Saturday, July 31, 2010

No "Despair"-ing Nabokov's Being So Good

More puns! Ah, ok I'll shut the hell up about that. But I read Vladimir Nabokov . . . again! "Despair" this time. Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe would likely have appreciated this literary effort, too. It's rife with all the usual depth of a Nabokov tale: a hyper-aware protagonist, Hermann, attempts to explain away his monomania and the violence it leads him to commit, with many of the elements of a thriller masterminded by one or both of the two artists previously mentioned.

Hermann begins his narrative exposition with a wide array of dithering and seemingly extraneous background information, coming in weird clips and decisive backsliding (as to almost appear overwrought to the point of being premeditated / too carefully crafted to fit the image he's creating for himself), expressing thoughts in an oddly whimsical way at times (e.g. "Tum-tee-tum. And once more -- TUM! No, I have not gone mad. I am merely producing gleeful sounds."), and all of which supposedly written as such for the simple fact of his culling it totally and completely from memory. Anything he knows is speculation he goes to great pains to make it abundantly clear that that is just what it is, speculative -- thus leaving everything to be doubted more so than usual when offered from the point of view of an unreliable first person narrator. His emphatic conviction makes him an untrustworthy individual, indeed. It's also a very nice bit of story-craft by Nabokov in those early, tone-setting few chapters.

The substance of the story, meanwhile, begins in the midst of everything else (his relationship with his wife, her cousin, his parents and so forth), when he describes coming upon a complete stranger named Felix, a man on the 180-degree opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, a drifter and a panhandler whom Hermann believes to be his exact, perfect double -- uncannily resembling him in near every way, including countenance and stature. So is the seed of Hermann's obsession planted. Whatever logical end or imperative Hermann contrives to justify his plans, it's rendered moot and arbitrary when juxtaposed against his interest in the world perceiving his double as he does, i.e. possessing a flawlessly similar likeness. It takes a special kind of lunacy to aspire to this sort of social affirmation, going to the length of declaring ". . . I longed, to the point of pain, for that masterpiece of mine . . . to be appreciated by men . . ." And as the plot becomes more involved you sometimes wonder if Hermann thought Felix was handsome. I myself couldn't shake the joke of any person's flattering him or herself with the belief that they look like a certain celebrity or other-type beautiful person, even if the resemblance is tenuous at best.

Ultimately, it's beside the point whether there is something in Felix's physical appearance that Hermann admires. The real issue at stake is what possesses Hermann to prove to the world that their likeness is exact, to go to the extreme he hints at throughout the first many chapters of his tale. That's difficult even to theorize about. But it certainly invites your hypotheses. I'm always interested in the process by which humans either reject or accept someone into their fold, what sorts of traits one needs to possess to be accepted by one or an entire group at large. So accepted was Felix by Hermann, you might say, that the latter wished to adopt the life of the former, which is no small thing when you consider the difference of each man's social standing. There were facts about Felix that Hermann at least implicitly admires, even if more overtly he considers him a buffoon and a moron. His anonymity, in itself, seems to be a virtue. Felix travels all over with little more than a few personal items to show for it, to tangibly testify to his ever existing. Hermann wants a live evanescence, to become a shadow. Felix's being listed on his passport by occupation as a "musician" has a certain appeal to Hermann, as well. He might then be able to rid himself of his dislike of mirrors, which I'm sure there's some serious psycho-analysis to be done with that aspect of his character, in and of itself.

But Hermann is undone in his plans. I won't get into precisely how, but things don't go quite the way he'd hoped, or contrived. Instead, he is forced to deal with the little that is made of his "masterpiece" and the shame that no one but himself seems to think it is a striking resemblance.

But where Hermann especially fails is with his assumption that he is the smartest man in the room, when in truth many of the others whom he assumed to be fools, reprobates and / or oblivious were in fact on to him more or less the whole time (this seems especially true in the case of Ardalion, his wife's cousin). That and, basically, there no such thing as an exact double, so don't get any murderous ideas.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Having Read Some of Jonathan Lethem's Lesser Known Works . . .

Jonathan Lethem is a great writer, as I see it. And I know, I'm always going off about who I think is a great writer. I'm beginning to suspect that's, like, the reason this blog exists (that and fun, free use of italics). But where was I going with this? Ah, and yet, I'm lukewarm with respect to the couple of books I've read of his that aren't "Motherless Brooklyn." Those two are, "You Don't Love Me Yet" and "As She Climbed Across the Table."

