Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Franzen Strikes Back: On Purity

Purity is Jonathan Franzen's third "major" novel — it's his most structurally complex, robust (or verbose, depending on your POV), and smartest novel yet. It's not his best, nor is it my favorite of his, but it's still pretty awesome — as quick a read as a 550-page novel can be.

What's fun about this novel is its sheer volume of topic. Franzen utterly commands a reader's attention, as he's interesting on just about everything he writes about. Here, Franzen tackles the pressures of fame, parents and kids, socialism, relationships, sex, nuclear disarmament, Internet leaks, trust, journalism vs. new media, Oedipus, art, East Germany.

This is all included amidst a tightly spun, though geographically diverse (Oakland, Denver, Bolivia, East Berlin, New York City, etc.) plot about a 22-year-old woman named Purity, but who goes by Pip. As we first meet Pip, she's talking with her neurotic mother who lives by herself in a cabin in California. Pip, who is rather a hot mess herself, lives in a squat house in Oakland, harbors a secret crush for a married housemate, works as a telemarketer for an alternative energy company, and just wants to find her father, who she thinks can help her pay her crushing $130,000 student loan debt.

After we're introduced to Pip in the first 100 pages, we spend the next 100 pages with a man named Andreas Wolf, who comes of age during the early 1980s in East Berlin. Andreas (as we've learned in Pip's section) runs an organization called The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like outfit that attempts to "cleanse with sunlight" by revealing secrets. Andreas's section basically describes how he got to be the way he is. From there, the less you know about the plot, the better and more fun your reading experience will be. Franzen masterfully connects these characters, many more, their secrets, and how many of their stories are surprisingly similar. Trust him: What may seem like coincidence initially obviously isn't. Franzen's too good to resort to coincidence.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its self-awareness. You'll no doubt see (have seen?) a ton of articles over the next few weeks that basically say the same thing: "Jonathan Franzen is perceived by many to be a jerk, but jerks can write good novels. And this is a good novel." I don't disagree with that, but Franzen seems to have occasional fun with his critics here, spending a few carefully chosen words on technology (including Twitter, which, as we know, Franzen despises), feminism (which he admires, but wonders if it's about women being equal, or women being better), and even the number of real-world "serious" novelists named Jonathan. All wonderful stuff.

Again, though, even though I really enjoyed this, it's probably my third favorite of his three major novels. At times, it felt bloated, like we went too far back into the history of some of the characters, only to make a minor point. At times, the mighty ego of the Franzen — I mean, you go into reading Franzen knowing will be on full display — got in the way of his story (most notably, during several pages rant comparing the East German Revolution with the Internet, a parallel, that, despite reading several times, I still don't understand completely).

What it comes down to though is that you're going to want to read this. It's a fascinating study of our time. And there truly aren't too many writers working today that are as entertaining to read as The Franzen is.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Six Questions, Six Answers

If the measure of good (or even decent) literature is that which is capable of evoking emotion, well, Go Set A Watchman sure does that. You start with nervous anticipation, you laugh a bit, you're bored at times, you're wistful, you're infuriated, you're sad, you're challenged, you put it down when you're finished, almost with a sense of relief. I can't possibly review this book. No one really can because it's not a complete novel. But I am willing to try my hand at starting with the basics, and moving into some more complicated thoughts on the book. Here is my take on the six most common questions about Go Set A Watchman.  

1. What is Go Set A Watchman? — It's an unedited manuscript that tells a story taking placing 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird.  When Lee submitted Go Set A Watchman for publication, an editor told her to rewrite, but focus on flashbacks to Scout's childhood instead. The rewritten novel is To Kill A Mockingbird. So Go Set A Watchman is essentially a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. We can tell this is true in several places as we read Go Set A Watchman. For instance, in Go Set A Watchman, in a brief gloss-over paragraph of the trial central to To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee tells us Atticus got Tom Robinson acquitted. Obviously, she changed her mind as she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.

2. What isn't Go Set A Watchman? — Despite some of the marketing and media hype, it's NOT a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. A sequel implies intent that a novel be written to build on the events of a previous novel. That's not what happened here. It was not intended to be a sequel, and it's not.

3. Should Go Set A Watchman have been published? — I have no idea. I'm glad it was, but we'll never actually know for sure what Lee's desires were regarding this "suddenly found" manuscript. As Jeff of Book Riot writes in this fantastic post when Go Set A Watchman was first announced, the tack to take is just to be comfortable reading knowing we won't have definitive answers. The nearest reading experience I can point to to this is David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript, The Pale King. Did he want that published? We'll never know. But we're happy it exists, and sad that it could've been so much better.

