The Deleted Era: Blake Butler's "Sky Saw"


After finishing my reading of Sky Saw, Blake Butler's newly published novel, I went back and looked over my review of There Is No Year. I was (and still am) amazed by his writing; his short stories and samples are some of the most profound, emotional, and daring pieces of writing I've read in quite some time. But after finishing one of his complete works, I felt like I had missed something, as if the novel had built up such a careful examination of characters and mystery that ended on an unsatisfying note. In the original review, I wrote: "Butler is a masterful storyteller who is intentionally audacious in his forms and philosophies, but there's an unnerving wonder as to whether he built the work up so much that it collapses under its own weight." To reiterate: I didn't dislike the book at all, and I still consider him one of my favorite writers. I was excited to learn about the release of Sky Saw and bought it immediately when it was released. I'm a firm believer in emotional states or a specific time periods affecting how one responds to a piece of art, be it a book, a film, or a painting. That said, I noted quite a few similarities between the two novels, but my immediate reaction to Sky Saw was pure satisfaction. Perhaps I had a better idea of what I was getting into, but I think the more appropriate explanation is his execution.

Sky Saw takes place in an undefined time period and, in a nod to There Is No Year, follows the actions of a woman, a man, and a child living in a mysterious world of repressed memories, totalitarian forces, and horrific acts of nature. In short, the meticulously detailed world and actions are nightmares in the most definitive sense--there are no explanations, fantastical happenings are presented as everyday occurrences, and the reader moves from one detail to the next with trepidation and dread. Butler's writing emphasizes small details within a vast network of intentional confusion.

"In the pockets between shrieking, Person 1180 read aloud. She read the book she'd found wedged among the folds of the long curtain in the hall just after Person 811 left, a date whose definition she could no longer remember, nor did she know why they'd chose to hang the curtain there--the only thing it hid was flat white wall, marred with no windows. The book was the same size of the book that you hold now. The front page had an inscription handwritten to Person 1180 by someone with an illegible signature, in bright blue ink that stung her eyes:

READ THE CHILD THIS BOOK OR HE WILL SUFFER

The text on all the other pages had been printed in a code, or in a strange language she did not recognize--babbly syllables and glyph fonts, planar symbols and number reams--and yet when 1180 passed her eyes over the lines and let her voice go, she felt the syntax easing out. Her reading voice was low and burnt and came up from her linings, something old and rhythmic as it passed. Doing the speaking in this manner juggled color in her lungs and made her woozy, a kind of crystal glass around her face (Butler 13-14)."

The totalitarian forces in the book could be part of a government, but sometimes appear simply as mysterious entities. This isn't a novel like 1984; the controlling bodies aren't given any backgrounds or motives. The real emphasis is on the exaggerated, sometimes horrific events that the characters endure. Some of these are grotesque births that the mother deals with, a collection of children conceived and birthed in a myriad of ways and circumstances. Butler doesn't present any of these scenarios for the sake of shock value--he's using fiction to open possibilities within these unsettling depictions. Some might be tempted (or even right) to describe his writing as experimental, but he has such a careful eye for detail and imagery, and sometimes the "experimental" tag is too easy a designation. There are no standard plot points, but the paragraphs and chapters are undeniably great works of storytelling.

"The mother now had given birth twenty-two times since the father's exit five days prior. Each time the span between the births decreased. The pregnancies were swift and brutal. She expelled her paste in gush and crumbs. The warblings of her and the babies' bodies both boomed through the empty rooms around them. Sometimes the mother felt she could have named the ancient human names of all the men that made her bigger, despite the blindfolds, the ice and biting--she could taste them in the branding of her flesh--a permanence mostly lost on the ejections.

Person 2030 had been 811's, who like the mother had descended from two bodies rendered during DELETED ERA. This child--the only one of hers that had thus far survived behind its eyes, held in its cruddy back and black saliva--had been the reason the father left, she knew. Though he'd not expressed this so directly--he'd said nothing really, just been gone--she could tell he'd despised the baby for shucking off his image, for already beginning to grow old. The air had seemed to buzz between them.

The other births after 2030's were a different matter, following a similar structure to the system of her aging, if reversed--one for each year, young and coming, if all crammed into such a short amount of time--the same spiral cut procession seen in all things, of all things one after another--new infants bloating in her as if in instants, spooling ropes on ropes of breathing cells. She tried to hold them in but they came out (Butler 29-30)."

Alongside these daunting bodily actions, nature comes into play as well, sometimes combining to create an unsettling bond between humans and nature. In the world of Sky Saw, life goes on despite the unknown and the changes rendered to anatomies and physiology. Humanity and nature sometimes become one, and it's difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. As with the other passages, the emotional qualities and visualizations take over, and while the work as a whole is intricately patterned, the reader becomes drawn to the singular moments and how they unfold.

"The mother vomited a bird. First there was one bird, then there were many, their tremble rummaged up her middle, from her throat. They scratched her cheeks and pore meat with their clawing, her O-hole stretched wide as it could go. Enormous birds, she saw, as white as nowhere, thrushed with feathers matted in a gel. They kept coming up out of her in a chain, all gushing and aflutter--silent--each one imprinted all through and through their gristle with a word, one word for each all written in their linings and down the contours of their suits, the word and word again all densely textured, though the mother could not read the words as they emerged--she could not make out the letters or what about them, or their presence there at all. Each bird's word was its own word for it alone, though all their screeching came out of them the same, brief and lame and hellish (Butler 59)."


Throughout the work, Butler inserts pages and pages of seemingly free-verse prose, poetic ruminations and statements that manage to guide the proceedings as stripped down versions of the more standard paragraphs. The form is different, yet the emotions and evocations are the same. The sample I'm citing is taken at random, but when matched up to the citations featured above, it's not hard to tell that they all come from the same work. Again, these seem like random stanzas, and while they're beautiful in their own right, the feelings presented are crucial to the mysteries surrounding it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book called Butler "the 21st century answer to William Burroughs," but I'm not sure that's a proper designations. Granted, my last attempt at reading Naked Lunch collapsed halfway through, but these words aren't meant to be some edgy drug haze. Butler is creating a fantastical world unbound by natural laws.

"It with our old names imprinted on it peeling

The sky wide with bodies hung from it in troves, fat pock-marked purses of slopping people


Colors not of how the skin had been in living, but the current state of their decay


Some of the bodies' globes glistened picked apart by gobs of sight and gnats grow fat off of the black-blistered ankles charred apart and caking pink (Butler)."

While Sky Saw is very, very different, I noted similarities to There Is No Year. Therefore, why did I enjoy the newer work more than the old one? I feel like the 2011 novel had too many sly hints to a concrete plot, as if an explanation was forthcoming at the end of the purposely vague horrors of the people and the house. Sky Saw has the potential to seem like it is heading to a standard climax, but I very quickly found myself enjoying the prose as it unfolded, not expecting the unnamed characters to be marching toward any sort of "reveal." The revelations are the actions and happenings themselves--the reader is often just as (intentionally) confused as the characters. I know some readers who still prefer Butler's writing in smaller doses. His stories and excerpts are some of the best works I've read in the last two years, and arguably the most original. This new work won't appeal to everyone--Butler has been criticized for his occasional repetition--but there's no denying his visions. I've read far too many stories lately attempting to be unique, edgy works. In the midst of his mix of forms and fantastical scenarios, Butler strives to move the reader via sadness, wonder, or genuine shock. For all the seemingly improvisational and quickly-passing pages, the lack of a resolved plot is set aside to engage the reader's senses. In short, Butler's fiction achieves what a lot of writers hope to do, and in extremely memorable fashions. Sky Saw has been making the rounds among independent literary circles, but with blurbs from the likes of Time Magazine and Publisher's Weekly, it's possible that his work will reach bigger audiences. At the very least, it's a great example for people who claim there's nothing left to read.