Funnily enough, with the Internet, if you search for just a little while, you're bound to find something resembling coincidence. And I did! Mark Athitakis mentions Lethem and alludes to "You Don't Love Me Yet" in an article about Advanced Genius Theory, a theory making the rounds these days that apparently suggests artists of a superior quality aren't exactly in decline as they age and change, and so likewise does their work, but that their fans (and the critics) have lost their grip on how to reasonably evaluate them, for one or more of a plethora of reasons. The fault lies squarely on the receiver, not the artist. The artist him or herself doesn't care whether you appreciate what he or she is doing, after all, or so says the theory, which was specifically fleshed out by Jason Hartley in his book, "The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?" It's interesting, and I'll no doubt investigate the whole deal further, but it's not exactly applicable here. Or at least it's applicable, but only insomuch as it applies to Jonathan Lethem and "You Don't Love Me Yet."

Athitakis writes:

In the interest of helping fill out the theory a little, I tried to figure out which writers might fit the bill. The first one who sprung to mind was Jonathan Lethem, because Lethem once wrote an article made up of plagiarized sentences and then tried to work in some of his theories about it into a bad novel about a rock band ["You Don't Love Me Yet"], but that seems like an Overt move, and being controversial in itself isn't enough to be Advanced.
If I'm understanding him correctly, Athitakis explains that there are, in specific, two different kinds of writers who, when all is boiled down, can be classified either as fitting the "Advanced" label and all accompanying presumptions made of an artist who fits the Advanced Genius Theory's description, or an Overt. And Overt is an artist whose works meet the criteria of the highfalutin, haughty critics, which Hartley apparently defines in some detail, including things like verbosity and length of the book (if it's a book that's the artwork in question; and it should be long), so explains Athitakis' classification of Lethem.

I admit I didn't know about Lethem's impetus for writing "You Don't Love Me Yet." I found it a bit heavy-handed when I read the novel, but I didn't quite realize there was more behind it than meets the eye. Baggage, carry over, subtext? Bosh! Who'd have thought? But yes, there is. The theory and thought behind the novel prove more interesting than the novel itself, having now read both his article in Harper's and "You Don't Love Me Yet." The collage idea (and read the article with the provided link if you're curious to understand it specifically) that Lethem promotes is a good one, a well-reason one, but his novel illustrates its travails as much as its merits. So many times you feel like the story is making an interesting point, only to have that scrap of intrigue interrupted by plot points functioning in a different way, to express a different point that he's also thrown in as part of the general tableau. It's just a muddled story that never really cohered into anything terribly interesting, just flashes of cool ideas that were squelched just as quickly.

I haven't forgotten the other faulty Lethem novel I mentioned, "As She Climbed Across the Table." Again, there's a lot that's good about this novel, and in fairness, it operates far less on an experimental platform like "You Don't Love Me Yet" -- at least as far as I'm aware. But in it, too, something feels forced or foisted upon the reader. The idea is interesting enough, physicists have opened up a kind of void, "the Lack" as it quickly comes to be called, that they determine through various means and measurements available to them is choosing certain particles that pass through it to the exclusion of the others. The idea expands beyond particles when it's suggested they see what else it prefers, so begins the experiment to see if it wants strawberries or bananas and every other item imaginable. And lack then begins to take on an inter-spacial symbolism for the frivolity of feelings like love, of how you can't ask that someone love you, they do or they do not.

And so, at the same time lack is opened, the rift grows in the love life of the story's protagonists, Philip, a professor of interdepartmental studies at the university in which this experiment is taking place, and Alice, one of the two physicists and professors performing the experimentation with lack, and who simultaneously becomes completely infatuated with lack to the exclusion of Philip. Meanwhile, Philip remains completely obsessed and devoted to Alice, with much of the rest of the story revolving around how he can win her back. The metaphor, while a good one, is not entirely good enough to sustain a novel, and the character of Philip strikes me as not quite realized, although I see how that could be the author's intent. Still, even if Lethem wanted Philip to seem somewhat two-dimensional, in the absence of Alice, presumably, it nevertheless didn't make him a terribly compelling character to follow, and difficult what's more to root for. I just didn't care one way or the other what happened to him, making the conclusion far more vanilla than it should have been.

