Sunday, August 21, 2016

SOMETHING HAPPENED -- Joseph Heller



     I'm just over halfway through my second reading of Something Happened but I'm already ready to write about it. This doesn't mean I'm bored with it (although there are long tedious stretches of repetitious pronouncements, retractions, doubts, worryings, regrets, and yearnings--the damned thing goes on for 569 frickin' pages!!--which, however, are exciting in the strictly cognitive sense that they comprise a major component of Something Happened's genius, contributing to its status in my opinion and that of others as the current American Novel, drenching the period from about the last half of the 20th century up to now with its merciless spotlight), because if I were (bored with it) I wouldn't be reading it through to the end (which I am) while I write this essay on it. I almost called this a review but it's not, because, shamefully aware of my limited knowledge of and facility with the critical criteria to evaluate a literary work (i.e. the appropriate use of such terms as "texture" and "limning" and "layers" and "perspective" and "voice" and "valence") I rarely do book reviews yet quite often feel an intuitive need to convey to others my reaction to a work of fiction that's had (and in some instances, such as this one, is having) an important effect on me even if there are the tedious stretches, which in Something Happened may well have been just as tedious if not more so for Joseph Heller when he wrote them. I do know more about these criteria today of course than I did the first time I read Something Happened, which was when it came out (ha, ha) in 1974, which was when the expression came out could be used quite innocently to mean was published without the need to add ha, ha to show that one recognizes the expression now means to come out of the closet as a homosexual, which, as a sexual orientation was still pretty much in the closet so far as casual, indirect references were made to it in popular literature at the time Something Happened (which does have some boldly direct references to it) came out. Here, for example, is the narrator of Something Happened talking about his concerns with homosexuality, which he and his wife worry quietly about concerning their son and which he (the narrator) worries about concerning himself:

I can be strong and unemotional when it comes to someone else. I think I may worry as much about talking out loud to myself as I worry about stuttering. I think some of my dreams may be homosexual. I think I’m afraid I might start stuttering incurably when I even think that thought of being homosexual. I don’t know why I feel that way about those dreams. And I also feel that some of my other dreams may be heterosexual, and I do know why. I am chasing and pumping away with girls in those dreams and almost get there … And know also that much of my waking life is composed of defenses against behavior I am not aware of and would find difficult to justify. Why do I feel like crying so often and why do I refuse to let myself do so … ever? There are times, afterward, when I wish I did and regret I didn’t. I often used to feel like crying after quarreling with my daughter. I am no longer proud that I can remain unmoved. I hope desperately that my little boy never finds out I’m a fag if that is what I really am, although I think I might derive some nasty gratification if my wife began to harass herself about that possibility.
Joseph Heller and wife reacting to something in Something Happened in which he says terrible things about her

Pretty racy stuff (meaning risqué, as racial issues, too, were pretty much skirted in bourgeois literature back then when whites called blacks "Negroes" or "colored people" in polite publications) back then in bourgeois literature, which of course Something Happened most definitely was (bourgeois) if only because it was so popular, as "high" literature has always prided itself on excluding the boobswasie by "virtue" (ha, ha) of its members-only standard of elevated vocabulary and syntax and words in fashionable foreign languages and pertinent references to the literature of venerable long dead or esoteric living fictionalists, poets, philosophers, and essayists the more obscure the cleverer. There aren't any big or italicized foreign words or clever literary references in Something Happened, which must have offended the most self-serious of the literary pecksniffs at the time and undoubtedly continues to deeply annoy those remaining in power and their post-post-...modern (one can never be certain how many posts are in fashion with whom at any given time, which is precisely why the ruling pecksniffs keep that target moving, one suspects) acolytes. The breakthrough for Joseph Heller had come more than a decade prior when an editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, let fly (in spite of himself, no doubt) while reading a rough draft of Heller's first novel, Catch-22,
the laugh that smashed through the virtually impregnable gate of literary pecksniffery (fortunately the gate wasn't, at least then, literally impregnable, ha, ha), which remained ajar thirteen years later when Something Happened happened. Ha, ha. Unfortunately, in the words of Shakespeare, or perhaps someone of equivalent literary stature (maybe even a purveyor of irony in the Bible!): "No good deed goes unpunished," which in our context applies many years later to Robert Gottlieb's rejecting John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces (even though he might have laughed, but the times they had a'changed, taking with them, one presumes, the vogue of a different sort of laughter), which went on to win a Pulitzer after Toole, discouraged and taken to drink, gave up writing and soon thereafter killed himself. (Ha, ha.)