4. Will reading Go Set A Watchman ruin To Kill A Mockingbird? — No. No it unequivocally will not. You've probably seen all the Very Important Think Pieces, even from respected media outlets like NPR, making the case that the Big Reveal — Atticus is an old grouchy racist now — somehow kills the moral Atticus who is the paragon of empathy and ethics in To Kill A Mockingbird. That's wrong-headed and simple-minded. This isn't a case of Schrodinger's Atticus — you don't kill one Atticus by reading about the other Atticus. Both Atticuses (Atticki?) actually can exist simultaneously and in perpetuity. (So I guess it IS a case of Schrodinger's Atticus.) Remember, Lee went back to the drawing board on Atticus, so keep both Atticuses in your head — it's not cognitive dissonance. I realize it's tempting to let GSAW Atticus redefine TKAM Atticus — especially as Scout delivers lines like "You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave," which is absolutely heartbreaking — but don't. I strongly believe it's not the right way to read this book.

5. Is Go Set A Watchman any damn good?— I don't think this is quite the right question, but it's the most common one. To try to answer: It's pretty solid for a first draft. The too-easy comment I've heard frequently is that this could've been a masterpiece if it had been edited like a "normal" novel. But of course, it did become a masterpiece with an editor! That's what To Kill A Mockingbird is. As it stands, there are some major issues with Go Set A Watchman, just from continuity and "logic of storytelling" standpoint — we're missing some things (possibly things pulled out to form the framework of To Kill A Mockingbird?). And the last 100 pages...well, they're just not good storytelling. Scout has three separate conversations with three characters, Atticus as the denouement, to try to find out why Atticus is racist. While these conversations are philosophically and politically complex (go brush up on the 10th Amendment and Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka), they just don't quite rise to the level of literature.

6. Did you like Go Set A Watchman? —To sum, yes, I liked it, but with reservations — and to be clear, this is a much different question than No. 5. My favorite parts of this novel are three flashback scenes to Scout's childhood and teenage years. All read exactly as if they're torn from To Kill A Mockingbird — they're all really funny, and in at least one case, show us the affable Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird. I can't emphasize enough how much I loved these scenes. The closest analogy I can come up with here, which certainly pales in comparison with this reading experience, is the Curb Your Enthusiasm's Seinfeld reunion episodes — there are extended parts of those where the cast dropped right back into Seinfeld mode. In these three scenes, we're right back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and they're just so great as standalone set pieces. In total, it was a mostly positive reading experience, and I'll certainly recommend it to anyone who is on the fence. I'm very glad I read it. Finally, my thoughts on it mirror the fantastic point made by Book Riot manager editor Amanda when she appeared on CNN International to discuss the book — when the Go Set A Watchman frenzy has died down, it'll wind up as simply a footnote in literary history. To Kill A Mockingbird is now and always will be unassailable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book of Numbers: An Intermess

There hasn't been a novel released this year I thought would be more in my wheelhouse than Joshua Cohen's "Great Internet Novel," Book of Numbers. If not just for the breathless comparisons of Cohen to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon (though Cohen himself called this idea "good publicity, bad criticism"), than also because it's a 600-page post-modern tome about technology, the internet, and a struggling, smart ass, nearly nihilistic writer named Joshua Cohen.

I almost didn't make it. To be sure, it's a cleverly written, inventive, often funny novel, but mostly it's too clever, inventive, and funny by half. My literary hero, DFW, often talked about the proportion of reader aggravation to reader enjoyment in his stories, and admitted that in some of his work the former outranked the latter, making for bad fiction. This is the case here as well. Each sentence is littered with portmanteau, neologism, Internet-speak (which may or may not be invented), Hindu gods and theology, purposeful and annoying misspellings ("figgered" for figured, "sessh" for session, etc.), etc., etc. If that's your thing, cool. But it got to be really, really irritating after awhile — it took forever to read this novel because you can't just sit down and blow through 50 pages in an hour or whatever. To get, you have to slow down and digest. (But judging by the Goodreads reviews, most readers didn't have the patience and gave up well before the end.)

But finish it, I did. And here's the deal: A writer named Joshua Cohen is hired to ghost write the autobiography of the billionaire founder of a Google-like company called Tetration (a math term), also named Joshua Cohen. The novel's in three parts — the first and third about writer Cohen's misadventures: publishing a novel on 9/11 that was quickly forgotten, marital trouble, and then connecting with the other Cohen (who goes by "Principal") to interview him in California, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. The middle part of the novel is a sort of draft version of that ghostwritten autobiography, showing us how Cohen grew up, founded the company, hired a goofy engineer named Moe, etc., etc. If you know the Google origin story, not much here (except for the Big Reveal) is all that original or even interesting (again, except for the Big Reveal...but even the way Cohen writes this section leaves us a bit confused). The good thing about this structural approach is that when you've just about had all you can take with one section, we totally switch gears to another and move on.

"(Clearly Very Talented Writer) is going to blow us away with a novel someday soon, but this isn't it," is one those things readers/bloggers/reviewers say when they didn't like a novel, but want to give the writer credit. It's a cop-out, for sure. But I think it's apt here. The talent is undeniable. Cohen just needs to harness it.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beneath the Bonfire: Rural Wisconsin in Prose

If you are a fan of Nickolas Butler's tremendous 2014 novel Shotgun Lovesongs (and if you're not, ummm...what?!), you'll love his new short story collection, Beneath The Bonfire.

