PAYOFF & PAGE COUNT

Spring & Mulberry Streets, NYC 1976

Spring Street at Mulberry, New York City, 1976

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg

What do Frank Rich, Andy Cohen and my cousin Peter have in common? They were all disappointed in City on Fire, a 911-page first novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that follows the interwoven stories of several subsets of New Yorkers between 1976 and 1977. Typically, the individual and collective opinions of these three wise men could probably sway me toward or away from a particular book, but in this case the premise was too intriguing for me not to give it a go myself. (I’m a sucker for epic, 20th century historical fiction, particularly from the century’s 2nd half. Lately it’s been all about The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire when I prefer to watch, rather than read, late 20th century historical fiction.)

Back to the book. Up until page 623, I was in. And then (semi-spoiler alert), the story abruptly jumps ahead 30 years. The jump is temporary, but I found that the technique pretty much killed all the tension the author had been building up to that point. And as I continued to read, I began to realize that of the many seeds planted earlier in the book, very few were actually going to bloom into anything significant. Yet amid my own chagrin, I understood why all three of my wise men had read the whole book before deciding they were disappointed – by the time you get to page 623, you’re finishing the damn thing.

Unfortunately, stringing along an audience for that long breeds a level of antipathy not found among those who put something aside after 50 pages. (Or, say, five episodes. You former LOSTies out there know what I’m talking about.)

In the past, I’ve found it funny when people complain about the length of certain books, regardless of their interest in the content. Recently, I observed my father cautiously survey a book purchase he’d made, wary of its heft. His comment was something along the lines of, “I hope it’s not too long, I don’t want to be saddled with this thing all spring.” Keep in mind that this was not a gift; it was a book he’d proactively gone out and purchased. It’s a strange logic to me: wouldn’t one rather read one good, long book rather than two or three mediocre short books in the same time span?

In considering the disappointment around City of Fire (my own included), I’ve begun to recognize the role risk plays in one’s reading choices. When someone starts a lengthy book, they feel they’re making an investment of their precious reading time, so they get edgy about the possibility of the investment not paying off. And the more we invest, the more we want in return. All that good work an author did early on to gain our buy in feels like that much more of a loss when he can’t pay it off over the course of many pages. Disappointment has a price. His readers are annoyed and resentful. Their early enjoyment is forgotten and in its place, their frustration is multiplied. They decide the book in its entirety is no good. To torture the idea one step further, you could say it feels like a literary pyramid scheme (minus the callous intentions).

Call me a gambler, call me a reckless risk taker, I’m willing to keep rolling the dice on big books. But if time really is money (or at the very least a valuable commodity in its own right), I can appreciate why others may not want to spend theirs in the same way.

 

AN UNEDUCATED GUESS

The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)

So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.

When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?

I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.

Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.

For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?

 

ONE IS NOT BORN A WOMAN

Brooklyn
by Colm Toibin

Photo courtesy of Time.

Cait, photo courtesy of Time

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin

This past weekend, I was mulling over what I wanted to tell you guys about Brooklyn and Nora Webster, two gorgeous novels by Colm Toibin. You may be familiar with Brooklyn because it was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie this year. Both books are set in Enniscorthy, Ireland and share a few characters, but the stories are entirely independent of one another. In Brooklyn, set in in the early 1950s, a young woman must venture to the U.S. by herself for lack of job opportunities at home. In Nora Webster, set in the late 60s/early 70s, a middle-aged woman has to figure out what to do with herself after the sudden death of her husband.

Both stories are told beautifully, in a simple, melodrama-free style, but I knew there was more to them that I liked, I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Deep in concerted thought, I did what every serious thinker resorts to when attempting to solve a high-minded query. I flipped on the E! channel and started watching the Caitlyn Jenner docu-series, I Am Cait.

Yes, I was looking for mind candy, but I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised and relieved I’ve been to see that someone involved in this show was smart enough to bring in some real academic heavyweights like Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein. And my mixed feelings about her aside, I give Caitlyn serious props for letting them chastise educate her on national TV so the rest of us can learn along with her. Despite the requisite Kardashian cameos (which tend to be pretty hysterical), any television program that has people quoting Simone de Beauvoir ain’t “Keeping Up With Cait.” Amidst sweeping Malibu vistas and Moschino dresses, there is some serious dialogue going on here. Including the aforementioned de Beauvoir quote from this week’s episode: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”

It was the brilliant Jenny Boylan who laid that one on the group during a discussion of gender roles and in her typically clueless manner, Cait responds with, “Where do you get this stuff?” You can see where this is both interesting and entertaining.

I perked up at the reference to this quote, as it is one of my favorites. I like it both for its simple lyricism (in its English translation) and for the various ways it can be interpreted. In its original context, de Beauvoir was saying that it is society that really shapes us as “male” or “female.” Given the crowd Simone hung with, some take a more existential reading of the quote (we aren’t “born anything,” we create who we are) and I’ve always liked thinking of it as an ode to maturation (we are born girls, we grow into women). All these interpretations are more or less streams that flow into the same river. Certainly the quote resonated with a group of transgender women who were not biologically born women.

We are all charged with finding our place in the world. For some, the journey may be easier than for others. Both of Colm Toibin’s main characters truly become women in the course of their stories and in depicting their journeys so eloquently, he reminds us that the process of becoming (whatever we may be) is one that is universal.

 

Kate Bornstein

Kate Bornstein, courtesy of Amazon (???)

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website

(By the way, I highly recommend Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides if you are interested in reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about gender identity.)

HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.