A Thousand Pardons


A Thousand Pardons. By Jonathan Dee. Corsair, 2013.  224 pp. Corsair. £16.99. ISBN: 978 1 849 01737 4.

Jonathan Dee’s sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons, betrays a significant literary debt to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) in its plot and dramatis personae. Both novels feature career-driven, middle-aged husbands and fathers – one a lawyer, the other an environmentalist. Budding disaffection with their homemaking wives, ennui and extramarital affairs chip away at the scaffolding of both marriages. Daughters, unhinged by the separation of their disconsolate fathers and harried mothers, artfully mediate or give their parents pause for thought. In the end the parents reunite.

Dee would appear to have the makings of a satisfying novel: one in which – in the hands of Franzen,  James Salter, or John Cheever – subtle changes in affect, vocal inflections, strained silences, or physical details might have signalled the unmaking and remaking of marital bonds. Not so in A Thousand Pardons, where the serrated edges of Helen and Ben Armstead’s grief temper the reader’s sympathy. The novel opens with Helen lamenting her evenings in couples’ therapy because “to do nothing was to find it acceptable that you were in a marriage where you hardly spoke to or touched each other, where your husband was so depressed he was like the walking dead and yet the solipsism of his depression only made you feel cheated and angry”. Ben, too, is frustrated, rambling, “have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? . . . When every day begins I know that I have lived it before, I have lived the day to come already”. Incapable of discerning or expressing the subtleties of his emotions, he writes them off as “an existential crisis”. The Armsteads’ unqualified, uninflected and combative opinions, and the frenetic monologues into which they are compressed, render the novel far less moving than the detailed accretion and gradual unveiling of feeling would have done.

The novel’s rushed pace and emotional volatility persist as Ben engages in a disastrous affair with an intern and endures time in rehabilitation and prison. His wife and their daughter Sara relocate so that Helen can pursue a career in public relations, helping damaged individuals and companies to mend their reputations. The frayed mother–daughter relationship and the disruptive reappearance of a high school friend of Helen’s contribute to the novel’s antic tenor. Only Ben’s sincere yet halting communications with Sara – a clandestine meeting in which he gives her a small Christmas gift she can hide from her mother, his daily emails from prison, and his phlegmatic, non-judgemental manner when she shares her troubles with him – rescue the narrative from its brazen displays of emotion.

This piece was published in the July 26, 2013 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Here are the table of contents and proof.

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They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? By Christopher Buckley. Corsair, 2012. 336 pp. £11.99. ISBN: 978 1 78033 672 5.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. By Ben Fountain. Canongate, 2012. 309pp. £16.99. ISBN: 978 0 85786 438 3.

In The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, literary critic James Wood countered comedy’s being “awarded the prize of ineffability” by those who underestimate the “possibilities of [its] exegesis.” “Tragicomic stoicism,” or “the comedy of forgiveness…of laughing with,” and “the comedy of correction…a way of laughing at” are salient categories of humor in the novel, he argued. The antiheroes of the two novels under consideration here, Christopher Buckley’s They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, exemplify these types of comedy in their struggles with artifice and duplicity, eliciting readers’ mockery and empathy respectively.

A veteran humorist best known for Thank You For Smoking and Florence of Arabia, Buckley has written a wickedly ludic eleventh novel featuring Walter “Bird” McIntyre, a nebbishy Washington defense lobbyist. The marked contrast between Bird’s delusions of grandeur and his professional foibles shape the novel’s humor. Devoting himself to the study of China, Bird seeks an “unnerving specter” to upend America’s “coma of complacency.” Former Goldwater girl Angel Templeton, a neo-conservative sylph, proves an able co-conspirator. The title They Eat Puppies refers to her sheer hatred of China for its Communism and “cozy[ing] up to loathsome regimes like North Korea.” When Bird persuades her that the purported threat of the Chinese secret service putting “radioactive pellets in [the] yak butter” of “the Dalai Lama…a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana” will incense the American public and help win Congressional approval for a secret weapons program, she helps propagate the rumor, ensnaring them in lies that Bird is not clever enough to uphold.