Where were we? How did Something Happened affect me when I read it the first time? Back in 1974 when it first came out (ha, ha)? It made me laugh. Other than that, I can hardly remember much about it. I'd even forgotten about it pretty much, as I suspect most everyone else has, having laughed when they first read it, and then moved on (like I did) to read serious, pecksniff-approved literature. So why do I (how can I?) assert that Something Happened is the American Novel of the period from about the last half of the 20th century up to now? Notice I do not say "Great" American Novel, as I believe the word "great" to be greatly overused, overused to the extent its significance has pretty much devalued from, say, Great Expectations to, say, "Great Balls of Fire." But, prompted by Fictionaut.com's resident dark satirist Chris Okum, I'm revisiting Something Happened and coming to see it as the quintessential depiction in the mind of one of its victims of the cruelly indifferent, identity torquing, soul-sucking miasma our materially resplendent "civilization" (ha, ha) has drifted into, lured and goaded by primal forces better understood and explained by poets, cartoonists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and possibly even anthropologists (not to rule out metaphysicists!), encapsulated in this example, to wit (channeling Heller with the pun of insanely ironic legalese, which I should apologize for assuming I needed to explain):

I wonder what kind of person would come out [ha, ha] if I ever did erase all my inhibitions at once, what kind of being is bottled up inside me now. Would I like him? I think not...Deep down inside, I might really be great. Deep down inside, I think not. I hope I never live to see the real me come out. He might say and do things that would embarrass me and plunge him into serious trouble, and I hope I am dead and buried by the time he does. Ha, ha.

And this:

(Nothing is suppressed in our family.)

(In our family, everything is suppressed.)

Ha, ha.




Now that you've seen this little parody of Something Happened you'd be insulting yourself not to read a real review, the best of them being: Kurt Vonnegut on Something Happened.


[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Thursday, August 18, 2016

THE DISCOMFORT ZONE -- "Jonathan Franzen"

I have come uncomfortably near reaching a conclusion that "Jonathan Franzen" is the most ingenious, elaborately implausible hoax ever perpetrated on the New York literary establishment and, hence, the literary world. My evidence is largely intuitive, but is supported in my mind by what I consider significant clues in the text of the 2006 so-called memoir The Discomfort Zone, of which New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani's severe panning prompted "Franzen" to call her "the stupidest person in New York City."


This, in fact, this girly sounding tantrum (contrasted with Norman Mailer's "one-woman kamikaze" response to the Kakutani castration effect), is the first clue to support my hypothesis. The supposition grew out of an intense distaste for the very name "Franzen," which I associated early on with an incident of shrill elitist arrogance. So far behind the curve of "high" literary fashion at the time (2001), I'd been unfamiliar with the name when it arrived to my attention in a breaking news item. The reputed literary novelist known as "Jonathan Franzen" had just insulted millions of TV megastar Oprah Winfrey's fans by whining publicly her picking his recently published novel The Corrections to feature on her program would endanger his reputation with "high" literary society. Appalled by such shrieking hubris, I banished "Jonathan Franzen" from further literary consideration despite The Corrections proceeding on to bestsellerdom and a National Book Award.

Yesterday, in an unusually forgiving mood, I read my first and likely final "Franzen" work. It seemed an appropriate compromise to break my sixteen-year boycott with the book Ms. Kakutani described as "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed." All true. Ms. Kakutani overlooked one thing, though, as I see it. She assumed the jackass is one person. Nuh uh. The "Jonathan Franzen" who is nearing the pinnacle of commercial and critical literary renown despite his proudly proclaimed noisesomeness is the prankish creation of a group of high school girls allegedly in the upper-middle-class St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves.

My evidence is in the book.

