Even as a child of the eighties, I feel indebted to the Beat Generation, a group of writers that had a major influence on the cultural and literary landscape of America, beginning in the 50s, through the upheaval of the 60s, and on to the end of the century. I have been fascinated, inspired (and sometimes repulsed) by their idiosyncratic antics, intellectual enthusiasm, and rejection of social norms since I first read Kerouac’s On the Road one summer in college. Since then, I’ve slept in the bed Ginsberg supposedly slept in at a bookstore in Paris, heard stories about Corso stealing books from the owner of that same bookstore, collected postcard photographs of Burroughs, Cassady, and Kerouac as well as the Pocket Poet Series at City Lights, and had the chance to meet and talk to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Anne Waldman. As Bill Morgan says in his introduction to a new history of the Beats, The Typewriter is Holy (Free Press, $28.00), “There appears to be no middle ground: either a reader knows a good deal about the lives of [members of the Beat canon], or they are not familiar with them at all.”
Morgan, who was Ginsberg’s biographer and personally knew many of the Beats, goes on to explain that the book is meant for people who have little or no idea about the Beat writers or why their works are important. But as a methodical and chronological account of where each member of the group was and what they were doing over forty years, it seems that the book would be most interesting to people like me, who already have a basic interest and familiarly with the various characters. I read the book slowly, taking in the details and connections I didn’t realize: Ginsberg’s love for Neal Cassady, the extent of Kerouac’s drinking problems, or Burroughs's dislike for Timothy Leary’s drug experimentation. The book also inspired me to go back and discover the works of lesser known writers such as Joanne Kyger or Philip Whalen, and I continually flipped through The Beat Book, a collection of writings from the Beat Generation edited by Anne Waldman, in order to connect the personality driven narrative of The Typewriter is Holy with the actual writing.
The Typewriter is Holy paints a vivid picture of the individuals behind the books and poems, beginning with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs’s meeting at Columbia in the 1940s and the ominous murder of David Kemmerer by Lucien Carr, their close friend and classmate. This inauspicious first chapter sets the stage for what would follow for the next 40 years—reckless behaviour, letterwriting, mutual inspiration and encouragment, and mostly homoerotic loyal friendships, all socially centered around Allen Ginsberg. We get a biographical sketch of all the major players: young Kerouac carrying around his manuscripts, determined to be recognized as a serious writer, later living with his mother until the end of his life, increasingly addicted to alcohol; Burroughs, constantly succumbing to and recovering from drug addictions, tragically killing his wife Joan when trying to shoot a glass off her head with a shotgun; Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s inspiration for On the Road, a sexual maniac, settling down with wife Carolyn, only to leave her many times and even encouraging her to have an affair with Kerouac; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the young independent publisher who agreed to publish Ginsberg’s Howl, and later many of the Beats at City Lights; and finally Allen Ginsberg himself, the social center and literary spark to all of the friendships.
Bill Morgan acknowledges the backlash against the popularity of the Beats, quoting critic Rodger Kimball as saying, “They were drug-abusing sexual predators and infantile narcissists whose shamelessness helped dupe a confused and gullible public into believing that their utterances were works of genius.” There are moments when even I, a professed fan of the Beats, understand where this sentiment might come from, and reading this book only compounded some of those feelings with details of the murders of David Kemmerer and Joan Burroughs, excessive heroin addictions, bailouts from jail by wealthy realitives, and going too far with LSD experimentation. I even see examples sometimes in Beat writing—I remember feeling that there was little literary merit to the benzadrine fuled conversations that were recorded in Visions of Cody when I tried to read it.
Morgan is also correct to mention the misogony of the Beats, which is conspicuous in works like On the Road. Women are described as sexual objects and mostly nuisences, discarded as quickly as they are pursued. The Typewriter is Holy reveals that Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady, Orlonsky, all had relationships with women, but sexually preferred men, which may explain why there was such a focus on male relationships in the group. Additionally, they didn’t recognize their female friends’ intellectual capacities—Diane DiPrima, Joanne Kyger , perhaps Joan Burroughs, and later Anne Waldman are exceptions, but they were only appreciated or acknowledged later or in retrospect. Burroughs was by far the worst—not only does Morgan say that he felt little remorse when he killed his wife—he even apparently said that “women are an alien virus that need to be segregated from men.”
But for all their faults, The Typewriter is Holy proves that through the details of their lives, the Beats’ dedication to issues like censorship, alternative forms of spirituality, pacificism, anti-materialism, and individual freedom have had lasting influence on American culture. Where Morgan is most helpful as narrarator is when he helps the reader put the Beat Generation in a literary, social, and historical context. The Beat Generation should not be considered a literary movement, he says, “it was their friendship that they shared and not any one common literary style, philosophy, or social theory.” The group that became known as “the Beats” (a name that Ginsberg embraced, but that Ferlinghetti and others distanced themselves from) is really the story of Allen Ginsberg’s desire to gather friends around him. It was his enthusiasm and loyalty—that sometimes bordered on obsession—was what influenced so many of them to write and to be published.