The black comedy of They Eat Puppies is both situational and narrative. In a roguish pastiche of Rabelais, Buckley describes Bird’s family and fortunes as “a trophy wife, candelabra-wielding mother, staircase-threatening caregiver, saber-wielding brother, dentally and mentally challenged caretaker, crumbling house, money-sucking mortgage, [and] dwindling bank account.” The narration is a kind of sustained persiflage, in which Bird, a modern-day Bloom, is repeatedly ridiculed for his deranged family and impecunious circumstances. His wife Myndi, an equestrienne, has a cell phone ring tone like “Valkyrie hooves pound[ing] on his cerebellum.” Her pedigreed horses are a drain on Bird’s coffers, their bloodlines “hideously expensive genetic tendencies.” His brother is a practitioner of “living history,” a euphemism for the ribald behavior and strange costumes associated with his Civil War re-enactments. Even Bird’s properties have nicknames: Upton, the estate, is “Upkeep,” while the condo is a “Military-Industrial Duplex,” a perversion of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address advocating caution in the exercise of the “unwarranted influence” afforded by weapons.

Pity the hapless Bird, whose only escape is to toil by night at his quartet of unpublished novels. Yet his circumstances, and the collusion in his professional sphere, are entirely of his own making. Therein lies the contrast between comedies of correction like They Eat Puppies, where the protagonist’s fallibility invites ridicule, and comedies of forgiveness like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, where the main character, a low-ranking soldier at the mercy of his regiment’s leaders, his countrymen, and his family when he returns from a first tour of duty in Iraq, strives to elicit compassion.

Enter “bleary” Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old specialist in the U.S. Army’s Bravo regiment. Hailing from a dysfunctional family in Stovall, Texas (an adulterous, disabled father, an overwrought mother, and a critically injured, hyper-sensitive sister), he is “too young” and “doesn’t know enough”—the epitome of “tragicomic stoicism.” When his sister’s fiancé jilts her, he takes a crowbar to the fellow’s car, and, on pain of a felony charge, agrees to join the army. One day, the Bravos are assailed by gunfire from Iraqi insurgents, and Billy earns decorations for his vain attempt to save a fellow soldier’s life. The Bush administration sponsors a “Victory Tour” to recognize the regiment’s collective bravery. Greeted, photographed and feted by hawkish Americans, honored at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where Destiny’s Child performs at halftime, the Bravos are encouraged to work with a Hollywood producer on a documentary film featuring the brawny Hilary Swank as one of the soldiers.

Carnivalesque in its setup (like Bird’s), it is actually a comedy of forgiveness for Billy, an ordinary teenager seeking camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, a girlfriend, and safety from the battlefield—elemental, private forms of contentment and security, rather than the honors of the public stage. Billy considers the celebrations “sham, … spin, bullshit, … duplicity, puff, evasion, cant, and bald-faced lies,” as the public is ignorant of the grim realities of war—fear of defeat and death, harsh weather conditions, separation from their families. To his mind, their glorification of the Bravos amounts to hideous sensationalism, artifice, and camp.

Overly ambitious in its use of visual “arabesques” (words scattered across the page, like those of Lewis Carroll) and verbal pyrotechnics that recall James Joyce (words like “terrRist,” “nina leven,” “Eye-rack,” and “currj,” spelled phonetically), the novel ultimately deters the reader’s compassion toward Billy, whose condescension toward his fellow Americans and their picayune concerns becomes grating. He “can’t help but regard [them] as children…bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem.” The voices of the other characters are poorly distinguished from one another, and lacking in nuance. Their words, “whirl and tumble around [Billy’s] brain,” where they are filtered and distorted. While we are told of their “pedestrian thoughts” and they are portrayed as “well-fed ruminants…harsh…avid, ecstatic” with “the luxury of terror as a talking point,” they are not given enough of a chance to express their thoughts at length, without Billy’s own reactions interceding. Hardly a reliable narrator, Billy is wracked by post-traumatic stress (“gnarled, secret funk,”) fear, the haze of alcohol, lust for a Cowboys cheerleader, and woeful inarticulateness (his feelings are “ineffable whatever.”) Such mediation, in the service of narrative omniscience, is in itself a kind of “duplicity, puff” or “evasion,” an insincerity rivaling that of the characters Billy mocks.

And so these novels, wrought from similar comedic fabric—that of a hapless, bumbling Everyman facing the gullibility (or duplicity) of the American public—dovetail. While Buckley’s buffoonish Bird retains a measure of hope for his novelistic pursuits and professional well-being, Fountain’s Billy remains a tragicomic figure, bound to a second tour of duty in Iraq. His portrait of army life recalls Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “you fuck up, they scream at you, you fuck up some more…but overlying all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained fuckups looms the ever-present prospect of the life-fucking fuckup, a fuckup so profound and all-encompassing as to crush all hope of redemption.”

This piece was published in the February 1, 2013 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, with the title “Funny ha ha” (click on the link to see the table of contents and proof).

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The Prague Cemetery: A Novel

By Umberto Eco. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2011. 464 pp. $27. ISBN: 978-0-547-57753-1.

“My novels contain a typically postmodern feature—namely, double coding,” said medieval scholar and semiotician Umberto Eco in “Confessions of a Young Novelist,” his 2008 Richard Ellmann Lecture Series in Modern Literature at Emory University. By double coding, he meant the pairing of “intertextual irony: direct quotations from other famous texts, or more or less transparent references to them,” and “implicit metanarrative appeal,” or “reflections that the text makes on its own nature, when the author speaks directly to the reader.” This enables Eco to separate gold from dross, establishing “a sort of silent complicity with the sophisticated reader” at the expense of those who “los[e] an additional wink.”

Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, is just such a duplicitous act. Its main character, Simone Simonini, is a professional counterfeiter and spy whose humble beginnings as a forger in a Piedmont notary’s office pave the way for his recidivist tendencies. A wily parvenu, Simonini infiltrates the Paris Commune, colludes with, incarcerates and murders his collaborators, masterminds the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false account of rabbinical speeches proposing Jewish world domination, apparently given at a gathering in the Prague Cemetery of Eco’s title, and pens the memo that inspired the Dreyfus Affair. He masquerades as Abbé Dalla Piccola, a priest, on occasion, to gather information on religious orders or practices and facilitate these heists. Formally, the narrative is an epistolary dialogue between Simonini and Dalla Piccola in their shared diary, which, like Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” chronicles Simonini’s descent into madness. The hope is that through telling the tale, “the traumatizing element reemerges,” Simonini says.

To many readers, The Prague Cemetery is an antic tour through the byzantine depths of nineteenth-century Europe, frustrated by Simonini’s dual personalities, vitriolic anti-Semitism, and mordant misanthropy (Masons and Jesuits are equally subject to his ire, as “people are never so enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction”; women are “just a substitute for the solitary vice, except that you need more imagination”). But what is Eco’s “intertextual irony”? What is being encoded, and what kind of reader perceives it?


A tertiary presence, the gendered but unnamed Narrator, holds the key to Eco’s artful hoodwinking of his readers. To understand his function, his mastery over this labyrinthine narrative, and his appeal to the “sophisticated” reader, it’s worth looking back at Eco’s commentary on two of his previous novels, which carefully match prose with period:

Once an author has designed a specific narrative world, the words will follow, and they will be those that the particular world requires. For this reason, the style I used in The Name of the Rose was that of a medieval chronicler: precise, naïve, flat when necessary (a humble fourteenth-century monk does not write like Joyce, or remember things like Proust)…In The Island of the Day Before, the cultural period was the determining factor. It influenced not just the style but the very structure of the ongoing dialogue between narrator and character, while the reader is continually appealed to as a witness and accomplice.

Following this logic, the Prague Cemetery Narrator wears the mantle of Victorian tradition: he’s a percipient if retiring observer, peering over Simonini’s shoulder to read his diary. His role, and what it says about the novel itself, is most palpable to readers intimately versed in nineteenth-century narrative voice and, on a broader, more transhistorical scale, the history of the novel. A mere shortlist of texts Eco consciously parodies in constructing the narrative voice and style would include Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (for its lengthy, hyperbolic enumerations spanning several pages), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (whose narration is so carefully wrought as to leave the reader more or less in the dark about whose opinions are presented, and whose mocked), Balzac’s Père Goriot (in its magisterial descriptions of the city of Paris, especially the Place Maubert), and Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo (which gives Simonini the idea that “if [he] wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy, [he] didn’t have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew or could have found out more easily in other ways. People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy”). The historical setting and actions of The Prague Cemetery cleverly anticipate Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre, a lavishly illustrated, viciously anti-Semitic text, rife with malicious comparisons between Jewish and animal physiognomy and unattributed ravings, and plagiarized, like Simonini’s Protocols, from existing anti-Semitic leaflets. Céline, like Simonini, was exiled for his writings; his widow, Lucette Destouches, sagely banned reprints of Trifles until the international copyright on his work expires in 2031.


How does the Narrator pair these intertextual nods with a more self-reflexive style of narration? In part, his comments are typographically distinct, appearing in old-fashioned font, which, together with the rococo engravings, give the impression that he’s parodying Simonini, stitching his tale from multiple undocumented sources and traditions that are recognizable only to a highly literate few, just as Simonini does with the Protocols.

On the level of knowledge, too, he’s complicit with the author, referring to himself in the third person, and withholding what he knows from the reader: “the Narrator himself does not yet know who the mysterious writer [of the diary] is, proposing to find this out (together with the Reader) while both of us look on inquisitively and follow what he is noting down.” But one often questions where he is and what his vantage point is when he reads of Simonini’s grappling with his double-identity and writes of “something sinister happening around me which I couldn’t quite identify…This is me. But who am I?…Reread the above notes. If what is written is written, then it has actually happened. Believe in what is written.”

Eco spoke of The Island of the Day Before as an attempt to “bamboozle” the reader, to create an “imprecise” literary world in which the reader was immersed enough to know every topographical detail, yet deliberately bemused about the events and characters. Something quite similar is at work here, too, though the Narrator lets Simonini voice it: “what matters,” he muses, “is to know something that others don’t know you know.” Which is precisely what the Narrator achieves, to brilliant effect. He offers “to summarize” or “to carry out the proper amplification, so this game of cues and responses becomes more coherent,” but his meaning pivots on the word “game.”

The Narrator finally reveals his sleight of hand by the end of the novel, asserting that all characters with the exception of Simonini were real historical figures, and annexing a table comparing narrative and historical time so that the reader can measure Simonini and Dalla Piccola’s diary entries against what actually happened. This, inevitably, would require re-reading, and reveals a deft mastery of plot that recalls George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the canonical nineteenth-century multi-plot novel, whose dovetailing narratives, stemming from the same scene, carefully coexist and then converge. Even if only the most perceptive readers may follow such a sinuous tale, it’s adventurous enough for all.

This piece was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

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The Watch: A Novel

By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Hogarth, 2012. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 978-0-307-95589-0.

Since it was first staged in Attica, Greece, 2,000 years ago, Sophocles’ Antigone, the tragic tale of a princess sentenced to death for secretly burying her brother, an apparent traitor to their kingdom, has inspired many adaptations. European modernist playwrights (Cocteau, Anouilh, Brecht) adapted it; Carl Orff composed an operatic score for it; critic George Steiner, tracing its motif through literature, philosophy, film, ballet, and the plastic arts, called it “one of the enduring and canonic acts in the history of our philosophic, literary, and political consciousness, [one of] a handful of ancient Greek myths [that] continue to dominate, to give vital shape to our sense of self and of the world.” Why is the Antigone story so enduring, so “immediate to the present?” he asked.

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch speaks to Steiner’s question, transposing the Antigone motif to spartan, present-day Kandahar, a setting as barren as that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nizam, a disabled Pashtun woman, pushes her cart toward an American military base, where she seeks permission to bury her brother. Ever the cynosure of soldiers’ eyes, she elicits their courtesy, empathy, pity, ethnocentrism, antipathy, and “inordinate suspension of belief.” Narrated entirely in the present tense, so as to heighten the suspense and displacement, The Watch resists linear storytelling, using tracking shots to move between Nizam’s story and the soldiers’ instead. Is Nizam a dutiful sister, or a “perfect Trojan horse”? Was her brother “a terrorist…a Prince of the Mountains…some heavy Taliban dude” or “a Pashtun hero” and “freedom fighter”? The medic tries to argue for his innocence and inspire cultural sensitivity in these men (“not all black turbans are the same. The Taliban loop theirs differently.”) The Tajik interpreter does, too, but with bitterness: “each one [of the Taliban] has a different history of sin, of pillage and murder,” he explains.

The timelessness of “Antigone” is thematic, pitting female determination and the spirit of the law against male authority and casuistry, religion and family against political loyalty. It celebrates the militant determination of a Mother Courage-like martyr (the name Antigone means “in place of a mother.”)

The Watch marries these established themes with a novelty of voice, focus, and narrative effect. With controlled lyricism, Roy-Bhattacharya portrays Nizam as a reason for the soldiers to look inward, to weigh their duty to abide by military orders against their sympathy for her. When they see her, their present recedes; they’re steeped in memories of the women they loved and left behind in Maine, Putnam County, and New Orleans. Their return to the moment is almost imperceptible, pivoting on the slightest sound—“a single muzzle flash,” a lieutenant’s murmur of a phrase from Antigone, or the strumming of a twelve-string lute.

Nizam becomes a mirror for their own strength and fragility, her taut, elegant defenses showing the very grace, dignity, and patriotism they champion. Like her, they “need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate.” And so this brave, visceral novel penetrates cultural and geographical distinctions, political allegiances, and the fate they determine, deftly unveiling the similar emotions beneath.

This piece was published in the Books section of NPR.org here.

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Farther Away: Essays

By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012. 272 pages. $26. ISBN: 978-0-374-15357-1.

“To consider [Edith Wharton] and her work is to confront the problem of sympathy. Privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage,” novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote in the February Anniversary Issue of The New Yorker. Because of Wharton’s plainness complex, he added, she created beautiful yet tormented characters such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Franzen’s elision of sympathy with the presence of beauty and the absence of privilege elicited the ire of readers, who saw it as a costive, ad hominem critique. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, novelist Victoria Patterson parried Franzen, quoting Lionel Shriver on “Wharton’s drive, independence, willfulness, and autodidactic mastery of the English language.” “I don’t give a shit what she looks like,” Patterson irreverently closed.

Franzen’s tetchiness inflects Farther Away, a compendium of speeches and occasional pieces first published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Guardian. “The Greatest Family Ever Storied: On Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” wryly calibrates the pleasure and guilt of immersing oneself in a novel, but devolves into a portrayal of one character, Louie, as a mirror for familial ugliness. “And who wants to look into the mirror of the novel and see such ugliness?” Franzen asks. “The absence of literary swans seems like a small price to pay for a world in which ugly ducklings grow up to be big ugly ducks whom we can then agree to call beautiful,” he continues. He insists that Stead “wasn’t remotely good looking,” and that “the pain that Louie experiences in not being pleasing to anybody’s eyes…is surely drawn from […] Stead’s own pain.” Like his essay on Wharton, this piece presumes vanity on the part of a female novelist, who must struggle to compensate for her plainness, and who limns characters based on life rather than from her novelistic imaginary. This type of argument mars Franzen’s appreciation for Stead’s creative faculties. Though in a later speech he says that writing fiction is “a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life,” here, a New Critical reading, focalizing the novel over Stead’s biographical or aesthetic details, would have been more effective in encouraging us to read this novel.

Yet Farther Away does offer aperçus. The title piece, which won a Sidney Award upon its first serial appearance in The New Yorker last April, catalogues Franzen’s journey to Alejandro Selkirk, or Masafuera (literally, “farther away,”) a South Pacific island five hundred miles off the Chilean coast, likely the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Franzen’s search for the rare rayadito songbird is an attempt to reclaim “a mostly lost authenticity, the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us.” This echoes Freedom’s Walter Berglund, who fears, “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.” Just as Crusoe exemplifies Franzen’s observation that “we now understand a novel to be a mapping of a writer’s experience onto a waking dream,” so too does Freedom emerge a profoundly autobiographical novel.

“Farther Away” unmasks the dangers of “radical individualism” as well. Crusoe was published amid the societal secularization of England, the rise of the middle class, an increase in leisure time, and a heightened need for literature that “identically entertained” a mass market. While 20th century novelists like David Foster Wallace, whose ashes Franzen scatters on Masafuera, actively resisted such a collective through techniques like “annotation, digression, nonlinearity, [and] hyperlinkage,” there’s a cautionary tone in Franzen’s regard for him. Franzen weighs Defoe’s maxim, “life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal act of solitude,” against the isolation that threatened Wallace’s well-being: “He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself. What looked like gentle contours from a distance were in fact sheer cliffs.” This portrait evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe, who laments his return to England: ““Now I live here, another island,/that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?”

“Farther Away” celebrates the moments when we retreat from technology and the personæ we cultivate through social media, when artifice is stripped, and we are left with arguments, empathy, imperfection, and humility—the raw materiality of being. This elemental state, in which we readers encounter most of Franzen’s fictional characters, is what touches us. But what he says about fiction in his opening speech, that “the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are,” applies to his own essays. Besides the title piece, and another about birding in Malta and Cyprus, few essays in Farther Away are authentic, or deserving of our sympathy.

This piece was published in PopMatters here.

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The Book of Life

By Stuart Nadler. Picador, 2012. 256 pages. £12.99. ISBN: 978-1-447-20242-4.

“Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don’t think there’s any consecutive moral philosophy in [it],” masterly short story architect John Cheever once told a Paris Review interviewer. His friend John Updike and their contemporary James Salter, too, have hewed to this principle, their tales pivoting on moments of ambivalence in the blue hour of morality, their narrators withholding judgment of errant or recidivist characters, treating them instead with comic brio or lapidary intimacy.

The disconsolate middle-aged New England men in Stuart Nadler’s debut short story collection, The Book of Life, have Updikean and Salteresque valences. A concupiscent businessman’s affair with his partner’s daughter unveils, in turn, the partner’s dalliance with his wife. A woman’s open marriage causes her “respectably lonely” husband and aggrieved son to bond. In the wake of their parents’ deaths, two brothers reunite after years of separation. An artist and his ex-girlfriend regret the breakdown of their relationship over his cheating and her scheming. A newlywed pursuing a reticent old flame during a visit to his hometown understands why his grandfather is fired from his job, his lover unwelcome in their hidebound community.

Yet The Book of Life does not probe moral ambiguity, the crucible of Nadler’s stories, deeply enough. Characters and narrators regard virtue and vice as absolutes. An adulterer is portrayed unequivocally, as “not the sort of man to do such a thing. This was something he knew, unquestionably, deep in his heart.” Family is “the only thing that mattered in the end,” while extramarital affairs are reduced to cases of “misdirected boredom or simple lust.” Even when a son “is feeling for the first time the terrible strain of regret…the worst part of adulthood…because it’s an emotion that accompanies every one of our important decisions,” the father never explores the yearning or self-loathing which that “regret” anticipates.

Many of the female characters are caricatures—myopic, feckless, or wan. A wife “wasn’t the sort of woman who’d become angry at his infidelity,” but “the sort of woman who’d crumple and dissolve and shut down.” An artist’s philistine girlfriend compares his abstractions to “the art her kindergarten students made when they were angry,” while her friend “is the sort of woman who…pretends to love men but who never misses an opportunity to insult them.” A lawyer’s friend “seemed relaxed, like her skin fit her better, as if she’d gone shopping for it at Saks.” Updike’s spare, candid prose betokens a sincere affection for and forgiveness toward his characters. Salter’s affective luminosity is contained in epigrammatic but vatic sentences. Nadler’s style is a hybrid of these two, absent their capacious empathy toward moral vagaries, and chary of examining the interstices and depths of fractured psyches.

Nadler’s keen sensitivity to perpetuating intergenerational continuities and bridging disparities, and to the breakdown of Judaism and marriage as moral compasses give him a distinctive place in contemporary American letters, one shared only by Nathan Englander. Yet his characters are ephemeral, their affective revelations superficial or unambiguous. They are removed from Salter’s fragile, visionary poet-protagonists and Updike’s affable miscreants, each precisely limned and uniquely memorable.

This piece was published in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. The table of contents and typeset piece are accessible here.

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Lives and Letters

By Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 426 pp. $30.00. ISBN: 978-0-374-29882-1.

In his tenure as a theatre director, Orson Welles popularized the technique of “breaking the frame,” or the dissolution of the metaphorical fourth wall between the actor and the spectator that Denis Diderot first theorized in the nineteenth century. Physical rapprochement notwithstanding, the presence of a “fifth wall” between critics or readers and practitioners of theatre frustrates contemporary artistic production. Consider, for example, the friction inherent in the meta-voyeuristic viewing of Manet’s “Olympia”, between the act of spectatorship, the painter’s simultaneity of figurative presence and literal absence, and the subject’s presence. Yet, taken more broadly, consummate arts criticism anticipates—engenders, even—the breaking of both frames. Mediating between his reader and the work of art he critiques, which, in turn elucidates an original work, the critic unites the reader with the original work. The imbrication of lives lived, observed, critiqued, and read is profoundly meditative, sage, and revelatory.

Enter Robert Gottlieb, man of letters, whose storied tenure as a media and publishing baron at such bastions of literature and criticism as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Simon & Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf has enriched a keen intellectual acuity and deep sensitivity to the arts writ large. Both sensibilities, learned and learning, infuse Lives and Letters, the concinnity of pieces on the world forgot—actors, singers, authors, dancers, and directors celebrated in their time, but presently overlooked, especially by today’s youth. Prefiguring accusations of solipsism that a critical reader may map onto his compendium, Gottlieb opens with an apology for his self-indulgent style and apparent lack of organizing principle. Yet the capacious intellect to which we privileged readers are privy here obviates the need for an apology from this late-career polymath. Nor is the collection quite as random as its author signals. A touch of audacity in the preface, as well as in the ensuing essays, would be both apposite and merited.

Character sketches both lapidary and measured follow. Gottlieb questions our captive interest in Sarah Bernhardt, whose floruit dates place her “well past her glory days and well out of our reach?” In an informative essay rife with charming anecdotes, he posits that her own fictive self-presentation (“she was provocative, generous, maddening…and constitutionally untruthful: constantly self-dramatizing, embroidering, storytelling,”) coupled with her agonistic influence on novelists such as Henry James, whose Tragic Muse she inspired, Mark Twain, Freud, and D.H. Lawrence, and her raw talent, openness to unfamiliarity (she broke her contract with the established Comédie Française and the Odéon to found her own production company and embark on a tour of America), and indefatigable energy enshrined her in artistic memory.