Narrated by "Jonathan Franzen" as a bildungsroman (fashionably literary for "coming-of-age book"), the girly voice gives us glimpses of comically awful parents, and of a not surprisingly awful, oversensitive childhood and early adolescence. Exhibit A:

Of the many things I was afraid of in those days—spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances, hardball, heights, bees, urinals, puberty, music teachers, dogs, the school cafeteria, censure, older teenagers, jellyfish, locker rooms, boomerangs, popular girls, the high dive—I was probably most afraid of my parents. My father had almost never spanked me, but his anger had been Jehovan when he did. My mother possessed claws with which, when I was three or four years old and neighbor kids had filled my hair with Vaseline to achieve a kind of Baby Greaser effect, she’d repeatedly attacked my scalp between dousings of scalding-hot water. Her opinions were even sharper than her claws. You just didn’t want to mess with her. I never would have dared, for example, to take advantage of her absence from the country and break her rules and wear jeans to school, because what if she found out?


"Jonathan Franzen"


To my ear that sounds like a very articulate girl trying to sound like a very articulate boy. More evidence? This, from adolescence, while sounding a tad more boyish, is yet to me the very same voice:

For three years, all through junior high, my social death was grossly overdetermined. I had a large vocabulary, a giddily squeaking voice, horn-rimmed glasses, poor arm strength, too-obvious approval from my teachers, irresistible urges to shout unfunny puns, a near-eidetic acquaintance with J.R.R. Tolkien, a big chemistry lab in my basement, a penchant for intimately insulting any unfamiliar girl unwise enough to speak to me, and so on. But the real cause of death, as I saw it, was my mother’s refusal to let me wear jeans to school. Even my old friend Manley, who played drums and could do twenty-three pull-ups and was elected class president in ninth grade, could not afford to see me socially.

I must admit remembering a few similar anxieties at that age. But I had no interest in Tolkien, am not much of a punster, and I cannot imagine at any age deliberately insulting any girl who was friendly to me. I'm rather certain, as well, I did not exhibit the flighty attitude.

With our narrator now in college one might expect the self-conscious tone to have cowboyed up beyond suspicion. It hasn't. It's gotten worse. He visits a girl he'd been sweet on (yet calls her by her last name, Siebert) at her college. She'd broken her back trying a silly stunt our narrator characteristically thinks she did to compete for his affection with a different girl he'd dated who did the same stunt (it's complicated). Siebert is healed now, and she and our narrator are talking about Freud and how maybe some subconscious notion caused her to let go and fall from the Eden Seminary bell tower downspout she'd been trying to climb. Our narrator starts pondering, to himself, his own susceptibility to awful subconscious notions, like when as a boy he suddenly dropped his pants to entertain a couple of neighbor girls peeking through a window at him from their house. His pondering gets the best of him: "I started screaming in terror. I screamed at the top of my lungs, which freaked both me and Siebert out. Then I went back to Philadelphia and put the whole episode out of my mind."
"Franzen" 1977

Puzzling, isn't it? Hard to imagine a college male not on drugs (which our narrator never mentions in this scene) doing something like that, so excessively. And then writing about it so coyly. Puzzling, unless you buy my assumption, which depends of course on more evidence than merely a purported man's unmanly voice, of a grand conspiracy. I see plenty of conspiratorial clues in the high school portion of this bildungsroman.

Our narrator claims to have been the brains of a tightly knit group of fellows calling themselves DIOTI (don't ask) that on several occasions broke into their high school to pull highly sophisticated, labor-intensive, and, in one instance quite dangerous, pranks. Again, nuh uh. Not credible. No self-respecting group of high school dudes, including a football player, would suffer such a preening, punning, horn-rimmed dork as their brains in a dangerous undertaking. Not a chance these pranksters did what the book claims. Not a chance they were guys. They were girls. Brilliant, literary, highly imaginative girls, and they've played--are playing--one helluva mind-jiggling, thigh-thumping, literate-world-embracing prank. Middle-aged now, these ladies continue cranking out literature highly regarded by high literature's golden gatekeepers. Why, at this rate they might wind up winning a Pulitzer, even the Nobel. And if they do win one or the other, or both, their figurehead, DIOTI's token male whom the world knows as "Jonathan Franzen," whom DIOTI no doubt took unto its collective bosom primarily for his improvisational acting talents, will gladly and gracefully deliver whatever statements and/or speeches of gratitude the women of DIOTI create for him to hail the socially realistic "New Sincerity" glories of humanity, which will not merely endure, but will prevail, etc. etc.