To many, me included, Richard Russo is the undisputed champion of chronicling life in small or failing rural towns. But with these 10 stories set in Wisconsin, Butler does his best to out-Russo Russo. Butler's stories are about ordinary everyday people, and their relationships — bro-mance-friendships, boyfriend/girlfriend, marriage. And Butler is masterful at rendering these relationships authentically and sensitively. He just seems to understand people.

One of my favorites in the collection, "Sven and Lily," is about two dudes who spend their time shooting pool, bombing beers, and flirting with ladies at roadside bars. Sven's a seven-foot giant, and his buddy Lily (a nickname, short for Lilliputian) is a tiny little guy who follows him around like the yappy dog in those old cartoons. One night when Sven gets in trouble with a lady, Lily cover for him with his wife. Later, Sven comes over to thank him, and Lily's already been boozing and gorging on his daughter's Girl Scout cookies. "For the second time in twenty-four hours, I passed out with the television screen before me, aglow with happy faces, happy for another Today in New York City. The doorbell rang and I was covered in the crumbs of my daughter's cookies." That image just makes me laugh out loud every time I've read it. It's a goofy story, but a true one in the sense of explaining the lengths dudes will go to protect each other. Lily sums up:
"But when you know someone like Sven, you defend him, because you want there to be good people in the world and it doesn't do anyone any good to break them down into something as bad and ugly as everyone else."
But it's not just the dudes that get Butler's careful eye. He also renders male/female relationships with insight and accuracy. Perhaps the best story in the collection, though by far the most difficult to read, is "In Western Counties." It's about a woman who has never had much luck with relationships, and falls in love (or at least, infatuation) with a dashing charismatic fellow who turns out to be not only abusive to her, but also an out-and-out criminal. He runs a dogfighting circuit out of the barn of the farmhouse he's stolen from a sweet old lady. The story's about how this woman, in conjunction with a retired State Highway Patrolwoman named Aida try to stop him and get revenge. Trust me when I say the conclusion to this one is satisfying.

While many of the relationships in these stories are disasters, the collection ends on such a sweet, hopeful note. The story "Apples" is about an elderly couple who seem to be the ideal of marriage. When the man loses his job, he begins picking apples in an orchard for a rich guy. It's a quiet, funny story that ends on almost a tear-inducingly happy note. Loved it.

And I loved this collection overall. Stories range from funny to gut-punch to sensitive and quiet, but all are immensely entertaining — a rarity for a full collection. Very, very highly recommended — the best collection I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Among The Ten Thousand Things: Is Cheating Always A Divorce-able Offense?

Julia Pierpont sets herself a difficult task with her debut novel Among The Ten Thousand Things (out today): how to elevate a run-of-the-mill failing marriage story above the din to make it something different, fresh, readable, memorable. She succeeds in spades.

This deft, subtly complex story stands out for its structure, its writing, and for how it handles the difficult question: "Is cheating always and without exception a divorce-able offense?"

The novel starts with a bang: A New York City couple's 11-year-old daughter Kay discovers a box of printed-out filthy emails and instant messages between her father Jack and his mistress. Kay shows it to her brother, 15-year-old Simon, and they both show it to their mother, Deb. Deb already knew about the affair, which Jack claims has ended, but the kids finding out is the last straw. Or is it?

The opening few pages of this novel get their claws in you like few novels can — and that's not just because of the immediate interest of the kids discovering the box of sexy missives. In the first scene, we see Kay's friends picking on her for not knowing how to ride a bike — a perfect way to encapsulate the transition between childhood (bike-riding) and the tough, potentially cruel upcoming teenage years. As well, in the next scene, we see Simon smoking pot for the first time with an older girl he has a crush on — just another great depiction of the peer pressure and pitfalls of being a teenager.

Indeed, much of this novel — and another reason it's better than the "traditional" failing marriage story — is that it really focuses on the effects of the affair on these two kids at such pivotal times in their lives. What kind of people will they wind up being?

Thankfully, we don't have to wait long to learn the answer. Another standout part of this novel is that after about the first third, Pierpont pauses the story and writes a short, poetic section that follows each character many years into the future. Then, she continues with the story. Your first instinct here is to scream "spoiler alert." But it's a fascinating structural choice. And near the end of that section, Pierpont explains this way: "The end is never a surprise. People say, Don't tell me, Don't spoil it, and then later they say, If only I'd known." I really loved this, both for its inventiveness and because it gives a fresh perspective for the rest of the novel, as Deb takes the kids out of New York City to the family's summer cottage, and Jack goes on a weird sort of vision quest across the country.

There's so much packed in to this slim, beautifully written story — art, Atlas Shrugged, dance, erotic episodes of Seinfeld, secrets revealed, and the fraught parent-child relationship. I loved it. It's about as confident a debut as you'll find. Highly recommended.