Work Cited:
Butler, Blake. Sky Saw. Copyright 2012 by Blake Butler.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Beautiful Monstrosities: Matt Bell's "Cataclysm Baby"


I rarely read outside reviews or synopses of the books I review, but a certain phrase led me to look over Will Kaufman's essay on Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby. Writing for Quarterly West, Kaufman offered a piece of mild criticism in the hopes of countering his “slack-jawed endorsement-gasm.” My own mentions and analysis of Bell's writing would seemingly fall into that category. Bell's diversity and craft were on full display in How They Were Found (2010, Keyhole Press), a story collection that touched upon almost every genre, in experimental and classic styles, and I was enamored with his writing to the point of my own endorsement-gasm, recommending the work to as many people as possible. For years, Bell has published his stories in a variety of journals, amassing a varied bibliography, and now he's moving into longer published works. Cataclysm Baby, a recent offering from Mud Luscious Press's Novella series, has been receiving praise in the same fashion as his short fiction: word-of-mouth recommendations, independent reviews, and most importantly, the strength of its content.

Cataclysm Baby is divided into twenty-six chapters united by a common theme: fathers dealing with evil, mutated, and animal-like children. The time period is left intentionally vague, and there are recurring hints of plagues, biblical doom, and post-apocalyptic calamities. The chapter headings (“Ulmer, Ulric, Ursa,” “Nessa, Neve, Nevina,” etc.) form a strange, alphabetical baby name list, and I spent the first few chapters attempting to connect the names with the events, but after awhile, I realized this was unnecessary: the real focus is on the isolated fathers and their reactions to the sad, twisted offspring. The trials of parenthood have been fictionally documented in many ways, but rare is the book that features a father dealing with problems like “...our dark-eyed beauties so impossible to keep in their wicker cribs, to keep inside our rude-made gravedigger's hut, perched at the rent edge of this barren plot. See them squirm free of their cribs, their new and segmented bodies falling to the packed-dirt floor and out of this home I built for them and their mother.”


Even in the most fantastical, mythological settings, Bell manages to keep the scenarios grounded and perversely plausible. Other writers would make the mistake of attempting to top each passing chapter to the point of making this type of work a distracting collage of transgressive fiction. While different in scope and tone, the events of Cataclysm Baby work in the same vein as the stories in How They Were Found: even when dealing with the extremes, Bell's writing is focused on descriptive excellence and not a need to make the children and atmospheres outlandish. The reader becomes caught up in the suspense and gloom, but also in the bigger picture: all of the chapters hint, either explicitly or metaphorically, to much larger themes. For example, a section describing a wolf-like pack family offers this aside that not only ties into the story, but could stand alone as its own exploration of communication and togetherness:

“When the meeting is over—when the moon enters the waning that awaits it on the other side of our words—only then do we give up one language for another, to come together as one people, one troubled nation of tribes. As one mouth we combine our voices, a cacophony rising as if to crack the earth, as if to shake the heavens, as if to loose the turning moon from her mount and bring it crashing down upon us, the only mass heavy enough to bury our giant grief.”


Are the twenty-six fathers and their various children supposed to be connected, or do they inhabit singular biographies? A case can be made for either, since Cataclysm Baby is composed in such a way as to lend itself to a myriad of definitions and structural possibilities. This could be one world, or it could be a mural of isolated scenes. Stretching this even further, Bell even adds sketches of dark comedy and straight-forwardness, therefore adding strains of normalcy to situations that are anything but normal. In some of these chapters and worlds, what appears to us as freakish are just ordinary happenings in the lives of the characters. What never wanes, however, is an overall atmosphere of desperate hope. Even with fragile sanity or utter perplexity with the physiques and actions of their children, the fathers strive to hold their lives together, even if this sometimes means taking drastic measures. With that, there's a sociological, universal thread that ties the reader to situations that seem to be straight out of a pure horror story.

Matt Bell continues to be an invigorating artist, exploring different forms and storytelling angles. None of his works have ever relied on gimmicks or stories without at least a handful of potential meanings, and Cataclysm Baby is no different. I've read the work twice in the last month, and even going into it that second time, I found multiple passages that seemed fresh or exposed new territories for the course of the book, offering even more ways to analyze such a slim volume. To counter my own “endoresment-gasm:” should Bell ever produce a work that stumbles in its execution, it will be easy to criticize, since his first two publications have shown what he is steadily capable of doing. However, that's a purely hypothetical scenario, and Cataclysm Baby is the latest offering from a writer who really needs more attention than he already receives.

NOTE: Recently, the publishers of Mud Luscious Press have encountered financial difficulties to the point of their next four publications being in jeopardy. Writers, readers, and other presses have started a big push to shed led on the publisher's excellent works in the hopes of helping them raise enough capital to be able to continue their book publishing. Visit the site to learn more about their available materials.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Announcing Longform Fiction


Yesterday saw a very exciting announcement. After a year and a half of working on the website/feed Instafiction, Jeremy P. Bushnell and I agreed to become the first Fiction Editors for the great website Longform.org. The work on Instafiction was very gratifying and introduced me to dozens of amazing literary magazines and writers, but occasionally, Jeremy and I would have the "where is this taking us?" conversation. A few months ago, he introduced me to a conversation with Longform co-founder Max Linsky, and the plan was set in motion. And here we are.

The fiction page for Longform was released yesterday, along with a complete redesign of the entire website. I, of course, had nothing to do with any of these changes, but I'm humbly hitching a ride with some phenomenal editors and designers. Jeremy and I are beyond excited to start sharing and promoting great writers and journals via a new site and audience. And I want to thank the Longform founders (Max and Aaron Lammer) for giving us this chance, and the biggest thank you goes to web designer Will Mitchell. A good 85% of Max's e-mails mentioned how much Will was doing behind the scenes to get the new Longform pages up and running. I actually haven't met these gentlemen face to face, so these digital shout-outs will have to suffice.

I hope you check the site out, if you're not already familiar with it. Longform.org has a large, passionate following and has been praised in articles by such publications as Time magazine (it's one of their Top 50 websites of 2012), Slate, and the Washington Post. If anyone was a devoted follower of Instafiction, the content isn't changing, just the venue. We're still going to be searching for great, unheralded fiction from a variety of sources. Drop us a line if there's anything you've read that stands out.

The new Twitter handle is @longformfiction. Pay us a visit. Thanks.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Whole Analysis: Geoffrey Nunberg's "Ascent Of the A-Word"

(NOTE: Not safe for work due to choice language.)

"Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master." --A Christmas Story


Language has always fascinated me in its forms, slang, double-entendres, and ability to be cut up, mixed, and worked with as a medium. If you visit this blog even semi-consistently, you've likely noticed my penchant for witty and (more often than not) lame puns for the titles; this piece is no exception. It's my way of inserting some amusement and goofiness into what are otherwise serious critiques and analyses. Growing up, I'm sure that most people were familiar with these argument regarding profanity: "it's not creative," "it's an easy way to complain about something," and the like, with the underlying message being that bad words, in addition to being distasteful, are weak substitutes for linguistic play. There's an element of truth to those ideas, but it's a sort of cop-out: it's a way to critique someone's intelligence instead of deploying the usual argument of "you shouldn't use those words." But in reality, dirty words themselves have an amazingly diverse history, both linguistically and sociologically. Many of them can be traced throughout centuries and have compelling origins. Recently, analyses of "dirty words" have resulted in some very well-regarded books, including but not limited to: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt; The F-Word by Jesse Shiedlower; and Cunt by Inga Muscio. All of these titles have been on my to-read list for quite some time, but recently I was drawn to the recently published Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years by Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at UC-Berkeley.

Despite the book's cover, I read the book because it promised to be a look at the ramifications of the meanings behind "asshole" from a linguistic and cultural lens, not a scathing, tired look at celebrity and political figures on whom the designation has been applied (although Nunberg does write about some public figures). It also looks at the "quality" of what he coins "assholism:" the personification and actions that lead to one being branded that way.