In the process of trying to situate the Beat Generation in context, Morgan also gives a nuanced definition of what Kerouac meant when he coined the term Beat, and what it came to mean. Kerouac initially said that the Beat Generation was composed of people who had been beaten down, worn out, and exhaused. As time passed he refined his definition to emphasize the beatific, blessed or spritual qualities of the generation. Later, at the request of the American College Dictionary, he sent in this definition: “beat generation, members of the generation that came of age after World War II-Korean War who joined in a relaxation of social and sexual tensions and espouse anti-regimentation, mystic disaffiliation and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of Cold War disillusionment.” The book also mentions that the Beats could be considered the original “hipsters,” a term coined after the Jazz age that usually referred to white middle-class youths that sought to emulate the lifestyle of the largly-black Jazz musicians they admired, or as Kerouac described 1940s hipsters, “rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality.”
Perhaps the most obvious lesson from reading The Typewriter is Holy is that a neat and simple biography or definition of the Beat Generation is impossible: they were messy, chaotic, controversial and crazy. Their travels, struggles, and triumphs are fascinating to read about, but as Morgan concludes, we are still trying to understand exactly what literary and cultural legacy the Beat movement has inspired. Perhaps, the best definition of the Beats can be taken from Burrough’s attitude toward art, who once told his friends (quoting Morgan here, who paraphrases), “that art was merely a word and it meant whatever the person who used it wanted it to mean.” ...more
The raw emotional beauty of Nicole Krauss’s writing reminds me of why I love books. The experience of reading a line that catches my breath with its poetic wisdom or the feeling of being so involved with her characters’ emotional lives that I continue thinking about them long after I turn the page are the literary thrills that draw me to her writing. Krauss is a master of revealing a complex plot piece by piece, which adds to the intensity and drama of her revelations. In her latest novel, Great House (W. W. Norton, $24.95), Krauss addresses loss and loneliness, the nature of love, and the difficulty of relationships through four separate stories about characters living in New York, Jerusalem, and London. Each of the stories directly or indirectly involves a wooden desk, and furniture becomes a metaphor for memories and emotions that are passed on from parents, lovers, friends, and siblings.
Great House follows Krauss’s wildly popular second novel, The History of Love, the story of a mysterious book within the book, written by a lovable and lonely Jewish octogenarian named Leo Gursky and discovered by fourteen-year-old Alma Singer. The History of Love focuses on the family members and connections surrounding one man’s lifelong love for one woman and culminates with a very satisfying ending. But Krauss’s new novel deals with many different kinds of longing and love—the charismatic pull of a stranger, a father’s struggle to express his feelings for his son, siblings who share an eerily intense bond, a young couple passionately in love, and an older husband and wife who have secrets between them—but the final chapter doesn’t answer all of the questions raised in the novel in the same way that The History of Love ends with a solution to the novel’s central mystery.
Perhaps that is because Great House is really a linked quartet of short stories that are broken up into separate chapters, beginning with “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky,” which was first published in Harper's Magazine in 2007 and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories collection in 2008. In the first chapter, Daniel Varsky is introduced as a poet from Chile who briefly meets the narrator in New York City. The narrator has separated from her boyfriend of two years and needs furniture since she has recently moved into a new apartment. Varsky is traveling and offers to leave the furniture he owns, including a large wooden desk with many drawers, in the narrator’s care with the understanding that she will return the pieces someday. But he never comes back. At the time, Chile is going through political struggles during the reign of Augusto Pinochet after a 1973 military coup. Varsky apparently gets caught up in the violence and disappears. After she hears of the young poet's death, the narrator continues to feel responsible for his belongings and almost obsessively mourns for him, a person she barely knew.
This introduction to Daniel Varsky and the desk imbue them with an importance that inspires careful attention when they are mentioned in each of the short stories. But there is a disconnect in the desk device—while a desk is mentioned as the place where pages of a manuscript are kept in a subsequent chapter titled “True Kindness,” which follows a troubled Israeli solider named Dovik from the point of view of his angry and frustrated father, it’s not the same large wooden desk from the first chapter. Or maybe it is? The necessity to pay careful attention to understand the complex interconnections of characters make the novel intriguing and thought-provoking, but sometimes the chapters and interwoven plot elements seemed too loosely connected.
As I searched for clues about the identity of Daniel Varsky, I encountered more details that didn’t quite make sense—at first I thought that Daniel Varsky visits his birth mother Lotte in the chapter “Swimming Holes,” but we later find out that his adopted mother named him Teddy. Therefore it seems likely that Daniel Varsky, a poet, visited Lotte, a writer, as an admirer of her work, and their affection and correspondence through letters is not a love affair as Lotte’s husband first suspects, but rather an interest from Lotte’s side to connect with a young man who is about the same age as the son she gave up for adoption, a son that she kept a secret from her husband. But then how did Daniel come to own the desk that was once Lotte’s?
Both The History of Love and Great House and are both metafictional mysteries in the sense that they are riddles to be solved and that Krauss deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction and its conventions. In some cases in her new novel, Krauss seems to suggest that love is like writing and the act of writing mirrors expressions of love. The first narrator describes how Varsky had kissed her the one day they spent together reading poetry and discussing politics: “The kiss was just a note of punctuation in our long conversation, a parenthetical remark made in order to assure each other of a deeply felt agreement, a mutual offer of companionship, which is so much more rare than sexual passion or even love.” In a subsequent chapter about a love affair between a young Oxford student and the son of an antiques dealer, the student reflects on a tense moment in their relationship: “No, what I felt was the torment of waiting, stuck between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next which might or might not bring a hail storm, plane crash, poetic justice, or a miraculous reversal.”