But...you know? Come to think of it, I really can't imagine anything even remotely stupider.





[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Death's Honesty (6)

Blow’s interest in the case sharpened as he watched Chip Morowitz respond to Capt. Carl Callahan. The dynamic shift, he knew, would reveal more, possibly much more, than he'd gotten in his own interview. With just the two of them the stress on Morowitz was whether he could trust Blow, and to win Blow's trust. With Callahan there was little to no chance of trust either way. Blow pretty much trusted Callahan, and would have preferred to watch them through the one-way window. But Morowitz was still shaky, and Blow knew better than to trust any cop completely. At the same time he knew better than to trust unconditionally a client, especially one suspected of capital murder.


The small interrogation room smelled faintly of vomit. It was empty when they entered. Its only furnishings were a metal table bolted to the floor and three heavy, straight-back wooden chairs. A too-bright bulb hanging over the table in a wire cage projected spidery shadows on institutional green masonry walls. Hans had led them there, one of three rooms off a corridor about a mile, it seemed to Blow, from the comfortably larger lawyer's room. Blow concentrated on displaying a calm exterior despite this being his first time sitting in on a client's police interrogation.

Moments earlier a visceral recognition of the situation's gravity jarred him when he saw Morowitz's ankles shackled together with a short length of chain intended to preempt any impulse to run. Clinking chain links and jangling jail keys with clops, scrapes and slaps of shoes and flip-flops accompanied their progress as Hans led them along corridors from the jail to the administration area. The locking mechanism in a barred steel door at one point responded with an electric buzz after Hans signaled someone through a mounted intercom box. Blow noticed a red button light on a ceiling camera above them flick to green when the door clacked open. Their unhurried, unhappy procession, with its clinks and echoing footsteps, the mechanized barrier's grudging grant of passage and heavy door's righteous slam behind them, imbued in Blow a queasy proximity of what it must be like for a death-row inmate on his way to the execution chamber.

Capt. Campbell's grim sudden appearance in the room had an unsettling effect on Blow despite Blow's knowing it was staged to create just such an effect. He also knew that making him and his client wait alone in the room for a ten-minute stretch that seemed an hour or more was part of the staging. He knew the unsettling effect he felt came partly from knowing the stakes at play were deadly serious, that professional interrogators had proven this approach effective over many years, and that Campbell himself had proven exceptionally effective winning confessions as a top homicide cop in Newport News before moving to Leicester County.

Blow also knew his unease was in part an emotional accompaniment to the professional bond he'd made with his client moments earlier. The private empathy came from assuming Chip Morowitz, whether innocent or not, was feeling sweat fear as the lean figure of Campbell, with its shaved bullet head and fierce grey eyes, moved toward its prey after bursting open the door and staring coldly for several seconds that seemed to stretch interminably. The barely perceptible nod Campbell tossed at Blow before jerking the remaining chair back from the table and slapping down the manila file folder he was carrying, served notice their lethal game was underway. The teen surprised Blow with an alert yet apparently stoic response to Campbell's theatrics. His forearms rested in front of him, hands open, fingers still, and his face was immobile, looking straight ahead. Other than steady breathing, there was no visible movement at all.

With a cat's grace, eyes never leaving the target, Campbell lowered himself onto the chair directly across from Morowitz and planted his own forearms in front of him. When he finally spoke, the rapid-fire word clusters he used in ordinary conversation came out slower and measured: "She said to tell you she loved you. And that she was sorry." The effect might have been taken as gentle in different circumstances. Now it required a keener guard than Blow had expected. He angled his chair slightly to keep his client in view, and was watching him closely, as the information Campbell had just conveyed didn't jibe with what Blow understood. He saw the boy's jaw drop and eyes widen.

"She...she did?" he croaked.

"Those were her last words, son. That's what she told the deputy."

"But she was already dead when I found her. Her eyes were open. So...so much blood. I..." He gasped for breath, whipped a quick glance at Blow who saw a face contorted with emotion and now very much awake.

Campbell opened the manila file in front of him, turned it around and slid it across the table. "Like this? This how she looked?" His voice had sharpened. The quick bursts were back. Blow caught a glimpse of a photo. Close-up of a face. It was black and white, but the blood was easily recognizable. The boy stared, transfixed, his breathing coming now in spasms.