And Philip is especially disappointing when you compare him to Lionel Essrog of "Motherless Brooklyn" who couldn't really be much more complete, with all his ticks and foibles and hapless affability. Which, then makes "As She Climbed Across the Table" akin to "You Don't Love Me Yet" for the simple fact of the ambitiousness of an idea / philosophy taking precedence over the actual storytelling, which if you ask me is always detrimental to whatever the author is attempting to accomplish.

Thomas Pynchon said something similar in critiquing one of his own apprentice storytelling efforts of "Slow Learner," viz. -- "The lesson is sad . . . but true: get too conceptual, too cute and remote and your characters die on the page."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Absurdistan" isn't Afghanistan, Much Funnier

Is that a point? Yes, maybe. Especially when you consider, in a satirical sense, Absurdistan is a kind of Afghanistan-Iraq composite, with something of an antithetical NeverNeverLand to it, as well. But, not to needlessly obfuscate my thoughts on the subject further, I think even that notion is somewhat beside the point in Gary Shteyngart's 2006 novel, "Absurdistan."

Absurdistan isn't a Middle Eastern country necessarily, even if geographically-speaking that's its definitively expressed location. It's the antithetical USofA, a place dependent on an American monetary infusion of some sort, no matter what cynical form that might take (e.g. Halliburton or "Golly Burton" as garbled by Absurdi denizens). Seeming to say: American capital justifies the means in any country left behind by its ostensible inutility, its lack of things to sell. Concomitant or at least tangential to that, then, is: what is the relevance of being a part of a discrete cultural subgroup in the expanding globalized world of commerce and so forth? This relates to the novel's protagonist, Misha Vainberg, with respect to his decidedly secular take on Judaism, a distinction that nevertheless follows him throughout the story. So, to what extent, if any, does his Judaism matter, or anyone's whatever?

And for semi-immediate disclosure's sake, I was very amused by this novel and particularly the happenstance occurrences that near-ceaselessly thwart Misha Vainberg, a fat intellectual both cloddish and refined, in the tradition of an Ignatius J. Reilly of "A Confederacy of Dunces." I'm an unabashed fan of the slobs of literature. I can say that beyond any doubt.

Andrew Seal, as coincidence would have it, wrote that he's in contrast to me not very impressed with Shteyngart's work. In a recent post on his blog, Blographia Literaria, Seal expresses some of his frustration with Shteygart's authorial stylistic tendencies, among other things (in particular an essay of Shteygart's discoursing on the technological shift some fear threatens book reading). And I have to admit, much as I enjoyed "Absurdistan" and look forward to Shteyngart's new novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," there's a great deal of merit to what Seal finds irksome about him.

It has become trendy in contemporary fiction to insert quasi-malapropisms (a trend probably started by George Saunders, who succeeds with them where others do not largely because of how clever/on the mark his tend to be, e.g. from Saunders' short story "Sea Oak" -- "None of us ever kisses anyone or shows his penis except Sonny Vance, who does both, because he's saving up to buy a FaxIt franchise." Curiously, that almost seems funnier out of context.) "FaxIt" very likely is a spin on FedEx, which also gets mentioned by name in the story , along with numerous other fictional franchise-type restaurants and so forth, ostensibly meant to satirize the "quik-speak" -- um, my term? -- of contemporary global franchise-based consumerism.

Notwithstanding, similar expressions of Shteyngart's invention, Seal cites his use of "iKindle" and, yes, I myself would cite "Accidental College," "Golly Burton" and "St. Leninsburg" of "Absurdistan" (possibly "Absurdistan," too, though that's one I especially like) note, can be -- well -- a little bit much? Can feel, as Seal wrote in response to a question I asked him, "like a comedian who's constantly asking his audience if they'd like to hear a joke." And then, to piggyback that analogy, repeating the joke ad nauseam just to be certain that the audience hears it despite their silence, or maybe with a few coughs here and there.

But for all his writing's flaws, legitimate though they may be, I'd say Shteyngart proves himself to be a superior sort of writer. Because despite all of his flaws, I came away feeling like my reading of "Absurdistan" wasn't forced and I was legitimately interested throughout / desirous of reading more. And for all his misses at humor, there seemed to be countless corresponding hits.