"The notion of the asshole is a much better place to start. There's a lot to be learned just from tracking the history and use of the word itself. Unlike civility, asshole operates underneath the radar of reflection. We might deliberate over whether some colleague or relative is better described as an asshole, a prick, or a piece of work, but that's a debate about personalities, not semantics. In fact, people often talk about the word as if it didn't actually have much of a descriptive meaning--even dictionaries are content to define it with vague phrases like 'an irritating or contemptible person.' In truth, asshole is a lot more specific than that, but in any case isn't a word we acquire from dictionaries or explicit instruction....Ask people what an asshole is and you're more likely to get a list of names like the one this book opened with than a semantic analysis (Nunberg 15)."

Nunberg performs an eye-opening look at how the word is generally used. It's almost never applied to a woman, and seems to fit much better within specific scenarios, rather than as an all-encompassing slur against annoying people. It ties into a sense of entitlement and the understanding that an asshole doesn't know that he (or sometimes she) is acting in a such a manner. For example:

"Yet there's a fair consensus about what kinds of behavior qualify someone for the asshole label, and they're only a fraction of the things you could do to make yourself 'foolish or contemptible,' as the OED defines the word. You can be an asshole for abruptly cutting into a line of cars waiting in the left-turn lane, but probably not for failing to signal a turn or texting when you drive. You can be an asshole for cheating on your wife or girlfriend, but not for cheating on you expense reports or a final exam. You can be an asshole for taking credit for a colleague's work, but probably not for plagiarizing from someone else's book. A CEO may count as an asshole if he yells at his assistants or makes sexual advances to women employees, but not if he simply gets his board to pay him a bloated compensation package. And even if you believe that George W. Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq, that by itself wouldn't make him an asshole, though he might have earned the label for his press-conference smirks (Nunberg 28)."

Given today's media, political, and entertainment culture, it's almost impossible to imagine this book without concrete examples, but I found the political sections, while relevant, to be tiresome, but through no fault of the author. Personally, I'm still tired of the constant political ads that dominated the internet and television for the last few months, so Nunberg's political analysis felt like something I've already read and experienced multiple times. The general, non-specific sections appealed to me more. I can imagine other writers getting the idea for a book of this nature and finding themselves stuck in a pattern of rehashing or constantly referring to the same ideas. But first and foremost, Nunberg is a linguist, and since language can sometimes be overlooked in cultural sketches, he has a variety of angles to play. I quietly groaned when he introduced Tucker Max's "writings," but instead of going for the obvious critiques, he takes Max's form of assholism and explores it for what it truly is. The passage below is wonderful in its deconstruction and humorous conclusion:

"This posture clearly has some appeal for the sorts of young yobbos who walk around wearing 'I'm an asshole, deal with it' T-shirts. But asshole isn't about to be rehabilitated as a positive term, no more than bitch is, outside of some feminist circles. In fact it really isn't meant as an effort at reclamation so much as a show of bad-boy naughtiness. There's a certain delusion in the assumption that there's some virtue in coming clean about one's assholism. The fact is there's no such thing as an 'honest asshole'; it's in the nature of being an asshole that you're obtuse about your entitlements and about the way others see you. If you're consciously and deliberately offending or manipulating someone, you necessarily belong to another breed. So when you hear someone proudly declaring himself an asshole, it's a fair conclusion that he's not an asshole at all, he's just a dick (Nunberg 132)."



Toward the end of the book, even as the political examples mount (and Nunberg deserves a tip of the cap for pointing out examples of assholism on the left and the right), the overall theme becomes one of civility, or lack thereof. For all of its paradoxical variety and uniqueness, assholism boils down to how humans interact with each other. Civility has strains of social class relations, an idea given a good number of pages, but turns into a simple notion of respect. If you're an asshole, you simply don't think about others (alas, this isn't narcissism--assholism is its own singular entity). What people normally view as an asshole behavior is sometimes a very different piece negativity.

"The items in that list hardly exhaust the forms of political assholism--and they certainly don't represent all forms of incivility that are abroad these days--but they underscore assholism's destructive efforts on public discourse, the license it gives to dishonesty and self-delusion. The problem isn't with the moral logic of assholism itself, but with the way it has bubbled up into the public sphere. In the course of our daily rounds, we're frequently reminded how useful it is to have the sentence 'What an asshole!' available to us, whether or not we utter it aloud. I suppose someone could argue that the existence of the word itself creates a vicious circle of rudeness, and that faced with an asshole's provocations, we'd be better people if we could resist the temptation to respond in kind (Nunberg 210-211)."

What I found myself enjoying in The Ascent of the A-Word was Nunberg's seriousness. There are humorous asides and examples sprinkled throughout, but overall, it's an academic exploration of a word that transcends all people and classes. With some of the books out there on profanity, I sometimes get a vibe that some of them might be a wink at the reader, a sort of juvenile thrill at examining bad language. But Nunberg's goal isn't to induce thought-provoking giggles; we live in a time when assholism invades virtually every relationship, opinion piece, and look at cultural studies. Remarkably, this is one of TWO books on the subject to appear this year (In October, Aaron James published Assholes: A Theory). My review of this work might seem very basic, but it's the sort of book that some will avoid altogether or lump into the still-growing pile of thinly-veiled political works. The examples I've chosen show the variety of paths Nunberg has chosen, and it's a carefully researched look into a wide range of studies. Most importantly, it continually reminds the reader that referring to someone as an asshole is sometimes self-reflective; the words we use to disparage might sometimes cover up personality traits that we assume we don't have within ourselves.

Work Cited:
Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Ascent Of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. Copyright 2012 by Geoffrey Nunberg.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Telling Stories: Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"


I've read very little of Aleksandar Hemon's writing, so I was excited when my book club voted for The Lazarus Project last month. His books have been on my list for quite some time, and aside from a short story (or two?) and a handful of essays, my fascination with him is limited to the scattered readings and his history of living in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, a five minute walk from where I grew up and live now. His reputation has been equally fascinating, leading to his being the rare writer whom I knew I wanted to read, but whom I knew precious little about, stylistically. I didn't know what to expect from his full-length books, and unless his other pieces are even more varied, The Lazarus Project proved to be a dizzying mix of genres, voices, images and intentionally questionable narratives. But these combinations (and said dizziness) are not meant to be synonyms for "confusing." Upon completion of the novel, I was struck by how the narrative was so straightforward, jumping consistently from past to present, from fictional imaginings of real events to fictional depictions of fictional characters. The complexity lays in Hemon's themes: there's really no way to pinpoint an exact tone or message in The Lazarus Project, but rather, the reader sits back and is overcome by the variety of what the text accomplishes.

The novels tells two intertwined stories, one of them a compelling, ugly piece from Chicago's early twentieth-century history. In 1908, for still unknown reasons, a young Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch paid a visit to the home of Chicago's chief of police; not long after arriving, he was dead from multiple gunshot wounds, and the police and media were quick to paint a lurid picture of a violent anarchist with ties to Emma Goldman eager to commit a crime against the law:

"Neither does Assistant Chief find it insignificant that the anarchist has been meticulously shaved, probably that very same morning, and that his hair was carefully cut. His clothes are musty and worn, but he doesn't exude any stench; the man has without a doubt taken a bath recently. It is not customary with alien men of that class to take care of their persons, Assistant Chief tells William P. Miller. It looks as though he didn't expect to come back alive. 'He looks like a Jew to me," Chief Shippy says, as Foley is tearing the end of the bandage with his teeth to tie it up. Assistant Chief unbuttons the man's pants, pulls them down, then does the same with his long underwear; in doing so, he slips on the blood and brains, nearly falling on the body, but quickly regains his balance.

'He's a Jew all right,' he announces, leaning over the young man's crotch. 'A Jew is what he is (Hemon 26-27).'"