Campbell persisted, harshly. "Look at the rest of them. Ty's in there, too. He was already dead when we got to him. You shoot him first?"

"No! I didn't shoot them! I loved them!" He was sobbing. He pounded his fist on the table, splattering tears on the photos.

"You loved them? Both of them? Or just one of them? Which one, Chip? Were they cheating on you? Is that why you shot them? Was Tyrone fucking your woman?" The words flew across the table like machine-gun bullets. Morowitz, choking back the sobs, shoved the file back at Campbell.

"No, god dammit, I didn't shoot them!" he shouted. "I saw somebody out there!" He inhaled abruptly, rattling snot. He wiped an orange sleeve across his face. His voice softened. "I knew whoever it was shot my friends, and I shot back, officer. That's who I shot at. I wouldn't hurt Kitty or Ty. I loved them. It wasn't like you said." The sobbing started again, this time a high-pitched, constricted squealing as he fought to choke it off. Blow reached over and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"I think you've pushed him far enough for now, Captain. Isn't it time for the good cop to take over?"

Campbell glared at Blow. "You're here as his counsel, not mine," he snapped. Blow snapped back.

"Then charge him, if you have the evidence. I'm here to protect his rights. You're trying to badger a confession out of him. He said he didn't do it. The burden's on you, Captain. Show us some proof and charge him, or release him. Right now."

Campbell held the stare, but Blow saw a corner of his mouth twitch. The cop leaned back then and held up his hands. "It's your call, Counselor. No more badgering, but you might be interested in your client's answers to a couple more questions. Blow nodded. It suddenly occurred to him the room he'd interviewed Morowitz in might well be bugged. Not illegal, technically, although anything anyone overheard would be inadmissible as evidence. Campbell proceeded, addressing Morowitz in the earlier conversational voice.

"Who do you think shot your friends, Chip?"

The boy looked at Blow, who nodded and said, "You can answer that."

"I don't know sir. I have no idea."

"OK, so why did you have the gun?"

"For self defense. We didn't know if there might be a dog or something that could attack us."

"A dog, huh? You mean the owner of the island's dog?"

"I don't know."

"Don't know if the owner has a dog?"

"No. Don't know the owner."

"You went on the island without knowing who owns it?"

"I think Kitty knew him. I think she talked to him."

"You think. But she never mentioned his name? You never met him?

"No, sir. I never met him."

"Did she say who he was?"

"I think so. I'm not sure."

"Do you remember his name?"

"No, sir."

"OK, so why were you out there in the middle of the night, with a metal detector? And a gun."

"Treasure hunting."

"What?"

"There was something in the paper about it. Somebody who lives out there said Blackbeard the pirate buried some treasure there, on the island."

Now it was Campbell's turn to look surprised. Blow figured it was an act if in fact the earlier interview had been bugged. If so, if it was an act, Campbell brought it off pretty well. He turned his surprised face to Blow, who kept his own face straight. Campbell turned back to Morowitz. "So, let me get this right. Your two friends were trespassing on an island--"

"My client said he doesn't know. Perhaps the girl had gotten permission. There's no evidence they were trespassing."

Campbell glanced quickly at Blow, but kept his attention on Morowitz."OK. But you didn't know. So why sneak out there at night?"

Blow interrupted again. "Not if they had permission they weren't sneaking."

Campbell ignored the comment. "So why go out there at night. Why not in daylight?"

"Kitty had to work. I had band practice. We figured it would be cooler at night. We just sort of decided it would be better."

"To look for buried treasure in the dark."

Morowitz nodded. "Yes, sir. But we weren't going to dig or anything, Just wanted to see if maybe something was down there."

"Uh huh. In the middle of the night. With a metal detector and shovels. And a gun. Uh huh."

"I wasn't with them."

"Oh! So. Where were you then?"

"I was supposed to be with them, but I got there late."

"Uh huh. You love your friends who are trespassing--excuse me--who might be trespassing on an island at midnight to hunt for pirate treasure but you, what, something on the TV distracted you?"

"I got held up."

"Held up? You mean robbed?"