I submit: Vainberg's ludicrous wealth by inheritance, love of excess, and his penchant for rap, which he unselfconsciously engages in with his friend, Alyosha-Bob, whenever the mood strikes him. Vainberg's relationship with his "manservant," Timofey, whom he treats in a hilariously uncivil fashion but still seems to care for genuinely. The long suffering Larry Zartarian, manager of the Park Hyatt Svani City, who is constantly at the mercy of his mother's chiding and physical abuse. The general comedic repetition of the phrase, "The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdsvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink," by most every new Absurdi Vainberg encounters.

The question I'll end on is, what does any of cultural background matter to Misha Vainberg? I found this line of thought and philosophizing to be Shteyngart's strongest. If Vainberg's final decision is any indication, Jewishness or any -ness cannot come before an individual's own liberty and happiness. Certainly it's up for the individual to decide what responsibility is owed to the community in which he or she has been raised, but not if that means trapping said individual by force and holding him or her to that standard without any of their own say so. Any discrete subgroup that would do that deserves not to last beyond the next generation. And maybe that's true.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ZZ Packer Warrants Your Consideration, Dear Readers

Yes, still here & talking about the Top 20 Under 40 of the according-to-the-New-Yorker variety, once o-gain. I just finished ZZ Packer's short story collection, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere." Not to sound like some multicultural and P.C.-trumpeting self-righteous douche bag, but I have a strong urge these days to approach reading and literature with a more pluralistic eye. My biggest reason for doing so is this, I consider reading to be a great way to learn something very profound about a writer, even if it's not exactly apparent what that might be, even after I've completed a reading in its entirety. Like, it's not so easy to put what I feel I've learned about said writer into words. But it's in the endeavor, the attempt, that I think you can find fulfillment, fulfillment that defies description -- or, what's more, doesn't necessarily require it. Nabokov probably describes all of this very well in a story or essay someplace.

Problem is, "understanding" a writer is easier done, I think, if you feel you come from a point of concrescence -- a similar point of origin, a related background with which to identify more easily. Which is why it is, I believe, that for most of my life I've gravitated towards white male authors. This is fine, nothing wrong with the tendency to read who you "know" -- irony there being you don't really "know" anyone but by perception and presumption, though really, before I start on that track, enough. More important is that you're open to eventually stepping out of your comfort zone, which the funny thing about doing that is how readily it feeds on itself. How you might discover, yes, you like green eggs and ham, but you also like purple eggs and ham, or some REALLY fucked up dish.

As I've already noted I've been searching high and low for good female authors to read. So far I've found a great many contemporary female authors worth your time, with the latest being ZZ Packer. (Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicole Krauss are next on the list.)

So to return to "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," in Packer's collection religion's role in the African American community figures heavily. It's a strange spin on the age-old motif, expressing the hypocrisies of religion as they relate to the human affairs of a given community. The contemporary, and not-so-contemporary, African American community is very much guided by the kinds of perverted dogmatical forms of normative behavior that can plague any people too taken with waving the banner of a given creed. That might be a strange place to begin interpreting Packer's work, especially as I consider her interpersonal elements to be equally if not more powerful in effect. But as already said, pluralism is a notion I'm taken with right now, and it's those possible sociological critiques that I'll be drawn to most readily as consequence. This is where my perception has me coming from, dear reader.

Malignant and hypocritical men of the cloth pervade many of Packer's stories in this collection. In "Doris is Coming," a certain Reverend Sykes incorrectly predicts the rapture as the last day of 1961, thus setting a measure of uncertainty and reasonable doubt to all his exposited beliefs thereafter. Doris, meanwhile, is a coming-of-age black girl growing up in the segregated south, though she's endowed with a top tier intellect that allows her placement in upper level honors courses at school, which means she's the only African American amidst a sea of white students. It would be dishonest to suggest that Doris and Reverend Sykes' ideological differences are the prime mover of this story. The great thing about all of Packer's stories is how variegated they are. Certainly there is a theme of radical change clashing with a perceived conservative prudence, but Doris has many more influential encounters with different people than just Sykes. Still, Doris and Sykes' ultimate clash was a memorable point in the story to me, particularly for the telling way in which it ends, with Sykes putting forth a rather radiantly red herring, to wit:

And these other churches. I suppose they're Baptist and A.M.E.? Now, them folks think you can sin on Saturday night and sing hungover with the choir Sunday morning. Did you see that mother of that unsaved family that came in on New Year's? That woman! Coming to church in a red dress, of all things.