By weaving together the narratives of characters who are poets, students of literature, authors, and aspiring writers with achingly beautiful prose and sharp insights into relationships and the human condition, Krauss describes the profundity of loss, the contemporary Jewish Diaspora's relationship to the past and explores the emotional legacy passed to us from our parents. While Great House doesn’t end with a punctuation mark or a neat conclusion it is just as inspiring and rich. Perhaps a neat conclusion isn’t necessary in a book about such profound and messy questions like, how do we live with loss? How does it alter our lives?
Additionally, there are aspects of the story, not just the characters, that are enduring and memorable. In the first chapter, the narrator tells us that the desk has one drawer that is locked. She does not have the key, so she merely guesses at what the locked drawer might hold. She never attempts to force it open. Later we learn that in Jerusalem, an antiques dealer named Weisz is slowly reassembling his father’s Budapest study that was plundered by the Nazis in 1944. Weisz’s two children fear and despise him at the same time, and his daughter rebells against his obsession to find the desk. Weisz makes a living returning missing furniture to owners who receive a sort of emotional satisfaction from the physical objects that represent complex feelings from childhood, a past relationship or a deceased loved one. But Weisz reveals that he had locked that drawer as a child, that there is nothing in it. And yet the space inside that empty locked drawer seems so important.
In one of her best lines of the book, Krauss gives an answer: “There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you’d forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible.”...more
You might recognize Teddy Wayne’s name as a frequent contributor to the humor section of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (and the author of two of my favorite short pieces from the site: “Feedback from James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative-Writing Workshop” and “Parallels Between My Living Through Two Years of Middle School and Two Terms of the Bush Presidency.”) According to the note in the back of his slightly-more-serious but just-as-wonderful debut novel Kapitoil (HarperCollins, $13.99), Wayne also moonlighted as a graduate-school application essay editor for international students applying to American business schools. After three years of inspiration from smoothing out mangled English syntax sprinkled with business jargon and technical terms, Wayne’s new novel’s main character emerged: a highly talented, earnest, and socially awkward young computer programmer from Qatar named Karim Issar, who navigates the cultural differences, corporate competition and difficulties of learning a second language in pre-9/11 New York.
A cross between Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, Kapitoil gives us both the immigrant experience in New York amidst the soullessness of Wall Street and the hilarious blunders and linguistic misunderstandings that are bound to happen when learning a new language. In Kapitoil’s opening scene, Karim is on a plane that descends over the New York skyline. We feel an unsettling déjà vu as buildings come into view, until we learn the World Trade Towers are still standing, the year is 1999, and Karim has been hired by Schrub Industries to work on preventing Y2K glitches.
After working at Schrub for just a short time, Karim develops a program that will predict oil futures with algorithms based on news cycles, and his program, Kapitoil, quickly draws the attention of Schrub executives. While it is thrilling to see him get outrageous raises and a fancy office, we also see the sleazy and decadent social life of some of his Wall Street coworkers and the desperation of the executives who hope Kapitoil will help their troubled bottom line.
Wayne’s choice to set his novel in pre-9/11 New York allows us to see how Karim can live in Manhattan without causing suspicion because of his Arab background. In this respect, it is refreshing to read about a time before the events of 9/11 and the atrocious decisions of the Bush Administration changed American attitudes toward Muslims. If my two previously mentioned favorite pieces of Wayne’s from McSweeney’s tell us anything about Kapitoil, they betray the author’s utter contempt for the Bush era, and the Ulysses piece reflects his experiences in writing workshops (Wayne graduated from the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he has also taught fiction and creative nonfiction). Attention to words, language, and humor is a major element of his character and plot in Kapitoil.
The book is written in a diary format, and Karim carries a voice recorder in his pocket to diligently record words and phrases he doesn’t understand in order to look them up and define them end of each diary entry. For example, he notes “you was robbed = usage of incorrect second person to indicate unsound transaction” or “pre-game = drink alcohol in the apartment before external parties to reduce panicked feelings.” Kapitoil succeeds because we root for Karim and are charmed by his sincerity. Even with his careful attention to verb tense and his grammatical sharpness, he still says Karim-esque (defined in his journal as “representitive of Karim”) phrases like “I am stimulated” instead of “I am excited” or “muteness” for “silence.” The subtle humor in Kapitoil differs from the McSweeney’s writing, as Wayne says he wanted to “write a realist novel whose comedy derived from its humanity.” We are never laughing at Karim, we are completely on his side, and if anything, the best jokes make fun of the idiosyncrasies of the English language.
Karim attempts learning English in the same way he approaches the world: with the analytic perfection of a brilliant computer programmer. As his plane prepares for landing he does a quick equation to determine the gas required to power the aircraft. When he plays racquetball he determines how many tennis balls could fit on the court. When confronted with a problem, he likes to break the situation down into points like a mathematical proof. As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign lauguage knows, cultural humor is often lost in translation, so Karim’s response is to diligently work on his jokes because it was recommended in a business manual.
