Category Archives: The Quarterly Conversation

Note on Marilynne Robinson

I’m happy to report that I have a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, this time of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays The Givenness of Things.

And now here is a little thought fragment that did not make it into the review: In the review I joke briefly about the idea of Robinson running for president and dicuss the interview/conversation between her and President Obama that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. In that talk, which is more than anything a chance for Obama to interview a writer he admires, Robinson discusses her parents:

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something — drawing or painting or whatever we were doing — then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

Now, compare this parental residue to a real-life presidential candidate, whose parents are a known entity: Jeb Bush. A few weeks ago, Jeb! had this exchange:

The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him.

“All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.

I’m struck by the overwhelming sadness of that statement — how haunted and trapped he must feel. Think of having to run for president in order to alleviate your father’s disappointment in you, or perhaps to preempt it.

And then think, on the other side, the Robinson side, of the freedom that she received instead, a freedom that comes from a kind of love, almost a careless love, almost a form of inattention. As someone who is now a parent myself, I am haunted by these two anecdotes. It could be argued that Jeb is the much more successful adult in many contemporary, measurable ways, and yet one doesn’t have to pay much attention to perceive who the more seemingly content figure is, spiritually or otherwise. In that race, Robinson wins by a landslide.

Review of ‘Loitering’

I’ve got a review of the new Charles D’Ambrosio essay collection Loitering in today’s new issue of the Quarterly Conversation. It’s been a while since I’ve had a review in QC and it feels great to be back.

Are we living through some kind of surprise golden age of the personal essay, or at least the book-length collection of personal essays? Beats me, but after reading books like D’Ambrosio’s, it sure feels like it.

DFW: The Last Interview, Reviewed

David Foster Wallace, The Last Interview

There’s a new issue of the Quarterly Conversation out. Not only does it have my review of David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview, it also contains Andrew Altschul on Wallace’s posthumous collection of nonfiction Both Flesh and Not, David Winters on Sam Lipsyte’s new story collection, and Dev Varma on Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel Fra Keeler. I included that last one because Varma is a friend and I enjoyed getting to type all of those letters. Enjoy!