Lazarus's sister Olga knows he's not an anarchist, and sets out to attempt to clear his name. However, this proves to be a daunting challenge: she's struggling with poverty and is malnourished and has to deal with authority figures who sneer at her for being an immigrant woman, not to mention a sibling of a "dangerous anarchist." She remains undaunted, even as her brother's name is smeared and his body desecrated (the photo below appears in the book and is an actual photo of Lazarus Averbuch's body following his killing):


"Oblivious to the surroundings, she walks slowly. She moves quietly between the detectives, her dress too sweat-damp to rustle. It is only when they open the door of the room that she begins to hold back. Men are gathered around the chair where Lazarus sits, and she is relieved to see he is alive. She sighs and grips Fitzpatrick's forearm. But one of the men is holding Lazarus's head; her brother's eyes are closed, his face ashen; her heart stops, frozen. Fitzgerald urges her on; Fitzpatrick says, as if delivering a punch line: 'Happy to see him? Give him a kiss...' The crowd titters, transfixed by Olga's stepping toward Lazarus, as if she were mounted on cothurni: a short, reluctant step back, then two awkward steps forward to touch his lifeless cheek, whereupon she collapses, unconscious. The crowd gasps (Hemon 57)."

The second story is about Brik, a Bosnian writer living in Chicago. He's married to a surgeon, and their marriage alternates between blissful love and heated, violent confrontations. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, and upon receiving a literary grant, he decides to travel to Eastern Europe to chart and track the Averbuch line and to see how the contemporary homeland reflects the early twentieth-century immigrant experience. He teams up with Rora, a fast-talking photographer who also hails from Sarajevo, with the hopes of having him document their trip. Brik and Rora become an uneasy odd couple, balancing between their natural alliance as men from the same land (and travelers on a sometimes dangerous trip) and their occasional but mounting friction. Rora is an avid storyteller, creating grand, embellished tales of war and travels. He is consistently annoyed with Brik's questions and conversations. Brik, despite his personal faults and boorish behavior toward his wife, is naturally observant, gleaning philosophical and sociological details and hypotheses from the most casual surroundings. Hemon's writing is excellent in these details, and is continual marked by moments of unexpected (and dark) humor, and the passage below ends with one of my favorite lines from the book:

"One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling coffee grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness (Hemon 73)."

As these two story lines alternate, the reader is presented with a myriad of themes--the obvious ones are how the immigrant experience in the United States has changed and remained the same, especially regarding the notion of terrorists and anarchists (substitute Muslims today with Eastern Europeans then); traveling as both a physical journey and an existential one. But what stayed with me the idea of storytelling. This might seem like such a simple, obvious idea, but Hemon crafts various avenues of storytelling, from the historical to the contemporary, but also with a balance between fictional and autobiographical. The little I know about his personal life and history in Chicago is reflected in careful detail via Brik: the mentions of Chicago's Edgewater, Andersonville, and Uptown neighborhoods; the Bosnian angle; and the fact that Brik is a writer who has received a substantial grant. I'm not suggesting that Brik is the complete personification of Hemon, but there's enough there to make the reader wonder how much Hemon has pulled and crafted from his own life, especially when the fictionalized stories of Lazarus and Olga are based on real people as well.


Within the stories lie what I feel is the biggest focus of The Lazarus Project: the art and complications of storytelling. There's never a moment or happening within the text that can't stand alone as its own tale or isn't part of a bigger one. Rora, for example, is meant to be a foil for Brik as well as a source of comic relief. However, his character is constantly telling stories, and after while, these mini-narratives become their own part of the plot:

"These people, these gangsters, Rora said, they are the same wherever you go--the same smirk, the same cell phone, the same goon. There used to be a guy named Pseto, a big gangster in Sarajevo just before the war. His business was racketeering. He ran a crew, including a few cops, who would break up a vendor if he did not pay for protection. He had a jewelry shop for money laundering, and sometimes he wore half of his inventory: diamonds and gold all over. He walked down Ferhadija Street with that Sarajevo-street-thug strut, and people would part reverentially. (I could see him: throwing his shoulders and jerking his neck, pursing his lips, the mouth half open to show that he was halfway to being very pissed) He would walk into a bar and the owner would have to buy drinks for everybody present, as though Pseto were the king. As his headquarters, he used a cafe called Djul-basta (I knew exactly where it stood); the owner was blessed with his protection but had no customers other than the people who came to do business with Pseto. He had trained the owner to bring him a short espresso every half an hour by the clock, and he would sit there, drinking coffee all day. Once he made a disobedient cop suck his cock. And when a stupid journalist wrote about the collusion of the police and Pseto, he had sent goons to bring the fool and had him tied to the tree in front of the cafe. He put a gun at the journalist's temple and told him to bark, so he barked. And he barked all day, was fed pizza leftovers, and had to fetch a stick (Hemon 131-132)."

As Olga processes the story of Lazarus's murder, she does her own painful storytelling. She keeps mentally crafting letters to her mother to break the news of the killing. These drafts are always brief, yet constantly switch in tone and climax as she goes about her investigations.

"Dear Mother,
You will think me cruel and mad, but I cannot keep this inside me anymore. Lazarus has been slain like an animal for no reason at all yet they call him an assassin. He--an assassin. There is no end to evil, it reaches us here too (Hemon 169)."

"Dear Mother,
Lazarus's funeral was beautiful. The rebbe spoke of his kindness, and there were hundreds of his friends, mountains of flowers (Hemon 148)."

The photographs that break up each chapter add their own layers to the narrative. Some of them, like the one of Lazarus above, are real photos from old newspapers. Others are meant to be Rora's photos as he helps document his travels with Brik. Some of these are beautiful landscape shots; others are random snapshots of people related or unrelated to the corresponding text. However, there's a definite subtlety to these images, even if they are jarring and uncomfortable. For as meticulous as Hemon is in his fiction, the idea of imagery and photography are vital to the stories, and therefore the photos become necessary as well as aesthetic. They make The Lazarus Project feel like a sort of time capsule. The early murder is its own historical document, and the travels of Brik and Rora feel like recordings for their own future prosperity. After awhile, the reader is no longer awaiting closure to the events of Lazarus, Olga, Brik, and Rora--the stories unfold into themselves as present-tense happenings, as if we're seeing two events becoming part of one long strain. There's never really a question of reliability--Brik is so open about his own faults and shortcomings that the reader focuses on experiencing the mysteries as they unfold. Also, the blatant lies of the police in covering up Lazarus's murder are the only truly unreliable narrations, but those are expected and obvious.

This is one of the more memorable, expertly crafted novels I've read this year. I found myself inserting Hemon into Brik's stories, and I somehow get the feeling that, personally, Hemon suffers from his own outbursts and unsavory tendencies. But going strictly by the novel, I'm still amazed at how much complexity he wrings from what is otherwise a very simple collection of tales. He writes with emotion without going for obvious sentimentality. During our book club meeting, I expressed the critique that Hemon piled too much misfortune on Olga, getting to the point that it seemed too much to handle. A fellow participant made an excellent point that rendered my criticism false--in history, the Jewish experience has been that way for some people: sometimes there's so much strife and pain without a "happy ending." Hemon's mix of themes, plots, and philosophy were extremely well done, and I'm happy not only that I've finally read one of his long-form works, but that it was this one. It's storytelling both big and small, and a constant stream of information and history that keeps one constantly deep in thought. I very much look forward to reading his other novels and stories, and I plan to tackle these (hopefully) sooner rather than later in 2013.

Work Cited:
Hemon, Aleksandar. The Lazarus Project. Copyright 2008 by Aleksandar Hemon.