Religion and denomination then operating as a distraction, smoke and mirrors, and expressing Reverend Sykes' impartial interest in the lead story, i.e. what's in the best interests of the African American community? He deflects this question, favoring something far more superficial in terms of the here and now. What should it matter, any of those things he cites, when compared with the battle being waged against social injustice? But he's convinced himself of their superior weight. They hold superior weight to him -- because he has lost touch with any sense of proportion, acclimatizing himself to a submissive role in society.

"Every Tongue Shall Confess" features a more despicable but equally misguided church leader, Deacon Jeffers. Brings to light a sense of the misogynistic elements that are to be found in African American churches, as they would be anywhere else. I put special mention on the critique of the church in Packer's work also because I think popular culture has had a nasty habit of romanticizing the gospel singing and general exuberance seemingly found in such predominantly African American places of worship. As I see it, Packer is not condemning the idea of religion, nor is she condemning it specifically as a cultural referent with respect to African Americans, but she does see the institutional hypocrisies to be found anywhere in which power is to be had, likewise. She says African American churches are no different from any other in this way, and not everything is roses. I find that emphasis fascinating, along with so much else Packer succeeds at in her stories.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Great Perhaps is Perhaps Great The

Ha! Palindromes, hilarious. Cracks me up, as always. But sorry about the title of this post. Or actually I'm not because as already indicated: I love palindromes, even crappy, poorly-conceived ones! I suppose then the only thing to be actually sorry about is, in a weirdly forced palindrome-escence way, suggesting that Joe Meno's novel "The Great Perhaps" is only perhaps great. It's mostly great, in actual fact. I thought so. I've decided it's best described as a cross between "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" with a smidgen of something from Noah Baumbach's 2005 film, "The Squid and the Whale." I liked to lesser or greater extent all of those stories, and so it's probably no surprise then that "The Great Perhaps" won me over very sweepingly and easily. It takes place primarily in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago -- which is a very good place to set a story, if you're asking me.

It's probably also no suprise, given the novels I likened his to, that I would consider Joe Meno belonging to a group that I see as having a similar sort of impetus in writing, which includes Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen, naturally, but also Jonathan Lethem, Jeffery Eugenides, and Joshua Ferris. (Lots of "J"-beginning first names there.) Except different from the others save Ferris (hahaha, oh, I couldn't resist making an allusion to that band, ya know, "Save Ferris," and also it's the truth), Joe Meno is the only one who uses Chicago as his setting / backdrop of choice. It's always New York City this or wherever Eugenides sets his stories (i.e. Michigan, as far as I know) that with the rest of them. Well, Chicago's a perfectly good setting likewise, and that's the last I'll say of it. (Sorry, but I'm a bit of a homer.)

Er, and enough categorization and compartmentalization already. Sarah Vowell makes a great case for why we do that (in her case concerning coincidences of history, however minute, that allow us to see events as paralleling one another and thus seeming more related in our human brains) and why it's probably better to abandon looking for patterns every once in a while. I think she makes that argument, anyway. And if she doesn't I'm going to: it's best for your sanity to avoid searching for patterns, at least every once in a while. So I'll stop with trying to fit Joe Meno amongst other contemporary authors . . . for now.

The story itself is worthy of mention (imagine that!). It concerns the Caspers, a family of four: the parents, two professors working at the University of Chicago, and their two teenaged daughters in high school. Tangentially, the grandfather figures in as an occupant of a nearby nursing home whom the family periodically visits, especially as it becomes increasingly viewed that he is not long for this world / his condition begins to degrade rapidly.

Jonathan Casper, the father, has an odd disorder: seeing any image of a cloud, real or reproduced in some manner, forces him into a fit of seizure. He takes medication to alleviate this response, which has the inadvertent effect of instilling him with the view that science is a powerful answer to most -- if not all -- of life's problems. His wife, Madeline, is wearied by her role as familial glue, frustrated by Jonathan's failure to understand or attempt to understand the day-to-day affairs that allow their family to function. For that and a general feeling of dissatisfaction or ennui Madeline is brought to the brink of divorce, of escape, of leaving the restraints of a marriage that feels too maternal and one-sided, as if she were the lone guardian.

