Tag Archives: Nicholson Baker

J.C. Hallman on Nicholson Baker

I’ve got a review of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal in the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation. The book is an exploration of Hallman’s infatuation with Nicholson Baker and is similar but meaningfully different from Baker’s own book, U & I, which chronicled his infatuation with John Updike.

Hallman describes what he’s up to better than I can:

What needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

The resulting book is totally, enjoyably, maddeningly nuts and I couldn’t put it down. Before you read the review, just go ahead and buy it. Here is a link.

The book is way more fun than whatever exercise in cultural sensitivity is currently being given the critical thumb job. For instance, while I’m just being recklessly opinionated here, instead of buying Ishiguro’s latest bland beast, save those hard-earned bucks and get this book instead.

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In related matters, my one small teensy beef with the Hallman book is what I’ve come to call the Bluets Problem. That is, an illusory commitment to full disclosure on the part of the nonfiction author, which then gets elided at some point of ultimate narrative convenience. Certain details one has come to expect are withheld from the reader. It’s the false promise of total honesty, which on the one hand totally makes sense. No author can or should tell you everything. But this completely reasonable sentiment is trapped within the autobiographical confessional mode, which subsists on the promissory premise of “I’m going to tell you everything.” What happens is that by the end of these books I feel chagrined that I’m not told more about these characters’ lives, and then I feel guilty for wanting to know everything, and then I feel like I’ve been manipulated into being a voyeur.

This also goes into my personal file of what fiction can get away with vs. what nonfiction can get away with, and actually a useful insight into this comes from none other than Jonathan Franzen.

Quick aside: I know, I know. “Jonathan Franzen, blah blah blah.” I’ve given up on the mission of having an opinion on everything Franzen does or says and whether or not he is Good or Bad for literature. Seemingly, a whole generation has substituted having a ragey opinion about Franzen in place of being well read. Love him, hate him, I do not care. (But props where props are due: the first section of Freedom is a magnificent panoramic Steadicam of novelistic goodness, even if you don’t dig that kind of thing.) (Update: See below.)

Susan Lerner: Given that you’ve written novels as well as personal essays, do you find these two forms suited to different types of exploration?

Jonathan Franzen: I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive. And it’s true that in journalism and reported essay I am exploring something. I go to China because I want to know what the environmental situation is like in China. But for internal investigation there’s nothing like fiction, because you have so much more freedom to go to places that would be too personally compromising either for yourself or for other people. You’re essentially putting on a mask, various masks, in the form of these characters. The demands of a novel are so much greater in terms of narrative propulsion, that you are really forced to poke around deep inside yourself to find strong enough emotional drivers to get you through five hundred pages of the book.

The emphasis is mine (obv).

Now, lord knows I’ve had my own critical beef with some of Franzen’s nonfiction (short version: much of the time it reads like a failure of narrative persona), but this idea of fiction as an arena that allows you to mercilessly explore what would be too compromising to explore in nonfiction — isn’t this just the essence of my Bluets Problem? Because aren’t the rocks that these nonfiction books run up against actually the shores of fiction? Isn’t the solution to the convenient narrative blurring that happens at key points in these types of books — sort of like narrative blind spots — for their authors either to throw caution to the wind and fully exploit their friends and family, or to fully fictionalize their experiences and thereby discard the booster rockets of the factually verifiable and either make up or mine and shape experience as needed? Where “need” is defined here by the necessary steps that a book has willed itself into taking? Isn’t this similar to what Lorrie Moore said in her essay a while back in the New York Review of Books, where she reviewed three memoirs and did a sort of punchy eloquent shrug at the contemporary memoir as a phenomenon and said that the books under review acted like they wanted to be novels but didn’t give themselves over to the full reckless imagination of becoming novels? In other words, these works of nonfiction come across as somewhat post-novelistic but their apparent limitations paradoxically point back to the benefits of fiction. There’s gold still in them thar hills.

Of course all of this is in my wheelhouse of self-justification because I’m constantly looking for some kind of genre legitimacy for my own work. But my main point is that authenticity, full disclosure in prose, is always a pose. And a pose is the beginning of a mask.

Update: Today, March 19, 2015, FSG released the book cover for Franzen’s next novel Purity, which won’t come out until September 1, and people are losing their everloving minds.

Come on, people. We’ve got bigger Franzens to fry than this.

Heading home to Jackson

Thank you to everyone who came out to the book signing/reading at Burke’s two Thursdays ago. It was a stuffed house, and I left feeling equally stuffed with gratitude. There’s a nice little essay by Nicholson Baker about reading one’s work aloud and the always present prospect of becoming choked up at completely inappropriate moments. It’s not so much a case of being emotionally moved by one’s own work as it is the spontaneous flood of tears at a moment of high stress. However, I am happy to say that I proudly avoided weeping while reading. That’s one of the two things I always pray for before a reading: that I will not begin to spontaneously weep and that I will not trip and fall while reading.

In other news, the Memphis Flyer ran a nice write up before the reading and they have posted an extended Q&A here.

And in additional other news, I take my one-man-signing show on the road this weekend and will proudly deface copies of my book at Lemuria in Jackson, Miss., at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4. This is my hometown bookstore, site of countless afternoons spent mooning among the paperbacks. I am not reading at this one, just signing, which is good, because at Lemuria all I would do is weep.

p.s. I finally updated my FAQ with some pressing questions that have been coming my way. Feel free to send more.

All the Rage

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
Geoff Dyer
Picador, 2009

Dyer and his brand of blurrily personal nonfiction is much in the ether lately, or at least the certain subsection of slightly literary inclined internet ether I breath, for better and worse. But more than the chatter overhead, Dyer has been urged on me by a well-read, much-respected friend, and I have finally buckled against my own inability to take reading suggestions and have read Out of Sheer Rage, his book charting his failure to write a sober, academic study of Lawrence.

I thought the book was almost an undiluted joy. Like much of Nicholson Baker’s writing, the book sounds unendurable when subjected to brief description: it’s a book which chronicles the author’s inability to sit still and write about D.H. Lawrence, a writer he both admires and who has penetrated his life to a cellular level. But also like Baker’s U & I, the book manages both to avoid its way into its subject, to be both about the author’s own interests, obsessions, tics, neuroses, while also being about Lawrence, and teaching me–a Lawrence neophyte–a great deal and making me want to read Lawrence desperately.

It also makes me want to read more Dyer. I’m not sure if Dyer’s brand of nonfiction–novelistically pliable and complex and yet learned without being fusty, essayistic without mooning into abstraction, curling into scholarship, or shedding its style into reportage–is indeed the Next Wave, but he is one of those author’s who, as I think Martin Amis said somewhere, you discover with muffled enthusiasm, realizing as you read that you’re now going to have go read everything the man has written.

But I do have a quibble. And for better and worse, quibbles are easier to write about than straight praise: I wished the book had a bit more novelistic furniture, especially toward the end. When discussing Milan Kundera in the middle of the book (pgs. 118-122 in my paperback, where he mounts his quiet assault on the novel), Dyer says, “After reading Immortality what I wanted from Kundera was a novel composed entirely of essays, stripped of the last rind of novelization.” And while I find this idea fascinating and while what I liked about this book of Dyer’s was its associative leaping from idea to idea, I found myself still wanting a little more rind. There are personal, scenic-like details that crop up repeatedly–Dyer’s girlfriend Laura is a wonderful foil, for instance–but these ingredients raise certain expectations that go unfulfilled. For example, Dyer buys a flat in Oxford, England–Dullford, he calls it. And it occurs at a point in the book where this seems like the most reckless action he could take, and yet he doesn’t really go into the why or the how of the purchase. He doesn’t pay it the same kind of narrative attention I was expecting. He thinks about so much in this book, but he doesn’t really allow himself the room to think about this. And it seems less like an interesting narrative maneuver than it does an avoidance of his responsibility as a narrator. In a novel, we would just call this an example of an unreliable narrator, but in a work of nonfiction, does this not just become an author’s mistake?

And while it’s his book, his life, his aesthetic, and while I realize he wants to rid himself of these kind of well-made novelistic restrictions, and while I’m not sure if this fault is either his or mine, I still wanted to hear more about that stupid flat; I wanted to see him besotted by all that paperwork, signing his life away. This is a problem with personal nonfiction of this sort, in that it’s personal only up to a point. It is open but shields the true, fully honest self off from the reader. So, paradoxically, a novel feasibly becomes a more honest way to communicate with a reader because an author isn’t always deploying these invisible firewalls between himself and the reader while maintaining a facade of jocular openness.

Does this reaction make me hopelessly old-fashioned? I feel suddenly like an old man at a concert, complaining about the volume.

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

I’m happy to report that Lady Chatterley’s Brother: Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can, an ebook I have written with Scott Esposito, is now officially on the cyber shelves. It’s sort of like an electronic pamphlet, long and argumentative yet sprightly and topical, covering how two contemporary authors treat that most hazardous of subjects: s-e-x. The booklet consists of two long essays, each approximately 35 pages in length. Mine is called “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy” and Scott’s essay is called “Just Do It: Javier Marias’ Sexless Sexuality.”

Cover of Lady Chatterley's Brother

The ebook is the first installment in the TQC Long Essays series, and happily it’s another iteration of the current crop of longish essays and pieces of nonfiction sprouting up to take advantage of ereaders. I am personally really enjoying how ereaders provide an as-yet-unthought-of market for pieces that are too long for traditional magazine space and too long for a regular website/blog posting and yet too brief for an actual book. It’s like a pamphlet without the staple binding.

As for the topic, it grew out of conversations Scott and I were having about Baker. I’ve written about Baker several times. I kind of have a thing for Baker, but when word came that his newest novel House of Holes was going to be another sex novel, I wanted to run for the hills. Instead, Scott forced me to articulate why I disliked these novels and why I felt they were an aberration on an otherwise wonderfully rewarding and idiosyncratic career. And he coupled all of my criticisms of Baker with his analysis of Marias. The result was, as they say, a learning experience.

Finally, it simply feels rewarding to write this kind of long, impassioned literary criticism. It’s not academic scholarship (obviously), but it’s also not your typical lite journalistic fare–either the too-brief newspaper book reviews, or the reviews that use books to make undercooked socio-political observations rather than actually analyzing the writing on the table. The hope is that essays like these debate books at full volume while also recognizing the personal grain of the actual writer, book reviews birthed within a writer’s sole sensibility. Or to put this much more simply: bookish essays that are fun to read in and of themselves, in addition to the commentary they provide.

For excerpts of these essays, please visit here. It’s available for sale in these formats: ePub, MOBI, Amazon Kindle, and PDF. You can buy it directly from Scott’s website via PayPal, from B&N.com, or from Amazon.

(Now that this project is complete, my personal plan is to buy the book on my Kindle and then enable the text-to-speech feature and listen to my own sentences come back at me with that pauseless, speak-n-spell voice they have rigged up in that little machine–like bedtime reading conducted by the Terminator.)

From Updike to Baker to Wallace

Hello.

I am happy to report that my essay about the cross-pollinations between John Updike, Nicholson Baker, and David Foster Wallace is up at the Quarterly Conversation. It’s part of the newest fall issue, which also includes essays and reviews covering Stefan Zweig, David Shields, that new “alternative history of the novel” by Steven Moore, and, as Nabokov might say, much, much more.

In the essay I argue that Baker is a kind of stylistic midpoint between Updike and Wallace, and that all three writers can be understood as stylistic sequels to one another. Finishing up the essay got me thinking about writer-on-writer influence in general and stylistic overlap in particular. At the same time I was teaching some of Henry James’s stories, and it was while reading “The Jolly Corner”–that long, digressive, thickened, dark night of the self–that I thought of Wallace’s prose, especially the prose in Oblivion, his last story collection. Does Late James have something in common with Late Wallace? There’s a more substantive, quotation-filled post there. But, as Hemingway might say, I’ll fish that swamp tomorrow.