Friday, November 30, 2012

"Lincoln" Avenues


When I review a book or a film, I tend to wait at least a day or two before writing my assessments. I do so in order to have enough time to process the opinions and to make sure the various components of the media aren't hastily explored (I do this via copious note-taking and/or long stretches of deep reflection). By waiting, I'm also giving myself time to avoid jumping to conclusions. I'm sure more than a few of my previous essays have the veneer of being glowing endorsements rather than truly critical reviews. However, it's been nearly a week since I saw Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and the more time I have to analyze the film, the more and more I like it, and for unexpected reasons. A lot has been (rightfully) made about the title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, but that's merely a part of a more complex exploration of a public figure who has been depicted countless times, often with historical inaccuracies. As it progressed, so much was revealed and presented in beautiful, stunning ways. And most importantly, Lincoln feels like a painstakingly collaborative result, with the acting and behind the camera work blending together almost seamlessly. I do have some mild critiques (I'll get to those soon), but they were not enough to bring down or mar one of the best films of 2012.

Lincoln is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The focus of the film is Lincoln's attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives, outlawing slavery before the official end of the Civil War. Like any political issue, it's not without its potential downfalls or manipulations. The Democrats are generally opposed to the legislation, and much scrambling and lobbying is needed to secure some of their votes for the Amendment's passage. President Lincoln has to maneuver to get the Amendment passed before the Confederate States are accepted back into the Union; any delay or veto would render his Emancipation Proclamation defeated. He's aided and advised by his divided cabinet, led by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who in turn relies on early versions of lobbyists (including excellent performances by John Hawkes and James Spader) to meet with certain Congressmen to ensure their vote for the Amendment. The vote of Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is necessary, but fraught with danger--he supports not only abolition, but complete equality among blacks and whites, an idea that seemed too dangerous at the time, when the focus was supposed to simply be on emancipation. In this process, President Lincoln is dealing with a strained home life, with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) on a seemingly continuous verge of nervous breakdowns, and son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) eager to join the Union Army against his parents' wishes. Historically, the audience knows the Amendment will pass; however, the film is crafted to show how political dealings in the 1860s are not terribly different from today's fractured political climate.

Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Lincoln is startling, and not just in the physical sense. Yes, he looks exactly like every famous photo of the 16th President, but this goes far beyond looks.



As a child, I had a VHS documentary about the U.S. Presidents, and long before this film came into my consciousness, I remember Goodwin discussing President Lincoln and his "frontier lingo." Most films depict him with a polished, deep, stately baritone, but Lewis plays Lincoln with far more historical emphasis. His voice is high pitched and twangy, and he has a penchant for long-winded, sometimes nonsensical allegories. His body is long and bony, and he constantly slouches or hunches, rarely standing straight up and looking dignified. Day-Lewis's performance, without hyperbole, is nearly perfect. He combines the general image of Lincoln with his own research and accuracy. Far better writings and analyses of his acting have been published over the years, so I'll offer this simple opinion: his performance as Lincoln is truly a work of art in the literal sense. This also applies to Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, whom I learned more about through the film that I have in my scattered history of Civil War readings. Since Stevens isn't as mythological or revered as Lincoln (in fact, his views on equality were probably greater than the President's), Jones plays the role with various hints of flair, donning a dramatic wig, carrying a cane, and portraying the man as committed to his ideals, willing to compromise for the sake of the greater good, and delightfully cantankerous. Stevens was born in Vermont before becoming a Pennsylvania Congressman, but Jones adds a bit of Southern gothic to the role, therefore making it a more creative, inspired piece. David Strathairn has long been one of my favorite actors, and his portrayal of William Seward is one of the great political roles I've seen in quite some time. Seward is a staunch supporter of Lincoln, but is unafraid to voice his displeasure during times of crises or with disagreements.

Sally Field's Mary Todd is very well done, a careful balance between private torments and potential mental illness and a brave public face. Since the death of their son Willie, she believes her husband hasn't properly grieved or mourned, especially since the death occurred during the height of his stress over the war. Mary Todd and Abraham have one major cinematic argument, but their private conversations feel realistic and natural. The only real issue I had with the casting of Lincoln was the choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, and this is through no fault of the actor. With such a variety of subplots and layers to the film, the moral and ideological arguments between Robert and the First Family over his joining the Army aren't very well-written. I enjoy Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but he didn't have very much to work with in the film, and therefore it feels like he's there as one of many famous faces in famous roles, which was slightly distracting. The father-son bond is explored well, but with limited time, since if every aspect had been given proper time, the film could have stretched into many untold hours beyond the standard film time allotments.

Spielberg's direction is excellent, and combines exceptionally well with the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner. The directorial flourishes are minimal--the occasional setting of Lincoln in shadows or out of the main picture, the opening scene of Lincoln from behind and sitting down, rather than standing and looking more "stately." Since the events depicted are not the most well-known in the Lincoln Presidency, Spielberg and Kushner are able to present their own takes on the settings and the dialogue, with a careful, terrific mix of historical accuracy and inventiveness. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, Kushner's screenplay feels like a stage play at times--there are a lot of long monologues and interior scenes/conversations with dramatic arcs. Kushner also explores Lincoln's status as a natural storyteller, with my favorite monologue having to be seen to be fully appreciated, in which Lincoln recounts an anecdote about Ethan Allen and a portrait of George Washington in an outhouse. The writing is carefully executed, since Lincoln isn't a film about dramatic Civil War battles, but primarily about conversations and rhetoric. Most films (or screenwriters) would shy away from long, exploratory dialogue about laws and diplomacy, but this film simply has to use these, and even in the most technical and detailed explanations, there's never a loss of the built-up drama. Lincoln's famous speeches--the Gettysburg address, for example--are merely hinted at or recalled by other characters rather than filmed.

Adding to the overall atmosphere is the cinematography by Janusz Kamiński. The cinematography is smoky, clustered, and sometimes feels like its presented through an old lens. Rick Carter's production design gives the White House and the Capitol Building a cluttered, dusty look, rather than orderly cleanliness that most films would opt for:


As much as I've lauded the historical accuracy of the film, I'm sure there are plenty of embellishments and creative licenses taken with some of the portrayals--any historical film simply has to do so. And as I've mentioned, some of the scenes are intentionally "dramatic" and clearly done in the interest of cinematic touches. Also, there are so many actors and characters I haven't mentioned in this review, since there are so many elements to Lincoln that a full, complete analysis would require multiple posts (I've done this for books, but I hope this single post on the film is a proper overview). Even with some stretched imaginings, it's so refreshing to see a film that's as entertaining as it is educational. I've only read samples of Goodwin's book, and there's so much more to Lincoln's political acumen. However, this film gives a stunning look at how political diversions and commentary aren't just twentieth and twenty-first century phenomenons. Toward the end of the film, when Congress casts its votes for and against the Amendment, people listen in and share the results as they happen by shouting them to outside listeners and sharing them via telegraph. It's too easy to imagine this happening today, with a constant flurry of tweets, e-mails, and social media updates. But it shows how, even in the days before instant news, historical events were followed with the same amount of fervor and excitement. However, the ugly side of compromise and ideological divisiveness was just as prevalent, too. In the context of the film, these connections aren't done in an obvious manner, but rather, it allows the viewer to make these assessments and links. The collaborative effort that is Lincoln is incredibly satisfying and compelling. While I'm still playing catch-up with some of the latest 2012 releases, I'm sure this film will keep growing as awards season and year-end lists start to approach. It's a relief to know that these accolades are warranted, and I hope it gains much more analysis and credit beyond Daniel Day-Lewis. As much as his amazing acting stands on its own, it's merely a single piece of a larger, excellent movie experience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Shiny Unhappy People: Zadie Smith's "NW"


White Teeth, Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel, is a source of embarrassment and pride for me. The embarrassment stems from my reading of it (roughly ten years ago), and my continual plans to give it another slot in my ever-growing list. I remember enjoying it, but, since it was so early in my reading life, I have almost no memory of its content or plot, but more than once, I've placed it on a "best-of" list or mentioned it as a recommendation. However, there's a definite pride there, since it marked a stark change in my usual book habits, since my late teens and early twenties were marked by a devotion to transgressive fiction. While my college classes helped steer my tastes and outlook, my random perusal of White Teeth began a shift of my reading better books independent of school requirements. Frankly, I'm at at loss to explain why, outside of the occasional short story, I haven't read Smith's follow-up works, On Beauty and The Autograph Man. I adore her essays and critical pieces, with Changing My Mind being one of the better collections I've read in the last couple of years. However, this doesn't explain my lapse in reading her novels, and I hope I've made some amends by recently devouring her latest work, NW. I've read some blurbs and short reviews of NW, some glowing, and some that have reservations. Even with the occasional stumble or pause, I found it to be one of the more challenging, beautiful works of 2012.