Because he approaches life so systematically and analytically, it is not surprising that at first, Karim doesn’t like Jackson Pollock’s paintings at the MoMA. But then he reads a quotation from Pollock—“I don’t use the accident—’cause I deny the accident.” Karim concludes, “possibly Pollock’s paintings have more value, because has a philosophy similar to mine, which is that life is ultimately predictable.” This concept is what guides his creation of Kapitoil, and Karim is reminded of Pollock when he examines the patterns in a mosque, the organization in a wine cellar, or when he is programming.
But by the end, Karim’s naïve belief that everything can be predicted—whether by algorithms or chance—falls apart. His sister is in an accident and falls ill, co-workers are not completely trustworthy, and the seemingly kind and loyal actions of his boss turn sickeningly sinister. The message is that a Kapitoil formula cannot be applied to real life situations, just as logarathims on autopilot cannot make huge profits without consequences.
Rebecca, Karim’s sensitive, disheartened coworker and romantic interest is a crucial guide to this conclusion. She and Karim listen to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Leonard Cohen and when he is troubled by the illogical phrase "warehouse eyes" in a John Lennon song, Rebecca replies, "sometimes it's just about the sound." Always the optimist, Karim briefly hopes he can save their relationship with diligence and logic, but his sentiment is half hearted: “Rebecca and I were both intelligent problem solvers, and even though emotions and relationships were in many ways more complex than programs and mathematics equations, I had developed my skill set significantly in these area in the last few months. Possibly it could work.” While Karim learns that the complexities of life do not neatly fit into a computer program, he also learns from his mistakes: “It is like debugging a program: Sometimes you do not truly observe something until you study it in reverse.”
For all my tidy conclusions, I enjoyed reading Kapitoil because Karim is not reduced to cliché or a caricture. He has a soul, a moral compass, and resists corruption. One of the lessons I personally took away from Kapitoil is that New York can change you—for better (as in Karim’s case because he realizes his true loyalities lie with his family) or for worse (Mr. Shraub’s obsession with capital gain turn him and his son into monsters). As Karim says, "I remembered what Mr. Schrub said about how every day there are shifts so small you do not identify them, and finally you become a different person without even recognizing it."
Kay Thompson is not a familiar name to most Americans today, even though she was a friend and colleague of some of the biggest names in twentieth century popular culture. She was a vocal coach and good friend of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horne; she was close with writers like Ray Bradbury and Truman Capote; she helped cast Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball in her second husband’s radio show; and she later upstaged Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire when she played the part of the “Think Pink” fashion magazine editor in Funny Face—just to name a few. You most likely have seen the results of Kay Thompson’s creative genius without ever knowing her name.
As Sam Irvin describes in a new biography, Kay Thompson (Simon & Schuster, $26.99), she was not only friends with famous actors, singers, and writers, she also inspired them, coached them, and had a lasting influence on countless aspiring stars. She was an incredible performer in her own right, an eccentric drama queen, and a force to be reckoned with, and was someone who had an unfailing drive to succeed and an uncanny ability to reinvent herself after experiencing disastrous personal and professional setbacks.
Thompson was also the author of one of my all-time favorite literary creations: the precocious, mischievous, and hilarious six-year-old Eloise who runs around the Plaza Hotel with her Nanny, her pet bulldog Weenie, and her pet turtle Skipperdee. She “sklonks” the barber in the kneecap and declares things like: “I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child” or “You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up. Anybody knows that.” Thompson was indeed a rawther fabulous person, as Eloise would say, but many fascinating yet previously unknown details of her life are revealed in this book: she was a founding member of the Rat Pack, her arrangements inspired the song “If Only I Had a Brain” in The Wizard of Oz, she had an affair with Andy Williams when she was eighteen years his senior, she directed John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball and an extraordinary fashion show in Versailles (Bill Cunningham called it “the Valhalla of American fashion—and everything was all downhill after that”), and she was able to convince airlines and other companies to sponsor her fabulous trips with illustrator Hilary Knight to Paris and Moscow to do firsthand research for the sequels to the original Eloise book, Eloise at the Plaza.
Born to Jewish immigrants in St. Louis, Thompson was actually the created name and persona of Catherine “Kitty” Fink, who experienced some rocky starts when she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in radio in the 1930s (when she first arrived on the West Coast, the job she had been promised didn’t come through). After landing radio work that catapulted her to stardom, she eventually became MGM’s “secret weapon” as a vocal coach for years. She was later released from her contract (and her first marriage), and started a cabaret act, “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers,” which earned her outrageous sums of money and was in demand all over the country. From radio to having the number-one nightclub routine in the world, Thompson went on to cameos in the arenas of film, fashion, and publishing, all the while making groundbreaking moves like wearing pants, designing bras, or writing what Iriving claims could be considered the first rap songs. As she herself declared, “I have always been 20 years ahead of myself.”
But this book reveals some of the darker sides of Thompson’s life: she went through two divorces and was notoriously difficult to work with, often throwing Eloise-esque temper tantrums. In the early 1970s, she told a friend, “I love love and I believe in divorce. Two great things. I’ve lived with quite a few men and alone is better. That doesn’t mean I’m a loner, I just don’t like to ask permission.” (Irvin addresses rumors that Thompson had an affair with Judy Garland, who was miserable in her own marriage to Vincent Minnelli, but this seems unlikely.) Thompson was offered many film roles and money-making proposals in her life, but she would make such outrageous demands that the person making the offer would eventually give up. From a young age, she was never happy with her looks, and she had five nose jobs and multiple facelifts. The creepiest part of the book suggests that Thompson was addicted to “B-12 vitamin cocktails” that her doctor injected into her, which, in reality, were a powerful combination of amphetamines that kept Kay always energetic and rail-thin.