Amelia is the oldest daughter, aged 17. She would have been a caricature of any leftist teen looking for a niche if Meno wasn't so deft at adding conflict and dimension via growth to her as the novel progresses. Her values are challenged, and as an intelligent young person she eventually rises to meet them, all things considered. She's also a raging bitch for much of the novel, which I can imagine being abrasive to some -- but I felt it was necessary to her character and for her eventual maturation. Thisbe at age 13 is the youngest, another who might have been a caricature if not for good writing. And Thisbe inexplicably given her family's general agnosticism, has at the start of the story become a devotee of the Christian faith. But it also quickly becomes clear she's looking for the same affirmation that her existence is meaningful as that of most thinking people her age, trying to determine where they fit in the grand scheme.

I could delve into the plot some, but rehashing stories like that is beginning to feel like an attempt at providing synopses on wikipedia pages, which is not where my real interest lies. Of course I appreciate the plot, which is why I read, or in part why I read, but it's also the way the lives of these manufactured individuals begin to play out in both ways you might predict and ways the author misdirects you. I'm very pleased to say these elements of character are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the world in which they reside. I was very pleased with the kind of imaginative catharsis involved in each character's understanding of their circumstances. Coming realistically to terms with the challenges we all are faced with. It's a neat thing to see these ideas so nicely executed, which is why I must recommend "The Great Perhaps."

To conclude, and return to categorization once again, I would like to lump Joe Meno in with my other favorite young Chicago authors, Patrick Somerville and Adam Levin. Good writers, all three.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Not Entirely Buying that Editors' Friends aren't Helped in Publishing by Their Editor Friendship

Roxanne Gay blogged about the nature of being a friend of writers and being an editor in a recent HTML Giant post. A good post that made many good points, for instance acknowledged the incestuous (missing a perfectly good opportunity to use the great neologism, "incestual," but never mind that) world of independent publishing. I'm on the fringe if I'm even outside that world, and hey, it's frustrated me, too (so much so that I'm inching slowly towards my own online lit zine / whatever you want to call it). But I'm not buying her main point that "the magazine goes before everything else" without oodles of caveats and addenda, which she suggests there are but not to the degree I think is needed to be really and truly honest. Cronyism is the way of the world, always has been and will continue to be. Those successful clawing-climbers-without-connections-to-the-top will always be the exception and not the rule.

Without evidence to the contrary I'm going to sound like just another conspiracy theorist of sorts. I'll sound like one who imagines secret or not-so-secret cabals of men and women banding together in a manner that keeps outsiders out and vice versa. But actually, that doesn't need evidence does it, that people are clannish? That despite our claims to the contrary lauding the shear glory of notions of objectivity and its careful implementation when and wherever possible we are more times than not are going to go with what's safe (or what we perceive is safe), and what's safe is what we "know." And scare quotes attributed to what we "know" because when do we know for certain all sorts of stuff? At best we go with our best judgment -- I hear things like "gut" and so forth invoked, but really that's just a way of speaking about our given and varying tastes. An instinct that compels us a certain way for reasons we may not know why. And sure, I imagine you can be someone who speaks to the taste of another person (i.e. an editor) without ever having met that person -- but more often people's wavelengths are synced by knowing one another and discoursing, expositing. You take someone into your fold, even if it's by enjoying certain authors or whoever else that you haven't necessarily met and certainly don't "know" in everyday life. You find a way in which to trust a given public persona if you've had no face time or other personal contact (or you don't and accordingly reject that person).

I can tell you right now that if my hypothetical lit mag-zine ever becomes more than hypothetical I will certainly err on the side of including my friends in the venture, whether it's someone I know in real life or someone I've developed some kind of a working relationship with via the Internet. It's simple. It's obvious. If you believe you know how someone operates creatively or you have a pretty good idea of that at least, you're also probably going to give that person a lot of the benefit of the doubt. Most likely other things will sync, too. You'll probably be able to pick that person's writing out of a pile of others' stuff without any identity-tipping marks aside from the person's writing style itself. I suspect I could determine who's who with at least most writers I like or love or what have you. I definitely know my close friends' writing styles, to be sure.