The summary and characters could fit into a variety of descriptions pertaining to most novels: NW explores the lives of a group of friends from Northwest London who have returned to the neighborhood as adults. The book opens with Leah Hanwell, a white office worker who, despite her general faith in other people, finds herself as a slight outsider in a neighborhood beset by crime, despondence, and shady inhabitants. The novel opens with a memorable scene in which a neighbor, one who knew Leah growing up, knocks on her door asking for help. It's a careful balance between personalities, with the implied understanding that the neighbor is fleecing Leah with a bogus story, but showcasing Leah's instinct for care and trust, and how it shows her nobility and naivety.

"Together they look like old friends on a winter's night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.

--I used to know...I mean...

Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn't interested, she's knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.

--Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You're better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.

Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.

--Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d'you do again?

Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.

--Phoned in sick. I wasn't feeling good. It's sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits--small local organizations in the community that need...

They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy (Smith 13-14)."

Smith's passages and styles are wildly yet creatively rendered in the early stages. There are pages of dialogue like the above sample, sometimes unattributed, sometimes in smaller font sizes than other pieces of dialogue, and giving readers unexpected hints to the novel's progression. Some chapters are only a page long, with maps and collected items giving the layout and atmosphere of the Northwest side of London. Smith goes all out early, which sometimes makes the more standard narrative chapters jarring in their simplicity. And as much as I dislike referring to fiction prose as "poetic," there's an undeniable feeling of that sometimes, with rhythmic, almost free-verse sentences. But what feels like improvisation is carefully written. The reader doesn't get the feeling that Smith is showing off, but the myriad of voices and styles are evocative of contemporary city life.

"From A to B redux:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only--quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary's, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. It was just not meant to be. Dead or no deal (Smith 42)."

Leah's childhood friend is Natalie Blake, who used to go by the name Keisha. Her life and complications form the majority of the novel. Originally another struggling child in a struggling NW family, she has worked her way up as a lawyer with children, a good husband, and security, but feels torn about her life, which she deals with in secretive, eventually damaging ways. She and Natalie bond early, find themselves separated by different interests and lives, and reconnect as neighbors. While Smith begins the novel with Leah's activities and devotes smaller yet equally detailed chapters to some of the minor characters, her obvious fascination lies in Natalie and her subsequent torments. Natalie's life and experiences are broken up into 185 chapters, sometimes three or four to a page, sometimes longer. Some of the chapters are random vignettes, but combined, they give a complete portrait of Natalie. A lot of Natalie's problems stem from her self-identity, but Smith is not blatantly obvious about this. Natalie doesn't feel guilty about being a successful black woman in a less-successful area, but there are hints to racial identity and its conformity throughout NW. For example, a quick chapter about her (then future) husband Frank uses careful wording to explore race, image, and status:

"86: Style

The dreadlocks were gone. His dinner jacket was simple, elegant. A starched pink handkerchief peeked out of the top pocket and his socks were brightly clocked with diamonds. His Nikes were slightly outrageous and box fresh. He no longer seemed strange. (Any number of rappers now dressed like this. Money was the fashion.) (Smith 255)"


But race is merely one issue of many for the characters, since their problems are much more complex and universal. Generational and societal conflicts abound as well. All of the characters, even the minor ones, have standoffs with youthful antagonists, some verbal, some physically violent. Even though the older characters are still in their twenties and thirties, there's a definite vibe of uneasy battles with "young punks." Taking this further, some of these scenes are about respect, both personal and societal--most of the conflicts arise due to casual, disrespectful behavior, and harsh lessons are taught to and by both sides. These chance encounters sometimes pale in comparison to the tensions between parents and their grown children. Again, family conflicts might seem like obvious traits in any novel, but Smith rarely crafts them as major blowouts. These are smaller moments, full of conversation, but they contain a multitude of layers. In one of the better sections, a character named Felix is visiting his father, and the dispensed advice is humorous, but showcases a difference of opinion and outlooks. It also showcases Smith's use of slang and dialects.

"It was that particular tone, inquiring and high--and suddenly Jamaican--coiling up to Felix like a snake rising from its basket. He tried to laugh it off--'Come on now, don't start that, man'--but Lloyd knew to place his poison with precision: 'I'm trying to train you up, right? It's not that you don't hear me, Felix, it's that you don't want to hear me. You're the big man these days. But let me arks you some ting: why you still chasing after females like they can save your life? Seriously. Why? Look at Jasmine. You nah learn. The man cyan't satisfy the woman, right? Don't matter how much he gives. The woman is a black hole. I've gone deep into the literature, Felix. Biological, social, historical, every kind of oracle. The woman is a black hole. Your mudder was a black hole. Jasmine was a black hole. This one you got now is the same, and she's nice looking, too, so she's gonna suck you all the way before you realize she's sucked you dry. The finer they are, the worse it is.' Lloyd took a large, satisfying slurp from his tea. 'You give me jokes,' said Felix, weakly, and just about managed to make it out of the room (Smith 125-126)."

While the chapters with secondary and minor characters are well written and imporant to the overall arc, the true basis of the book is reflected in the differences and friendship between Leah and Natalie. I read an online comment by someone who said he couldn't finish the novel because the characters were too self-involved and not sympathetic. However, I found the opposite to be true in a way. Yes, Leah (and especially Natalie) are extremely focused on themselves, but not in a way that makes them unsympathetic (again, Natalie comes into a clearer focus, since her mistakes have the bigger outcome and repercussions). I'm also at a stage in my reading life where I don't need characters to be completely lovable or in need of tidy redemption. In my review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, I didn't care about the characters, some of whom were even more selfish and problematic than the citizens in NW. However, there are too many amazing secondary details and sketches that make the novel go above the lives of the two women. While the focus is on London, the actions and strife could easily be transplanted into any major urban area. Smith isn't concerned with moralizing or whether or not the characters are redeemed. The novel is a careful collection of random and specific moments, and while some of the issues are left unresolved, it's a satisfying work. At times, we're repulsed by the actions, but there's an overall emphasis on honesty and reality. By combining these layers and interactions, along with a dizzying mix of craft styles, Smith has created one of the better novels of 2012. It's a careful blend of storytelling and experimentation in form, and while there's an occasional detour into the lives of the secondary characters that are left completely unresolved, the bigger picture is more important. I'm going to re-read White Teeth in 2013, and I'm going to catch up on On Beauty and The Autograph Man. Even if I find these works lacking in comparison to NW, I'm going to make sure I don't overlook Zadie Smith's fiction any longer. I can see how readers can have divided opinions on this new work, but I feel it's one of the more better executed works, in both themes and style.