Morowitz tried to laugh. "No, sir. Our band was having a little party. I lost track of the time."

"Your band! Uh huh. You love them, too?"

Blow interrupted: "Captain--"

Campbell held up a hand, shook his head, grimacing. "OK OK. You got there late, and what, then somebody started shooting at your friends? Were they shooting at you, too?"

"I didn't see anybody shooting. Ty and Kitty were already dead. Then I saw the shadow, something moving. Then I shot at it."

"You shot at a shadow? Could have been the owner, right."

Morowitz dropped his head, nodding slowly, staring at the table top. "I s'pose. I don't know, sir. I guess maybe I, um, panicked or something. I thought maybe it was whoever killed Ty and Kitty."

"Uh huh. Or maybe whoever owns the island. Did you use your laser?"

Morowitz's head snapped up. "Yes, sir. It's part of the grip. It works when you squeeze the grip."

"Didn't the laser light up what you were shooting at?"

"I didn't see anything."

"You didn't?"

"No, sir. I was...I couldn't see that well. I--"

"With a green laser? You couldn't see with a green laser?"

"No, sir. I guess I was pretty upset."

"Upset, huh? But you shot anyway, didn't you? It could have been anybody, but you shot anyway."

"Yes, sir, I did."

"With exploding bullets."

"With what?"

"Exploding bullets. You know, the kind Hinckley used on President Reagan. The ones in your revolver."

"I...I don't know what you mean. I just had snake loads. I don't have any exploding bullets." He turned to Blow, face crinkled in helpless confusion. Blow studied his client, then looked up at Campbell. The clean-shaven cop wore a grim smile.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION -- Ben Lerner

One and possibly two good things came of my not knowing then that Jonathan Franzen had given Leaving the Atocha Station a two-eyebrows-up recommendation. The good things are sequentially related. First, solely because Maureen Corrigan praised Ben Lerner's debut novel as "one of the most compelling books about nothing I've ever read," I read it. Then (a word smarmy, smug Jonathan Franzen preemptively scolds any serious writer for using) because I so liked Leaving the Atocha Station, I've since, upon learning of his endorsement, decided to break my lifelong shunning of anything by Franzen and read one of his goddam books.


No doubt it was sheer cosmic cooperation back in 2011 that shielded me from knowing the novelist New York Times literary assassin Michiko Kakutani reduces to choking, self-pitying sobs whenever he so much as begins to associate something with her had deigned to bless Leaving the Atocha Station. Nor can I rule out the possibility knowing one of Kakutani's favorite whipping boys had shone his tepid countenance upon Leaving the Atocha Station wouldn't have preempted my welcoming such Corrigan exuberance as “flip, hip, smart, and very funny” and “unlike any other novel-reading experience I’ve had for a long time,” and then (haha, Franzen, you pusillanimous pecksniff) going on to say Flavorpill, a self-described “daily guide to [high] quality cultural events in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and London.," had anointed Leaving the Atocha Station as “the coolest indie press book going around right now.” Franzen schmanzen, I mean who doesn't want to be seen as cool by those who count? And Lerner was already a National Book Award finalist in poetry. Solid literary creds, probly why Franzen wheezed and scrabbled his way onto the Lerner bandwagon--they even look a little alike. Had I known this then...nah, I'd have read it anyway. I've always pretty much trusted Corrigan (despite her having once praised a Franzen novel--every human's entitled, we are told, to occasionally err). I shall probably always detest Jonathan Franzen, on strictly intuitive principles, but, then (yeah, hahahahaha) he was right about Lerner, so...

So what's so hot about Leaving the Atocha Station? I'm giving you some links to professional opinions. In a New York Times review novelist Gary Sernovitz insightfully compares Lerner's novel with Hemingway's debut, American expatriot classic The Sun Also Rises. Sernovitz calls Leaving "a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice. It is also a revealing study of what it’s like to be a young American abroad." (I figure anyone who uses a word like bildungsroman as easily as, say, then, is no one to mess with.) And Sernovitz adds that Adam Gordon (Lerner's answer to Hemingway's Jake Barnes), "a poet, having bluffed his way into a fellowship in Madrid, makes friends, struggles with Spanish, smokes hash, wanders around, writes poetry, doubts poetry and has two low-energy love affairs."