Confluence and continuities abound between this essay, “Long Distance Runner” and “Bringing Up Biographer,” those on Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn respectively. Gottlieb asks why, of the silent film stars who faded into oblivion, Gish alone built a sixty-year career. Historical moment aside, the antinomies of Bernhardt’s character and acting style and Gish’s match—both were artfully enigmatic about and fiercely independent in their personal lives, yet unabashedly melodramatic as actresses. Interviewing Gish, he observes “something steely about her guardedness: she had decided on her version of the past, and no other version was discussable.” She tells a lifelong friend, “It isn’t easy being a Lillian Gish.” Hepburn, similarly, was “strident, evasive, patchy, and willful” in her autobiography, brazen in her actions, and completely in command of certain key friendships, notably with her biographer A. Scott Berg. Permanence in the theatrical and cinematic worlds, this intimates, necessitates an orchestrated and prolonged act of self-creation. Yet Gottlieb’s incisive reading of this act breaks, for viewers and readers, the frames these actresses so carefully constructed for themselves.

The essays of greatest resonance explore the architectonics of emotional and editorial judiciousness and equilibrium. “Francine du Plessix Gray: Him + Her = Them” probes the conflicted yet balanced memoir of the novelist’s upbringing by a narcissistic Russian milliner and a magazine editor of protean loyalties. “Who Was Charles Dickens?” traces the valences of Dickens’s biographers’ treatment of his behavior toward women, from John Forster, a close friend, to Michael Slater, a literary scholar. A panoptic treatment of even the canonical Dickensian biographies is no mean undertaking, and Gottlieb’s careful assessment of their respective opinions drew my preternatural appreciation on the first serial appearance of this article in the New York Review of Books. In “Max and Marjorie: An Editorial Love Story,” too, Gottlieb is in finest form, mapping the epistolary friendship between the lionized Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. Revering Perkins for knowing that “editing lies in another, larger kind of sympathy—the sympathy that can intuit the kind of book a given writer may have in him or her to write,” he evinces not only his own humility and charismatic approach to writing and editing, but also posits himself as a designated mourner, to borrow a term from Wallace Shawn. The essay is a poignant requiem for Perkins’s formal, deeply empathic style, and for the bygone age of his form, letters.

In a patently compassionate collection, few essays resist the gentle erasure of the censorious in Gottlieb’s critical voice, yet those that do adduce aptly chosen detail to support their wisely sardonic tone. To wit, “Becky in the Movies: Vanity Fair,” a critique of cinematic mises-en-oeuvre of Thackeray’s masterpiece, is a beautifully wrought eschewal of feminist representations such as Mira Nair’s or those that render Becky Sharp the cynosure of the audience’s eye. Though Gottlieb does not mention it, to this reader, the essay pivots on Thackeray’s own subtitle, “A Novel Without a Hero,” a contention that adaptations should portray a society under great strain rather than an individual character’s storyline.

The work of linear connection, understanding the organizational framework that underpins an essay collection, the better to enter the frames the critic so gracefully breaks, is that of the reader. To my mind, Lives and Letters is a matter of rearranging our sight lines in remembrance of things past. Gottlieb’s portraits provide historical moorings for the younger generation of film, theatre, and literary enthusiasts, in the same vein as David Thomson’s “When is a movie great? The perils of medium and magic” (Harper’s Magazine, July 2011). An occasional wish for a more stentorian note in his criticism is the strongest critique one might level, for, like Francine du Plessix Gray, he’s essentially “too decent” a person to let cavil shape his creative direction. Rather, his wry, warm ethos evokes Joan Acocella’s in Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and his modest, empathic, and visionary approach recalls Geoff Dyer’s in Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. We, as witnesses and participants in this frame, are blessed.

This piece was published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Colorado Review.

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