Irvin did an incredible amount of research for this book, and he provides meticulous details and firsthand accounts of encounters with Thompson that really make her personality and the show business world come alive. Those in the publishing world will recognize anecdotes from Bob Bernstein and Bennett Cerf at Random House, which published the Eloise at Christmastime book (the others were published by Simon & Schuster), as well as the late Nina Bourne, the famed advertising wordsmith who edited Eloise in Paris at Simon & Schuster after its original editor, Jack Goodman, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Irvin includes plenty of classic Thompson anecdotes, including the time she drove a car across a golf course to try make it to a meeting on time, or when she disappeared and someone found her in Cuba at a hotel run by the mob, or when she sent a telegraph to Orson Welles to “ask” if she could use his name in a number she did with the Williams brothers called “Poor Suzette (with Her Restoration Bosom and Four Lovers): “Dear Darling Adorable Orson: I’m taking the liberty of using your name in a number called SUZETTE unless I hear from you to the contrary. Needless to say, it is used with charm and affection and if you are not here by 11:30 I will refuse to go on. Your lover. Kay Thompson.” For those who know Eloise, it is obvious that Kay Thompson was the creative genius behind the character with lines like these: “I’ve discovered the secret of life: A lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of job and a whole lot of tra-la-la!” or “Enthusiasm and imagination can carry you anywhere you want to go, without Vuitton luggage.”
At one point, Irvin quotes Louella Parsons as saying in the 1950s: “What a story Kay’s sensational rise to fame is—much more thrilling than fiction . . . Someday somebody’s going to write it—it would make a fascinating story.”
Sam Irvin’s editorial reply in the book is: “Ya think?”
When Jim Carroll passed away on September 11, 2009, New York lost a poet and punk rocker who was famous for writing The Basketball Diaries, an autobiographical account of his drug habits as a teenage basketball star. Carroll’s diary entries were published in book form in 1978 after first appearing in The New Yorker and inspiring a fervent readership. The cult classic was followed almost ten years later by Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973, which was less of a collection of journals than a first person series of narratives culminating in Carroll’s escape from New York to California to kick his drug habit.
As a result of these publications, the young Jim Carroll catapulted to fame, and along the way he befriended Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Ted Berrigan, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and others in the creative set in New York at the time. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review of Forced Entries in The New York Times, “the two diaries remain similar in their quest for extreme sensations and their eagerness to shock the reader . . . . At the very least, they should serve further to demystify the usefulness of drugs to writers.”
After returning to New York from California, Carroll had stopped using drugs, and began work on The Petting Zoo (Viking, $25.95), the highly anticipated novel that existed in manuscript form at the time of his death (Carroll had been doing readings from this novel since 1991). The version that Carroll left behind was subsequently edited and published through a joint effort by his agent, editor, and executor. The result is the story of Billy Wolfram, an artist who suffers a mental breakdown at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after viewing a painting by Valázquez, and struggles throughout the narrative for a sense of artistic and spiritual redemption.
Where Jim Carroll’s first two books were shocking and racy, this new novel is more introspective and personal. Considering the autobiographical nature of the first books, it is difficult to not draw connections between the author and the main character in the latest book—both are artists, Irish Catholic, originally from Manhattan, college dropouts, and conflicted regarding their sexuality. The Irish Catholic sensibility of guilt and repressed sexuality plagues Billy after his mother walks in on him masturbating as a teenager the day Kennedy is assassinated. Billy is 38 years old and is still a virgin as a consequence of this trauma.
The Catholic influence also colors a number of incidents in the book: at the beginning, Billy compares the asylum where he stays for a week to recover from his breakdown to a monastery, and he identifies with Saint Francis by way of his special connection to animals (which corresponds to the title). This connection is so special that Billy is visited in his dreams and in real life by the original raven from Noah’s ark. The bird gives him advice and attempts to explain his personal crisis that was exacerbated by viewing the Valázquez paintings: “His paintings possessed such a flawless technique that he created a religion out of his art. You too have tried to reach God through art.” The raven is some sort of attempt at magical realism, but in the book, its presence comes across as amateurish and silly.
In addition to analysis of his art’s relationship to the spirit, Bill also explores how his unusual sexual history (or lack thereof) is related to his mental crisis. Billy believes that his artistic genius and creativity is heightened by his impotence, but he also strives to break through his sexual inhibitions. The drama in the novel involves his ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of relationships with men and women, but first sexual experience with a woman seem to be a breakthrough in his creative block.
Carroll borrows from James Joyce’s conception of “paralysis” and “epiphany” in passages in the book about his main character’s creative process. Billy’s inner reflection and description addresses his personal “paralysis”: “Perhaps the trauma roused by Valázquez’s work at the Met was a curtain raised on society itself. It was just as likely that it was not Billy and his peers, but this society and this age, with its imperturbable, superficial ideologies, that was deprived of the spiritual. Perhaps the upheaval of these very thoughts—always there, but suppressed—was now what was paralyzing him.” Here, Billy’s reflection of the transformative moment he experienced at the museum involves major revelations of the limits of human ability. He also seems to feel a desire for a deeper and more profound sense of the spiritual in a world that has become oppressive and superficial to him. Billy’s thoughts in the novel are perhaps related to the author’s own feelings about his mortality before he died.
As an artist, Billy describes his creative process with another Joycean idea, “epiphany,” which Carroll seems to think is related to an intuitive sense of understanding and empathy: “[Billy| put his faith in a succinct phrase he had read in a book by Henry Miller, which resonated precisely with his personal aesthetic experience. It defined this knowledge of the heart so tersely and evocatively that it became a key part of Billy’s aesthetic vocabulary. Miller called it the ‘inner register.’”
While Billy doesn’t engage in drug use in this novel (“Billy dreaded losing control and—even for an instant—severing connections with the human spirit and intuitive consciousness that piloted him.”) he does indulge in enough solipsistic navel gazing to make for tedious reading. More a novel of ideas rather than plot driven action, the long soliloquies and diatribes from the raven and other characters in the book seemed jumbled together and were not successful as a narrative structure.
Even Billy’s own best friend Denny gets annoyed with him: “Denny was fed up with Billy’s sulking around the loft feeling sorry for himself and couldn’t bear to hear another word about the meltdown at the museum or more horror stories from the mental ward.” Other characters in the book—Billy’s mentor and art dealer Max or Marta, Billy’s housekeeper—are more interesting and complex, and I think the novel could have benefitted from further editing and character development.
Jim Carroll led a fascinating life, and his great love for New York always comes through in his writing. But because it lacks the edgy sharpness and pace of his previous writing, The Petting Zoo was ultimately disappointing, which was probably inevitable based on the hype. ...more
Scott Bradfield’s new novel begins as Salome “Sal” Jensen, a three-year-old, is taken from her home by “the man who fixed the hot water heater.” He tells her to call him Daddy, Sal acquiesces with a naïve acceptance to do as she is told, and they go to live in a squalid apartment where she is often left alone. Eventually Daddy abandons Sal, but instead of being demonized as kidnapper, Daddy serves as a kind of philosopher, spouting wisdom and advice: “I care about you as a perfect, beautiful little child with a fresh perspective on this sorry world of ours. And it’s precisely this sort of fresh perspective which may yet save us from total eco-catastrophe and self–annihilation.”
And so, it quickly becomes clear that Sal’s character in The People Who Watched Her Pass By (Two Dollar Radio, $12.00) should not be read as a typical three-year-old or a vulnerable little girl—her voice and behavior seem more suited to a wise homeless man, a sage mother, and by the end of the novel, an oracle. The adults with the greatest influence on Sal’s life have the same philosophy as the parents in Jeanette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle (another book in the “on the road” genre from a child’s point of view): kids who are left to their own devices can reap the educational and intangible benefits of suffering. But in this novel, that suffering seems never more than exceptional Sal can handle—even when she is molested or has to sleep in fields where animals graze. As an everyman figure, there is something about the lens of childhood optimism and purity that gives Sal a unique resilience. When Daddy’s apartment floods, Sal sees more than a depressing chaotic mess: “When hazy sunlight through the window caught the skin of water just right, it flashed off floating bedbugs and carpet mites, cigarette butts and gray leaves that swirled in a slow chiaroscuro, like galaxies of stars and raw matter.” When Sal is confronted with chaos she can perceive beauty and order.
In a sense, the book suggests, the man who fixed the hot water heater does Sal a favor—he frees her from the restrictions of school and rules and saves her from a sterile life in the suburbs, where all people act the same and are trapped in lives of monotonous repetition. “You can’t rely on anyone but yourself to be happy,” Daddy says, preaching self-reliance. Sal is forced to fend for herself at the tender age of four as she meets a cacophony of characters on the road, in laundromats, through the foster-care system, and in government agencies. Among them are Mrs. Anderson, the landlady who “peers out of one glaucoma-ridden eye like a fish in a bowl”; the old man who runs the Beaver-Friendly Laundro-Dry; a strange religious cult; and Herb and Molly, a couple who let Sal sleep in their basement but decide they can’t keep her because they think she might be autistic. Children’s services are always on her trail and trying to save her, but as Daddy warns Sal, “They want to take you back to the time before I found you and turn you into one of them.” Sal refuses to adhere to others’ ideas of who she should be, and her Zen-like calm confidence makes her a keen observer of the human spirit and slowly people begin to notice her supernatural holiness.
This gem of a novel is by turn instructive, incisive, beautifully vivid, and funny. Sal loves sleeping in laundromats and in one of them, she eats out of the vending machines with a kind old man who works there and provides her with a quirky sense of security: “[A]t his most pedantic, he sat beside her in one of the cracked orange plastic chairs and showed her the keys on his belt, one at a time, which Sal considered an experience almost mystical in its intensity. ‘Coin trays for the dryers,’ he would say, showing her one key. ‘Coin trays for the washer,’ showing her another.” When Sal finds a pink dress in the laudromat, she is thrilled: “Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll wear this dress and wash the one I’m wearing. It was the most delicious and unaccountable sensation she had ever known.” After spending time in child services departments and foster homes, Sal feels a connection to other homeless children, and observes that “They found comfort in dollies, plastic dinosaurs, favorite pillows, and softly textured blankets.” Everyday objects in this novel become endowed with a magical power that acts as a buffer to the corrupting forces in contemporary America.