No bullfights, no stoic, macho triumphs or beautiful final lines like "isn't it pretty to think so." It does have the kind of spectacular drama a Jake Barnes would have waded into, flinging subtly charged monosyllables at all the right moments: the terrorist bombing of Madrid's main train station, but Adam Gordon can't summon enough concern to give it much of a hoot. It's even doubtful the Atocha bombing has more than a coincidental name-recognition link to the book's title, which the pro critics say more than likely relates to a nasty little poem by the hugely celebrated (among the entendring patriciate) post-post-post-post...(not sure how many we need here)...modern poet John Ashbery. Here are the first few lines should you think I'm being unfair with the "nasty":



LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION
       by John Ashbery

The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness 
And pulling us out of there experiencing it 
he meanwhile ... And the fried bats they sell there 
dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds...
Other people ...               flash 
the garden are you boning 
and defunct covering ... Blind dog expressed royalties 
comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip
Favorable       to         near the night pin
loading formaldehyde. the table torn from you
Suddenly       and we are close
Mouthing the root           when you think
generator       homes enjoy leered

The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof 
         driving tractor to squash 
Leaving the Atocha Station    steel 
infected bumps the screws
everywhere wells 
abolished top ill-lit 
scarecrow falls   Time, progress and good sense 
strike of shopkeepers dark blood 
no forest you can name drunk scrolls 
the completely new Italian hair ...
Baby ...   


Catch the drift? I'm no poet, obviously, and knowing this connection, the Ashbery one, and that Lerner himself was a celebrated poet presumably of that ilk, might have helped with the insipid Franzen's endorsement to steer me away from this novel. So glad I was ignorant of all that, and while I seriously doubt I will ever read any of Lerner's poetry--even the collection he's archly titled I Hate Poetry (the poems therein I suspect intended for academics, dilettantes, and other post-post-post, etc. modern poets)--I would with hungry anticipation read another novel of his were he to write one.
pecksniff

Leaving Atocha Station carried me back to my own youthful wanderings in Paris and Barcelona pretending to be a writer and romantically presuming to fathom life and trying desperately to be cool. The essential difference between us (me and Adam Gordon) is that Gordon is brilliant. He understands his narcissism and uses it to what he hopes is his advantage. This means he can laugh at himself, like when he attends an upscale party and realizes he's woefully outclassed:



As we entered the party I reminded myself to breathe. There were a lot of handsome people in the sweeping whit-carpeted living room with minimalist furniture and monumental paintings on the carefully lit walls.

Various people greeted us and Teresa detached from me to kiss them and I was acutely aware of not being attractive enough for my surroundings; luckily I had a strategy for such situations, one I had developed over many visits to New York with the dim kids of the stars: I opened my eyes a little more widely than normal, opened them to a very specific point, raising my eyebrows and also allowing my mouth to curl up into the implication of a smile. I held this look steady once it had obtained, a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings. A look that contained a dose of contempt I hoped could be read as political, as insinuating that, after a frivolous night, I would be returning to the front lines of some struggle that would render whatever I experienced in such company null.

The goal of this look was to make my insufficiencies appear chosen, to give my unstylish hair and clothes the force of protest; I was a figure for the outside to this life, I had known it and rejected it and now was back as an ambassador from a reality more immediate and just.




Coffee House Press, Lerner's publisher, includes blurbs on its website from many review's of his book. One I especially like, from Open Letters Monthly, says, . . . Leaving the Atocha Station is as much an apologia for poetry as it is a novel. Lerner’s ability to accomplish both projects at once is a marvel. His sense of narrative forward motion and his penchant for rumination are kept in constant competition with one another, so that neither is allowed to keep the upper hand for long. Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel for poets, liars, and equivocators—that is, for aspects of us all. It is also a poem, dedicated to the gulf between self and self-ego and alter ego, “true me” and “false me,” present self and outgrown past.”

Wish I could grasp good writing that way and discuss it as intelligently. Wish I could write prose like Lerner's.

Franzen? That insufferably overrated, Kakutani-whipped, sob-sister prima donna? We'll see.



More links to excellent reviews:

Jenny Turner in Great Britain's The Guardian

James Wood in The New Yorker

Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air




[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog: