Posts from May 2012

May 31st, 2012

Predictable Trials in the Penny Press!

It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.

Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:

At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.

But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.

I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.

So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:

Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.

Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.

Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”

So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.

The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.

That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genrescan inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).

And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?

That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.

And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …

December 12th, 2011

Stevereads Honor Roll 2011: Fiction!

1. Embassytown by China Mieville – Mieville’s last great book, The City and the City, was about the nature of perception, what we choose to see and not see, and his new one is just as effectively about language, how we say what we mean, how our words define and even create us – but it’s also a ripping good story, full of memorable characters and realistic action, from a modern master of science fiction, a writer who just gets better and better at making his intensely-imagined worlds vitally interesting and real, even to readers who don’t usually indulge in sci-fi.

 

 

 

 

2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman – Fantasy elements feature prominently on our list this year, and the subject of fantasy comes up often in Grossman’s subtle, sumptuous, and very funny sequel to The Magicians. We follow some of the same characters – his exquisitely-realized and often very annoying quartet of main characters who’ve grown bored with the fantasy-paradise they acquired at the end of the previous book. Grossman’s prose is marvellous, and his narrative, in addition to being unfailingly interesting in its own right, is also a happy send-up of several imbecilic but well-known fantasy series we could all name, if we were brave enough.

 

 

 

3. A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind by Christien CholsonThere’s quite a lot going on in Cholson’s debut fiction collection, and all of it is orchestrated with such dry wit and deep thought that it barely ripples the surfaces of this story about a handful of remarkable people in a small village in Belgium. That village wakes one day to encounter fish everywhere, fallen on field and street, and the novel’s matter-of-fact surrealism takes off from there. As some of you may know, I usually detest whimsy in fiction – it almost always strikes me as laziness on the part of the author, who mistakes ‘anything can happen in life’ for ‘I can just let anything happen in my fiction’ and then refuses to correct the mistake when it’s pointed out to them. But controlled whimsy – ah, now there’s another story! And that’s what readers get here: wonderfully intelligent, controlled whimsy of a quality rarely seen in contemporary fiction. We should all band together and make this author famous.

 

4. The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco – All of Eco’s familiar ticks are on abundant display in this novel (all his book should be called ‘Which reminds me of a story’), yet they somehow coalesce into a tightly gripping story with nary an annoyance in sight. Eco hear examines the authenticity of narrative itself, centering on one of the most corrosively inauthentic narratives of modern times, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and serving up one of the least savory and most interesting main characters he’s ever created. There are infinite digressions and mini-seminars, but somehow in this book more than in any novel Eco’s written since The Name of the Rose, it all stays firmly under his control, and the end result works amazingly well.

 

5. My New American Life by Francine Prose – Many writers who’ve previously only displeased me are showing up on this year’s Best lists, which is as happy as it is disturbing to a crusty old pedantosaurus like me. Prose has always been one of those authors, and yet her work in her latest novel impressed and delighted me. It’s the story of Lula, a sharply observant Albanian woman working as a nanny in New Jersey on an expiring visa. Her charge is Zeke, a high school senior (their relationship is the best part of the book), and her relatively idyllic situation is upset by the arrival of three shady fellow-Albanians, who both intentionally and unintentionally threaten Lula’s new American life. This novel didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves – I’m hoping the publisher retains its fantastic cover and pushes the paperback a little more enthusiastically, especially now that they have Stevereads in their corner!

 

6. Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie – Likewise Beattie, who’s never struck me as anything better than third-rate, here strikes gold, re-imagining Pat Nixon from the inside out in exactly the way we want all our novelists to do. This is snappy, intelligent prose, as skillful an exercise in re-imaging a First Lady’s life as Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and in some ways even more resonant, since Pat Nixon’s strengths were far more drastically offset by her husband’s weaknesses, and her tragedies were far more sharply undercut by his monumental evil. The main thing the two books have in common is virtuoso storytelling; this is the best thing Beattie’s ever written.

7. Zone One by Colson Whitehead – Last year, Justin Cronin’s The Passage seemed to put a stink on all Tribeca facelifts on pop horror, so you’d think there’d be no chance for Whitehead’s tale of urban zombies – but as always, the key is execution – and Whitehead is a far better writer even in a minor key than Cronin is on his best day, so Zone One works. The neat brio with which Whitehead attacks his oft-told tale, the almost-deadpan conviction of his approach of course calls to mind the Bible of zombie fiction, Max Brooks’ World War Z, but Zone One is only accidentally an homage, and it will bowl readers over entirely on its own terms.

 

 

 

8. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips – Phillips got a bad rap from critics for this rambunctious novel about a lost Shakespeare play, but the abuse was all off-base – this is actually a fiendishly clever and quite touching novel masquerading as an extended literary prank. The book tells the story of a young man who inherits from his father not only a troubled family history but also a family obsession with the titular play, supposedly by Shakespeare, and I think the reason so many critics were taken aback by the final product is that The Tragedy of Arthur also includes “The Tragedy of Arthur” – half the book is given over to a line-by-line scene-by-scene (and hilariously spot-on academic note-by-academic note) reconstruction of a Shakespeare play. It’s an absolutely bravura feat of creativity, and one perhaps unsuited to the more timid ranks of our foremost professional book-reviewers in this day and age. As author ‘problems’ go, that’s the one to have.

 

9. The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – Likewise werewolves, seemingly confined to kitsch by Team Jacob: in the right hands, the whole baggy (shaggy?) mythos can resonate – as it does in Duncan’s whip-smart novel about Jake Marlowe, the grimy, sad-sack last living werewolf on Earth. Duncan has appeared on these Stevereads lists before and will again, I suspect: the sheer energy with which he first creates his concepts and then dissects them is utterly infectious, and with this novel he proves that he can bring that energy to any subject that intrigues him.

 

 

 

 

10. The Dark Earl by Virginia Henley – As far as genre Romance goes, none was better in 2011 than this tale by industry vet Henley about the real-life Earls of Lichfield, their real-life social and financial problems, and one particular heir (also real-life but perhaps not so cut and muscular in his own day as he’s been transmorgrified in our own – cover model Paul Marron is neither as doughy nor as dumpy as the real Thomas Anson was, thank God) who finds love and family fulfilment in this tough-minded and surprisingly funny novel. If you’ve got a Romance fan on your holiday list this year, you could do they no better favor than picking this book.