Work Cited:
Smith, Zadie. NW. Copyright 2012 by Zadie Smith.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Man, Not the Legend: D.T. Max's "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace"


I planned to read D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story ever since it came out, and thanks to a friend tipping me off and accompanying me, I had the fortune of seeing him discuss his work at Chicago's Book Cellar. Max gave an excellent, humorous discussion, read selected passages and provided fantastic context and back stories, and was extremely personable and gracious to the crowd when he signed copies of the book. However, as I waited in line to meet him, I felt a pang of empathy. I realized that everyone was there, myself included, not specifically for Max, but for his subject. One of the obvious questions posed to him was "Did you ever meet David Foster Wallace?" He hadn't, except for seeing him from afar at a party (which is documented at the end of the work). Granted, one can't write a book about a still revered literary figure and not expect to be asked about said subject, but the signing felt like a way to get close to the late Wallace, even if deep down, there's much appreciation for Max and his dedicated, complete examination of Wallace. Bits and pieces of Wallace's life are well-known (his Midwestern childhood, his lifelong battle with depression), yet when I first learned about this biography, I realized how necessary it was. Now, upon completion of the work, I also realize how necessary it was to have Max as the biographer.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story follows a chronological path, beginning with the aforementioned Midwestern childhood (Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, and his family moved to Illinois when he was a toddler). Max establishes details of life in the Wallace household, with touching details about their interactions. Wallace's parents were academics, and the combination of regular family routines, intellectual debates, and Wallace's precociousness led to a unique upbringing. His relationship with his mother went through some tense and sometimes alienated years, but Max's sketch of the early times are well crafted, combining factual details with a style that lets the reader imagine the scenarios.

"For Sally [David's mother], grammar was more than just a tool. It gave membership in the club of educated persons. The intimation that so much was at stake in each utterance thrilled David, and added to the excitement of having a gifted mother. As did her sensitivity--Sally hated to shout. If she was upset by something she would write a note. And if David or Amy [his sister] had a response, they would slip it back under her door in turn. Even as a little boy, Wallace was attuned to the delicate drama of personality. He wrote when he was around five years old--and one hears in the words the sigh of the woman who prompted it:

My mother works so hard
And for bread she needs some lard
She bakes the bread. And makes the bed.
And when she's threw
She feels she's dayd
(Max 3)."

A good portion of the work is devoted to Wallace's college years. It led to his heavy drinking and drug use, which in turn led to his stints in rehab and attempts at a clean life; he struggled with his identity, attempted suicide, and made the decision to switch from philosophy to fiction writing. The combination of these factors mark the foundation of the public Wallace, and the private Wallace is a complex, sometimes broken person alternating between needing support and alienating those around him. His enrollment in the graduate program at the University of Arizona coincides with the writing and publication of his first novel, The Broom Of the System, as well as early stories, some of which find their way into his first collection, Girl With Curious Hair. As the book progresses, Wallace's stints in rehab, a halfway house, and his relationship with his mother are continual hints to the experiences that would lead to Infinite Jest. While this might seem like a hurried recap of Wallace's life, these are the more logical, famous notes. Max ends up sharing many more minute details, including Wallace's penchant for letter writing. There are excerpts from his correspondences with the likes of Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and other writers, editors, and friends. It never feels like Max is invading anyone's privacy; the words are necessary in shaping a full look at the public and (more relevant) private Wallace:

"Franzen offered to get together that April when he was in Boston, despite Wallace's changed circumstances. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he sent a quick note to his friend explaining his behavior. 'The bald fact is that I'm a little afraid of you right now,' he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so 'irked by my stuff,' because Wallace was no longer a 'worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat (Max 143).'"


When I mentioned the necessity of having Max as the first true biographer, that wasn't a throwaway line. Given Wallace's talents and the unique devotion and love that his writing inspired, other writers wouldn't be faulted for painting his life in a grandiose fashion. Max respects Wallace's intellect, explores his life with great sympathy, yet doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of his personality. Yes, Wallace was a genius, and yes, he was constantly troubled by depression and substance abuse, but Max never shies away from the bigger picture. Like anyone, Wallace could be mean and difficult. He pursued a doomed relationship with poet Mary Karr, which provides a backdrop for some of his less savory actions.

"As the fall turned into a remarkably snowy winter, Wallace's relationship with Karr deteriorated further. The two fought bitterly. Karr, Wallace wrote Franzen, was prone to 'terrible temper-outbursts.' She found him spoiled, a mama's boy using rehab as an excuse for self-absorption. Her needs were more concrete--food, money, child care for her son. He still wrote her constantly, even though he was just around the corner. He printed out in huge letters on a computer the words 'MARRY ME' and added, 'No shit, Mary Karr, do not doubt my seriousness on this. Or the fact that I'm a gila-jawed bulldog once I've finally made a commitment, a promise. My expectation is not that it would be easy, or all the time pleasant. My expectation is that it would be real, and illuminated.' Karr knew it would not work out, she remembers, when one day she asked Wallace to pick up [her son] from school and Wallace said he needed his car to go the gym instead (Max 170)."

And when Max discusses Wallace's writing and creative process, it's equally wonderful. He doesn't revert to hyperbole, as any admirer can do at times (lord knows I've done that myself in some of my Wallace critiques). The balance between descriptions of Wallace's solitary writing habits and the business side of editing and publishing are fascinating. Many terrific examples come from the back and forth between Wallace and editor Michael Pietsch as they debate, edit, and come to agreements on the changes, cuts, and publication of Infinite Jest:

"In April 1995 Infinite Jest was back on Wallace's desk--Pietsch had had the novel set in sample type again and realized the book was still too many pages. He sent a list of possible new cuts. To DeLillo, whom he increasingly turned to as his authority on literary matters, Wallace voiced a growing worry:

I am uncomfortable about making cuts for commercial reasons--it seems slutty--but on the other hand [Little, Brown, and Co.] is taking a big gamble publishing something this long and this hard and I feel some obligation not to be a p.-donna and fuck them over. Maybe I'm writing because I want your general aestheto-ethical input on this. I don't know (Max 205)."

Writer Tom Bissell's blurb for Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story is actually totally accurate: "This book should be handed to anyone who wants to write." There aren't any wistful totems of literary wisdom; Wallace was more talented than most writers of this generation, but he still struggled with doubt about his work and consistency. But generally, the book presents the case of a man who sits down and devotes the time to his craft. He experienced a lot of early setbacks (both personally and creatively) and used those knocks to fuel his stories and essays. The book rightfully breaks down the Wallace mystique. His vision was singular, but came about through time and hard work.

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Wallace knows how the story ends, so to speak. His successful marriage to artist Karen Green gives him stability and happiness as he works on The Pale King, which likely would have been even bigger and deeper than Infinite Jest. With so many essays and remembrances that came out following Wallace's suicide, Max takes a decidedly neutral tone as he gets to the sad conclusion. It might feel like a cold summary of the end of a life, but there's no judgement or hypothesizing. Wallace's lifelong struggles tie into his end, but Max leaves the opinions to other people. The biography's ending is blunt, much like the end of its source material.

Reviewing a biography is not unlike reviewing a collection of critical essays--one can agree or disagree with the opinions, but the focus should be on the writing and tone. In this sense, D.T. Max has done an amazing job with this work. There's no doubt that he admires Wallace's work, but he is steadfast in presenting an honest, varied account. I've read quite a few reviews that merely pick and choose interesting factoids that can be learned in the book, of which there are many (there's an amusing anecdote about Ethan Hawke attending one of Wallace's readings). By doing impeccable research and conducting dozens of interviews, Max succeeds in giving readers a definitive look at a writer most people know only through oft-repeated stories and, of course, the books he left behind. By knowing more about what went into those amazing works, Max manages to increase the admiration people feel when digging into Wallace's fiction and essays. A lot of Wallace's friends and associates have written their own remembrances, the majority of them illuminating, respectful, and fascinating. However, as a generally detached biographer, Max manages to cut through the "legend," without sacrificing his own status as a fan and reader--were he not a lover of Wallace's works, he wouldn't have undertaken this book. Wallace is more real to me now that I've learned more about him, and I would venture a guess that this is what Max had in mind.

