23 December 2010
Of course, ’tis the season of family – awareness/appreciation of, along with (re)consideration of who these people are and what it all means. We watched THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT the other night, a meaningful and complex portrait of a new kind of family, i.e. one with two moms + sperm donor. In the end, the film seems to be less about “lesbian family” and more about — as the philandering Jules (Julianne Moore) says, tearfully and remorsefully — “Marriage is hard.” (It’s also, a little bit, about “men are clueless,” or at least Mark Ruffalo‘s character Paul is; but there seems to be hope for boys, and girls too, i.e. the kids are all right.)
I’m haunted a little by a recent re-reading of Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy. It’s a story of makeshift family – a white couple, a Native American slave, two indentured servants, two black slave girls, a free black man — of misfits coming together in the wilderness, shedding conventional obligations and communal connections, partially by choice and partially by no-choice. In the end, their ties are not strong enough to hold: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought, or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.” Of course all this takes place in a ruthless, slavery-centered, 17th century world. Have we made progress?
Random, but possibly related: I recently learned that a pretty good friend of mine comes from a quite famous family. It’s striking to learn such a thing, both for the fact itself and for the intentional belatedness of the revelation. There are the people who come before us, and everything/everyone that comes after, blood-wise, inheritance-wise; this pattern of breaking from one’s familial past/being unable to escape one’s inheritance seems to me The Story of Life. I’m thinking also of Jean-Michel Basquiat (another recently-watched film, i.e. THE RADIANT CHILD), whose father apparently disapproved of his “lack of respectability,” and it pained Jean-Michel deeply, to the bitter end.
I seem to have blogged myself into a rather dark place here. So let me return to the beginning: may your holidays be filled with appreciation, hope, and progress.
13 September 2009
I should leave Lev Grossman’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard,” alone. I’ve gotten into trouble on this subject before, and I learned that my thoughts on the matter of “the difficult pleasure” vs the easy one are outdated, underdeveloped, and poorly expressed.
But apparently I have a couple of things to attempt to say in response:
First, Grossman equates the “difficult pleasures” argument with an aversion to, specifically, plot. This is simply inaccurate. I am currently reading, for instance, the highly-plotted 2666, by Roberto Bolano and could name many examples of literary novels which are well-written, challenge the reader’s mind and soul, and also evolve around, as Grossman puts it, “crisp, dynamic, exciting” plots.
The crux of this debate has never been about storytelling or non-storytelling, but about good storytelling and bad storytelling. The foundation of literature is language, and poor use of the language to tell a good story is where my beef begins and ends. It seems to me Grossman makes the same error of argument that is made repeatedly by genre-defenders: that somehow hoity-toity literary writers have something against a great plot, whereas the real objection is to the idea that a good plot covers a multitude of writing sins (and Ms. Meyers is guilty of entirely too many). Conversely, I don’t see a lot of people defending a poetically-written pile of nothing-much; all readers crave emotional and intellectual pay-off, via the thoughtfully-crafted journeys of the characters. I just want those journeys to be told in beautiful, stunning, maybe even strange language (which is not to say fancy language) that effectively renders what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream. If every other description includes three adverbs and the word “sparkle”, my experience of the fictional dream is not continuous. More aptly put by William Carlos Williams: “Organize the language right.”
Second, there is a problem with the term “difficult.” What do we mean by difficulty when we are talking about literature? There is James Joyce difficult, and there is Toni Morrison difficult. There is William Vollman difficult, and there is Mary Gaitskill difficult. There is Dostoevsky difficult and there is Tolstoy difficult. There is Virginia Woolf difficult and there is Hemingway difficult. I recently had a conversation with a Danish friend, to whom I confessed having avoided Proust for a long time, for fear of the difficulty. ”There’s really nothing to be afraid of,” he said. ”It’s a pretty easy read.” Meaning, it’s long, but not hard. Some have said the same about Bolano.
As examples of books he considers not difficult, Grossman cites Dickens and Thackeray, in which “you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about.” So it seems to me that “difficult” in Grossman’s literary lexicon refers to a certain density or experimentalism in language and form; something that requires a person to jump out of the register of vernacular-English and conventional time and into the register of something closer to poetry or avant-garde cinema — “typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure.”
Fine, but in this case, we’re really only talking about Joyce, Vollman, maybe Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, a minority of Faulkner’s novels, Beckett, and a handful of others.
But the difficulty of writers like Morrison, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Chekhov, Annie Proulx… writers who respect the language, in every sense, whose works are not particularly “difficult” to read, strictly speaking; but whose difficulty lies in their essential visions of humanity and the ways in which the stories they tell impel us to see differently, to see better, with, as Carlyle put it, “armed eyesight” — this is a difficulty which refers to something altogether different. Something in the realm of the moral and spiritual. Their characters come to endings which are often not happy or neat, but real and true nonetheless; their stories take the reader to unfamiliar and unexpected places that show us a humanity not readily on display in commercial movies, or genre romances, or thrillers in which the good guy always wins. If Grossman is taking up the cause of “easy” in this realm — then my concern is best expressed by Vaclav Havel:
The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.
Can difficult work, by the latter definition, be entertaining? I think so. Does exhilaration — like that which I feel when reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth or the stories of George Saunders or ZZ Packer or Flannery O’Connor — not constitute entertainment? The “entertainment is king” argument seems to exclude even highly-plotted sexual-tension page-turners like The Age of Innocence and The Golden Bowl these days, because, well, the sentences are just too darn long and jam-packed with all those words. How reader-unfriendly.
Mr. Grossman seems to equate meaningful with boring, and in its resemblance to a recipe for perpetual adolescence (not innocuous, in the hands of, say, future leaders in the image of the George Bush’s or Hugo Chavez’s playing power games with the lives of millions of innocents) his argument troubles me a great deal.
23 July 2009
I’m over at The Millions blog again, chewing over the idea of “free” — featuring an ensemble cast: Toni Morrison, DH Lawrence, Chris Anderson, Adrienne Shelley, Jozef Czapski. Click on over (your views, links, and comments most welcome).
4 July 2009
On this Independence Day, I’m thinking — no kidding — about freedom. Toni Morrison’s A Mercy has me thinking about the cost of independence and self-sufficiency; Dan Baum had me thinking about it a few weeks back when he wrote about life after the New Yorker; and now, this from DH Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature” (thanks to Sarah for passing this along):
Men are less free than they imagine; ah, far less free. The freest are perhaps least free.
Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfuilfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.
Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.
Food for thought (after you’ve digested your hot dogs and hamburgers and potato salad).