But my favorite parts of this book are when various characters dispense unconventional love advice: Mrs. Anderson, the landlady, wants to find a man to give her everything women want: “sex in the afternoon, home-delivered pizzas and cigarettes, and a competent man to lay carpets and hang drapes.” From the moment that Tim, who works at convenience store, meets Sal, he decides that they could grow old together: “Love is not a physical experience, little girl,” he explains. “It’s more a matter of two souls adapting to one another over time and space. I don’t want you to kiss me, or hug me, or even stroke my hair. I just want you to spiritually develop along lines that are appropriate to my personal lifestyle agenda.”
More commentary than plot, The People Who Watched Her Pass By is a series of strange vignettes that take us with Sal into the desert, around the country, and even into a conversation with a coyote. Every time I came to a sparkling nugget of wisdom that resonated with me, I underlined and marked the page, and I returned to these passages multiple times to savor them. By the book’s end, I felt inspired to be as self-reliant as Sal. “You don’t change in your relationship to other people,” Sal thinks to herself in the closing pages, “you change in your relationship to yourself. It’s just that sometimes other people see it happening and try to get involved in the process.”...more
In American culture, the various kinds of human love—romantic or familial for instance—come with socially acceptable norms and responsibilities. The ultimate customary expression of romantic love is marriage between two well-matched people. In a conventional demonstration of familial love, children are expected to care for their elderly parents. But what happens when two old friends who are married to other people realize that they are soul mates? Or when a daughter struggles with her sense of duty to care for her elderly father who verbally and emotionally abused her as a child?
In Where the Love of God Hangs Out (Random House, $15.00), Amy Bloom explores that darker, more complicated side of love. The short story collection features two sets of linked stories and four that stand on their own. Amy Bloom is at her best in the short story form, and this book showcases her considerable talents to reveal the highs and the lows, the joys and sorrows of human relationships.
The first four linked stories are about Clare and William, old friends who realize they’re willing to risk everything—including their marriages and the disapproval of their adult children—to be together. Even from the very first line of the first story as they watch CNN on the couch after their respective spouses have gone to bed early (“At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame”), their adulterous affair is presented in a compassionate light. Bloom explores mature love here—the type of love in the second half of life, when passion in marriage has faded, and companionate and deep connection becomes more powerful than finding a partner based on sexual attraction or societal status.
Bloom masterfully presents Clare and William as complex characters (she is described as having a “squinty, unyielding nature,” while he is a large English man with “beautiful manners”), and describes the affinity between them with sparkling passages. Even the act of sharing a peach becomes an example of the sensual, comfortable, and even pathetic nature of their relationship: “Claire twists the nectarine sharply, and it falls into halves, each one a brilliant, glazed yellow with a prickled hot-pink center. The pit falls into her lap. They eat their halves and watch each other eat, and they drip, just a little on the quilt.” When they give in to their feelings and divorce their spouses, the conclusion seems to be that perhaps love can conquer all—all misgivings, all sense of moral behavior, and even mortality (when William dies, Claire keeps a routine that makes his memory very much alive for her).
In the best of the stand alone stories, “Between Here and Here,” Bloom shows she can be funny when the subject matter is tough—a young boy reacts to his father’s emotional and verbal abuse by “[drawing] cartoon weather maps of my father’s feelings: dark clouds of I Hate You, giving way to the sleet of Who Are You, pierced by bolts of Black Rage.” In this story, when the young boy’s sister is with their father for the last days of his life many years later, Bloom examines if filial duty can overcome a strong sense of hate.
The second linked quartet of stories begin with a shocking premise and another mismatched couple: a white widow named Julia whose husband, a famous black jazz musician has just died, sleeps with her nineteen year old stepson the day after his father’s funeral. Soon after, Lionel, the stepson, moves to Paris, and Julia is wracked with guilt about the event, acknowledging to herself that she may have ruined his life. She hopes distance will be best for her son: “When I was a lifeguard at camp, they taught us how to save panicky swimmers. The swimmers don’t realize they have to let you save them, that their terror will drown you both, and so sometimes, they taught us, you have to knock the person out to bring him in to shore.” A combination of motherly love, romantic passion and tough love are at work in Julia’s response to her actions and subsequent behavior.
A peach also appears in the second set of stories, when Lionel teaches his brother how to please a woman: “Buster gave himself to the peach until there was nothing but exhausted peach skin and bits of yellow fruit clinging to his face.” But besides the similarity between the two sets of linked stories in that they are about unlikely couples and involve a peach, they differ in that the Julia and Lionel stories aren’t as focused as Clare and William’s and there are too many characters in the former (Lionel has a number of wives and girlfriends) to get a real sense of the motivations and fleshed out sense of those women.
That said, Bloom's background in social work and psychotherapy allows her to write with honest and fascinating insight into her characters thoughts and feelings. Her characters are flawed, yet they are sympathetic and likeable—and that combination makes each story captivating and engaging, without being overly sentimental or cliché. Like Jhumpa Lahiri, she is a master of the short story form—and just as Unaccustomed Earth was a masterful follow-up to The Namesake—Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out is a welcome return to short stories after Away, her novel.