Work Cited:
Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Copyright 2012 by D.T. Max.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Weathering Storms: Paul Auster's "Winter Journal"


I admire more than a few authors who are equally talented in fiction and nonfiction writings, but generally, I tend to favor their fictional sides--as much as I promote and love the essay (and the essay collection), I'd be more apt to pick a novel as a favorite work, rather than a collection of critical pieces. However, this belief gets turned around when it comes to Paul Auster. I've long considered him one of my favorites, but upon reflection, it's shocking to realize how little of his fiction I've actually read (one novel, a handful of shorter works and samples). His memoir, craft explorations, and poetry move me a lot more, and The Invention of Solitude, his 1982 explorations of family, masculinity and writing is one of the very few books that changed me and how I view my own approach to creativity. It was recommended to me while I was dealing with long bouts of financial strain, isolation, and attempts to figure out my priorities while living outside Seattle, Washington. It wasn't a romantic time, and who I am today is directly related to who I was back then (that was around the time I started putting my shaky writing into this blog format). Recently, Auster published Winter Journal, and remembering how much his previous work affected me, I was eager to read this one. It's vastly different in its approach and content, but I still found myself touched and moved in unexpected ways.

It isn't an autobiography or a memoir in the traditional sense. Instead, Auster explores various moments in his life, from physical descriptions to analyses of random happenings to descriptions of the dozens of homes and areas where he's lived, but without any cliched nostalgia. There are fond memories, painful, brutally honest critiques of himself, and reflections on his body. At first, it appears to be chronological, but quickly, Auster begins to alternate time frames. Early memories of two childhood accidents are quickly followed with adult observations. Auster writes in the second person point of view, addressing himself as "you," which allows for two sides of the narrative--in addition to sharing aspects of his life as a sort of letter to his self in various ages, it allows the reader to inhabit Auster's world, especially when (and this happens quite often, at least for me) he gets into universal experiences.

"Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom, but if you shun most vegetables it is simply because you do not like them, and you find it difficult, if not impossible, to eat what you do not like. You know that your wife worries about you, especially about your smoking and drinking, but mercifully, until now, no X-ray has revealed any damage to your lungs, no blood test has revealed any devastation to your liver, and so you forge on with your vile habits, knowing full well that they will ultimately do you grave harm, but the older you become the less likely it seems that you will ever have the will or the courage to abandon your beloved little cigars and the frequent glasses of wine, which have given you so much pleasure over the years, and you sometimes think that if you were to cut these things out of your life at this late date, your body would simply fall apart, your system would cease to function (Auster 14-15)."

This is a universal picture, but at times, he even goes even further. If some of the passages strike readers as self-serving, even when mixed with ruminations on his shortcomings, he sits back and offers the occasional philosophical sentiment that might not be original, still gives the reader cause for thought, even if these thoughts have been experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. And while the thoughts aren't "original," the writing certainly is--note the descriptions and careful word choices in this passage:

"You would like to know who you are. With little or nothing to guide you, you take it for granted that you are the product of vast, prehistoric migrations, of conquests, rapes, and abductions, that the long and circuitous intersections of your ancestral horde have extended over many territories and kingdoms, for you are not the only person who has traveled, after all, tribes of human beings have been moving around the earth for tens of thousands of years, and who knows who begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom to end up with your two parents begetting you in 1947 (Auster 115)?"

And while this isn't strictly autobiography, there are enough details to gain a better idea of Auster's life. I know very little about his life, save for the murder of his grandfather by his grandmother (mentioned here and further documented in The Invention Of Solitude). He's been married twice, once to the writer Lydia Davis, who is mentioned not by name, but by the occasional sketch and rumination about living with another writer (as my friend Jeremy once said, "to be a fly on the wall for that relationship"). There are sad, touching remembrances included in his meticulous documentation of the places he's called home.

"Age 32. Before landing there in early 1979, a whirlwind of shocks, sudden changes, and inner upheavals that turned you around and set your life on a different course. With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you now realize (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child. A couple of weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again. Three weeks after that, immersed in the prose text you had begun immediately after your resuscitation, your liberation, your new beginning, the unexpected hammer blow of your father's death. To your first wife's infinite credit, she stuck with you through the dismal days and weeks that followed, the ordeal of funeral arrangements and estate matters, disposing of your father's neckties, suits, and furniture, taking care of the sale of his house (which had already been in the works), standing by you through all the wrenching, practical business that follows death, and because you were no longer married, or married in name only, the pressures of marriage had been lifted, and once again you were friends, much as you had been in your early days together (Auster 91-92)."


The passages are combinations of smaller vignettes and much longer passages, some of which, while very well written, didn't hold much interest for me. Even with strong prose, I found myself glossing over some of Auster's sexual details. To his credit, while tinted with a hint of longing, he doesn't veer into embarrassing reminiscences of lost prowess or such. His sex life is merely a part of his life as whole, with the passages given equal time as the rest of his memories. Some of the happenings weigh on his mind more than others--two separate sections are devoted to details of a nasty car accident that nearly killed him and his family. The painful realization of mortality is a given, which makes the surrounding sketches that much more poignant.

"The day after the car crash in 2002, you went to the junkyard where the car had been towed to retrieve your daughter's belongings. It was a Sunday morning in August, warm as always, with a misty blur of rain dappling the streets as one of your friends drove you out to some godforsaken neighborhood in Brooklyn, a no-man's-land of crumbling warehouses, vacant lots, and boarded-up wooden buildings. The junkyard was run by a black man in his mid-sixties, a smallish fellow with long dreadlocks and clear, steady eyes, a gentle Rasta man who watched over his domain of wrecked automobiles like a shepherd tending a flock of dozing sheep. You told him why you were there, and when he led you over to the shiny new Toyota you had been driving the day before, you were stunned by how thoroughly destroyed it was, could not fathom how you and your family had managed to survive such a catastrophe. Immediately after the crash, you had noticed how badly damaged the car was, but you had been rattled by the collision, were not fully able to absorb what had happened to you, but now, a day later, you could see that the metal body of the car was so smashed in, it looked like a piece of crumbled paper. 'Look at that,' you said to the Rasta man. 'We should all be dead now.' He studied the car for a few seconds, looked you in the eye, and then turned his head upward as the fine rain fell onto his face and abundant hair. 'An angel was watching over you,' he said in a quiet voice. 'You were supposed to die yesterday, but then an angel stretched out his hand and pulled you back into the world.' He delivered those words with such serenity and conviction, you almost believed him (Auster 167-168)."

There's no doubt that some of these descriptions might be slightly embellished, and if this is the case, it's not done to stretch the truth in a misleading way. I believe this because even the most "novel-like" passages are no different than the smaller, mundane aspects of Auster's life experiences. That's what made Winter Journal so satisfying to me. His prose never gives the reader the feeling that he's at the true end of his life, looking back wistfully, even though the book might seem that way at first glance. These are moments of his life, big and small, presented as they are. It makes the "Journal" part of the title very accurate. Yes, this is a published work, but part of me, even if this is slightly naive, can see the book being an unpublished project for Auster's own reflections.

Because the mentions of his previous works are either scarce or brought up in passing, I'd be hard pressed to imagine someone unfamiliar with Auster picking this book up, but I could see myself enjoying it on its own. In due time, I'm sure there will be an independent biography of Auster published, one that will expand on his travels, marriages, and writings. However, Winter Journal is beautiful and provides new information and highlights I had been unfamiliar with before. Outside of general curiosity, he's a writer who interests me more with his words than his exploits, and these pages put more emphasis on the former. I found this difficult to review and cite, since quite a few of the passages are long and so intricate that providing a sample would be pointless out of context. His style is unique, and while nothing in it affected me like The Invention Of Solitude, I had the rare experience of being moved emotionally as well as being moved by his craft. I've long had my own issues with the memoir genre as a whole, but Auster's formatting and attention to detail made this reading experience so much more than an inventory of what he's done and experienced.

Work Cited:
Auster, Paul. Winter Journal. Copyright 2012 by Paul Auster.