Archive for April, 2007

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Top Ten Short Stories

April 28, 2007

On Monday The Literate Kitten posted a ten favorite short stories list, and challenged others to do the same. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

I must confess that I am not a reader of short stories, generally, and therefore my list has a very Nortonesque flavor to it:

  1. “The Dead,” Joyce
  2. “Investigations of a Dog,” Kafka
  3. “Gimpel the Fool,” Singer
  4. “White Nights,” Dostoevsky
  5. “Revelation,” O’Connor
  6. “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne
  7. “Cathedral,” Carver
  8. “Barn Burning,” Faulkner
  9. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” Fitzgerald
  10. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger

Many of the items on my list also appear on tLK’s, which either means that we have similar taste, or that we both read the Norton Anthology…

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Over and Over

April 27, 2007

Interesting news here about Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which comes out next week.

Apparently Chabon, at the urging of his editor, decided to basically re-write the novel, and “added a flashback structure and pared down the language into a hard-boiled, Yiddish-inflected patois.”

“I shudder now when I think that I would have published the old draft”

I wonder whether it was section from the new or old version that appeared recently in the Fall 2006 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. I’m hoping it was the old, because I did not like the excerpt very well.

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Booklog: Slaughterhouse-Five

April 27, 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Read: 4.15.07
Rating: Good

Last week, upon hearing that Kurt Vonnegut had died, I immediately put Slaughterhouse-Five into my bag before heading out the door. I’ve intended to read it for well over a year now, and the man’s death was a clear indication that the time had come.

I’ve read at least two other novels of Vonnegut’s: Breakfast of Champions as a teenager, and Cat’s Cradle between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I enjoyed both books, and remember Cat’s Cradle very fondly — my hope was that Vonnegut would improve upon a re-visit. Sadly, this was not the case: I certainly do like this novel and Vonnegut’s trademark style and approach, but I think my taste for him has withered for the time being. There’s no telling how one will feel about an author later in life, but I think Kurt Vonnegut and I are through for a while.

The most enjoyable aspects of Vonnegut’s style are closely tied to its shortcomings: he is a highly amusing writer, ruthlessly clever. His prose oozes dry irony, and his best sentences have a quick bite that is wholly his own. There is much to praise in Vonnegut’s application of this style to Slaughterhouse-Five‘s big scary topics: massacre, death, and war. His cutting, counter-cultural tone centers around the stoic phrase “So it goes” that marches through the text. Whenever a death or tragedy is mentioned, “So it goes” follows immediately. At times Vonnegut’s placement of the phrase is gut-wrenching, at others light and humorous. For example, take these paragraphs from page 101. At this point, Billy Pilgrim, the book’s protagonist, is lying in bed at a mental institution, next to a man named Eliot Rosewater, who is also a WWII veteran:

Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.

[Three paragraphs later]

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table — two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

A fine stoicism and humor colors Vonnegut’s “So it goes”. These two qualities are the best of what Vonnegut’s writing offers.

My trouble with Vonnegut’s writing is when it becomes too cute. Take, for example, the three paragraphs that come between the two I just praised:

So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Another time Billy heard Rosewater say to a psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

I find these short, one-sentence paragraphs, with their italics for emphasis, pithy and way too precious. I realize I’ve just sectioned off one half-page of a novel, but I did so because it so clearly demonstrates the highs and lows of Vonnegut’s style.

Vonnegut is, first and foremost, a stylist, and whether the reader enjoys his books depends on the reader’s own sense of style. This reader believes that Vonnegut is a shining example of a very old brand of stoicism, which he has successfully updated into modern times by restyling it, draping it in irony, knowingness, and cutting humor — traits that very successfully appeal to modern sensibilities. In Slaughterhouse-Five, his ideas are not large or deep, but his topic is, so his stance of detachment and sardonic wit operates in place of traditional analysis and insight. It’s something, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s for me.

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How Nice!

April 19, 2007

In an article originally appearing in The New Republic, cross-posted on Powell’s, Lee Siegel considers Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, and What is the What:

First, on the problem with Eggers and McSweeney’s:

The assumptions of A Heartbreaking Work were that fantasy is co-extensive with reality, that making stuff up is fine if it preserves your trueheartedness. But these assumptions collapse in What Is the What — or, rather, they are routed by its subject. The encounter between Eggers’s small sly ethos and a genocidal historical event is a messy collision between childhood and reality; between whimsical, self-protective artistic license and a situation where life and death are balanced on the difference between truth and falsehood.

Finally, on the failures of What is the What speciffically:

Eggers means well, he means well, he means well — you cannot say it enough times. You do not need to convince me that he wrote the book for no other reason than to move people to action with Deng’s story. But Eggers is a creature of the culture that he helped to create. He is a creature of the McSweeneyite confusion of good intentions with good art, and of its blithe elision — partly pioneered by Eggers himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.

The worst aspect of What Is the What — the title refers to a Sudanese proverb warning against the unknown — is that Deng’s attitudes are tyrannically refracted through Eggers’s reshaping of them. Deng does not represent himself. Eggers represents him. You never know whether the startling self-pity that Deng occasionally displays — when two other boys are eaten by lions, Deng laments his unluckiness — is his own or not. In Deng’s own voice, these flashes from the underside of his ego might have been extenuated by irony or self-awareness. The same goes for Deng’s hostile, suspicious, sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward American blacks. They might have been somehow vindicated in the full-throated revelation of his personality. Or maybe not. We will never know. In Eggers’s hands, the survivor’s voice does not survive.

I strongly recommend reading the full review.

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What Happens

April 17, 2007

I am now emerging, seemingly and hopefully, from an ever-dreaded “blogging slump” that caused me some degree of consternation. As I peek my head out and look around, I see that:

  • I do not have a good excuse for why I have not posted in three weeks: I was not in the hospital (although I was sick for a few days); I was not traveling (although I did just move into a new apartment which has been occupying much of my time); I was not without internet access (although getting Verizon to install DSL at my new abode has proved to be even more exasperating than I feared it would be); I was not up to something productive and enriching (although I have been slammed at work recently). In short, I was busy — but then again, aren’t we all?
  • I have been obsessively occupied with the brand-new baseball season: reading everything the folks at Baseball Prospectus can cough up, over-tinkering with my fantasy team — even reading every Q & A session on Curt Shilling’s fascinating blog.
  • I have not been spending much time reading and playing in the corner of the blogosphere I have set myself in — partially because I realized that I was stretching it into a large room without realizing it.
  • I have not been reading The Recognitions with any sort of regularity or speed. It’s certainly not surprising that I am having trouble with this 940-page Joycean baggy monster, but I was doing so well for so long that my hopes were jacked up beyond capacity. As a result, my Chunkster Challenge list now looks like the piece of beginner’s bravado that it probably always was. I think it may be time to throw in the towel: If I can’t finish the whole list, it’s not worth much to me.

I did read Slaughterhouse-Five in honor of Vonnegut’s unfortunate passing, and I did read a mighty fine short story (“The Black Monk”) by Chekhov. I’ve been making some headway into the new VQR, and finished reading and being disappointed by Issue 5 of n+1 (my first). More on these to follow.

Now that I’ve broken my silence, expect to see a response to Slaughterhouse-Five soon, as well as — hopefully fingers-crossed — some words on n+1.