How I hope to maybe differ from other places as an "editor" or whatever, and granted there are logistical reasons that preclude this elsewhere with the high volume submissions etc., is I'll be more open to developing a relationship with writers who submit. Considering I've tried this tack myself (pursuing a kind of dialogue with editors) countless times elsewhere on the Internets, I can tell you it doesn't really happen, not in any significant way. And attempting to go a different way with respect tot that is something I think will make all the difference.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Granta Summer 2009: Chicago Edition

Finally, last year's summer Granta is completed by me, reading-wise. So yes, I'm a year late and a dollar short or something. Some sort of flippant & pithy dismissal of my missing the train the first go round, not literally. That's who I am, one who misses metaphorical trains.

I haven't read a lot of Granta outside of last summer's Chicago issue, but as a native Chicagoan (sort of, live very near it in the NW suburbs) I can say definitively that I enjoyed the content this British literary magazine chose to include. Good for the Brits! Cheers and tally-ho, in fact. But on a less colloquially condescending note, I'm impressed with the shear number and variety of good things to be found here. Every piece of writing contains some new insight, new perspective worth reading, even if the work on the whole isn't to your taste. If you have any interest in Chicago at all, at least one of the many pieces to be found in this issue is sure to smack you mightily with its earnest analysis of life and times in the Windy City.

MORE TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF THAN AN AM/PM ClAIMS TO HAVE IN STOCK! (Note: AM/PM convenience stores are relatively new to Chicago (within the last two years or so), and I dunno, I figured alluding to their old tagline "Too much good stuff" was an opportunity not to be missed. I'm beginning to think that isn't the case at all. That I was wrong. That doing so was ill-advised -- but there's no turning back now. No sir. Gotta keep moving on.)

And so . . .

I mean surrhiously, this is a nifty collection of anecdotes, fictions and things not to be despised snidely. It's culled from the keyboards and word processors, or typewriters and typepaper, or stone tablets and chisels, or ectoplasmic residue left in shapes on walls resembling our alphabet by ghosts of Studs Terkel (perhaps?) and transcribed by real life ghostbuster writers, of famous Chicago-area authors mostly still living and one dead (i.e. Nelson Algren with his featured short story, "The Lightless Room"; the only writing appearing here posthumously, I gather).

Dinaw Mengestu for those of you who don't know is one of the New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40. Who'd have thought I'd find a way to sneak a reference to that in? (Anyone who's read one or more posts from the last month is who.) Mengestu is also a Chicago transplant via Peoria via Ethiopia. I'm not sure about him living anywhere else in that interval, but rest assured he's a native born Ethiopian who came to live in Chicago. I learned a great deal about it in his autobiographical essay, "Big Money." It's cool. It's about his work as a courier for his dad's delivery service.

It touches passingly on the way in which someone can be a profoundly well-educated person and still find him or herself doing work in which the presumption by outsiders is that it is work meant only for the downcast and insignificant lower (and in so many ways second) class citizens. He found himself at times desiring to showcase he was more than his low-level job to the haughty lawyers and other white collar professionals he sometimes worked for, but didn't, in part because what could he prove? What would there be about "proving" oneself that would allow you to save face? Perception is sealed already, and anything incongruous would be mitigated by some form of dismissal, more than likely.

Thom Jones, meanwhile, has a piece describing his time working in a General Mills factory, making Bugles right around the time of their debut. It's a Bukowski-esque jaunt of a tale, in part describing another individual who falls outside of our prescriptive norms and classification. Maybe this happens often in Chicago.

Stuart Dybek's essay speaks of a priest swimming far out to the horizon of Lake Michigan. He spots him all the time at this task deep into fall, when most everyone else has given up on the lake until spring. It's a truly charmed and beautifully described anecdote, although that's just par for the course with Dybek.

Alex Kotlowitz rounds out my favorites of this collection. In "Khalid," he describes gang life in Chicago, and focuses in on the nuances of the culture and how it relates to the city's infrastructure (with particular respect to the Chicago Police Department). He then makes it more personal with the story of a Sudanese refugee and her children, one of whom is named Khalid. The story is sure to get a grip on you emotionally, with a profundity I don't think I'll be likely to find elsewhere anytime soon.