As someone once said, “We do not choose love, love chooses us.” The stories in this collection depict the unlikely occasions where love can transform two—by society’s standards—oddly matched people....more
As far as scientists have come in terms of medical breakthroughs in treating neurological disorders and depression, the interworkings of the brain and the way that humans create memories still, to a certain degree, remain mysteries. In his debut novel You Lost Me There (Riverhead, $25.95), Rosecrans Baldwin attempts to explore the subjective aspects of memory and the emotional bond of marriage from the point of view of an Alzheimer’s disease researcher.
Although the premise sounds promising, the execution is unfocused and uninspiring. Victor Aaron is a renowned geneticist whose lab off the coast of Maine is “trying to develop neuroprotective strategies for sufferers, aiming to help their neurons fight back against or even prevent the disease.” His wife of thirty-three years, Sara, was killed in a car accident several years earlier, and he has since started dating Regina, a.k.a. La Loulou, a twenty-five-year-old burlesque dancer and Ph. D. student who says “Whatever” and “WTF” a lot and calls our protagonist Chéri. With many emotional problems, among them impotence, Victor spirals into a neurotic depression, exacerbated by his discovery of notes Sara wrote on index cards, which are critical of their marriage.
Even with his sophisticated understanding of the brain and how one can combat its degeneration, Victor was unable to fight back against the malaise affecting his marriage. Sara’s notes mention that he was a poor listener and a workaholic who didn’t appreciate her writing talent (she was a successful playwright). Whatever the cause of their discord, the novel doesn’t offer enough complexity or insight to draw readers into the ennui of Victor and Sara’s marital turbulence. One scene at the end of the novel is especially annoying: Victor’s boss, a crotchety old man nicknamed “Toad,” tells Sara that he doesn’t like her hit play, and that she probably got lucky that it took off. Sara is outraged, and Toad tells her “not to get hysterical.” This episode is so distressing to Sara that she decides to leave Victor abruptly and go to Los Angeles for six months. Really? Is she so insecure that one negative comment from her husband’s elderly co-worker can make her walk out on her marriage?
Unfortunately, the backward glance at Sara and Victor’s marriage is by far the most interesting part of the novel. The other characters and their actions are bizarre, petty, and roughly sketched. Victor’s best friend Russell (who Victor briefly and suddenly accuses of having an affair with Sara) sends his young, blonde, dreadlocked daughter Cornelia to live with Victor in Maine because she wants to be a chef and work in a local restaurant, run by Sara’s addict cousin Joel. Not only do she and Victor maintain a sexual tension that is inappropriate and uncomfortable to witness (“Cornelia leaned over at one point and wiped her fingers on my khakis. Our hands were covered in lobster”), but Cornelia, as described by Baldwin, is also a parody of today’s teens who likes to “instant message outside while web-surfing while e-mailing while watching a DVD of some TV show she liked okay.” A possible exception to these unlikeable characters is Sara’s eccentric and feisty Aunt Betsy, who Victor took out on dinner dates every Friday until her death.
In You Lost Me There, more character-focused than plot-driven, Baldwin incorporates interior thought-associations and snippets of dialogue in a way that makes the writing seem inconsistent and abrupt. This may have been an attempt to mimic the thought process of memories, but I found myself getting caught in sentences like this: “This misconception that humans were so many toggles was to my mind the new phrenology, and scientists themselves were responsible for bad marketing and spreading rumors, attempting to explain our mysteries with little data.”
But what was really baffling were the strange, superfluous elements and threads interspersed in the narrative. Bruce Willis inexplicably shows up throughout the novel—in Victor’s dreams, in Sara’s sexual fantasies, as an example of someone with a nice haircut, in the form of a cardboard cutout, and in real life at a party. It is possible that we are meant to suspect that Bruce Willis had an affair with Sara because they worked together on a screenplay, but this was not entirely clear. Another seemingly symbolic device, deer antlers, are smashed through the window of Victor’s car, and he later places them near Cordelia and her boyfriend Dan when they are sleeping together. Even after tracing each mention of Bruce Willis or the antlers, it is still difficult to understand their significance.
But maybe that’s the point. Victor asks, “If two people have the same experience, but remember it differently, what does it say about their respective minds?” Others reading this novel might interpret it and remember it differently than I do. Victor muses about the the way in which anecdotes become memories, and memories are subjective and susceptible to change: "Some theories said the most accurate memory was one that's never recalled. The more the mind retells a story, the more that story hardens into a basic shape, where by remembering one detail we push ten others below the surface and construct the memory touch by touch. A sculpture between the neurons that looks like its model, just not completely."
These moments of observation, when Victor applies his scientific knowledge of the brain to relationships, create an interesting study of the intersection between empirical facts and personal emotion. Victor can’t help but analyze love—on the one hand he acknowledges that marriage isn’t a science, but then later says that he decided to marry Sara after “working it out on paper.” Victor, the consummate scientist, explains: “Decisions have multiple origins, neurologically. If we only used our brain’s rational side, we’d analyze without stopping, dissect our options into ever smaller pieces, and follow out their logical impulse that we’d forget why we began. Without our emotional voices, without the gut, without sentimental gales and whatever mute instinct governed (or not so mute considering the loudness of hunger, a sex drive’s roaring static), there’s only be dithering.” With all of the emotional baggage unpacked in You Lost Me There, the book could have benefited from a more logical plot structure, clear and rational connections, and much less dithering....more