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We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what that place might be.

—Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (2010)

 

Over the last few nights, half-longing for sleep, I’ve seen Lisa as she was at 14, the two of us almost side by side, about to take the front steps of East Hampton High School for the first time.

RK CornfieldYou’ve been awfully quiet today. What’s up?

I’ve been thinking of my attraction to bardo spaces. The in-between places. I suppose I’ve been dancing there since my early 20s when I left organized religion and began formally pursuing the visual and literary arts. An early exhibit of oils and monotypes called Between featured quasi-mythological, autobiographical figures knee-deep to chest-high in water, both on land and at sea at once. Looking back, it isn’t a surprise that ten years later I would begin seriously studying Tibetan Buddhism where this concept of the between figures prominently. It’s a natural fit for me. Any philosophy that makes a practice out of living beyond duality and with the concept of both/and feels like home.

Scott Timberg, writing for Salon, with a compelling essay on the financial struggles of America’s creative class:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).


DH: Barcelona is a city I can imagine leaving…for the beach. If Barcelona is in the mind ofJames Salter, then the reader can be set down in the streets of the city, even if they’ve never been there. As for my friend JC, who recently set off for BerlinZurich and Vienna, he can have them.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel rim glasses, which he doesn’t need, lie on a table by the bed. He’s compared to the keel of a ship. What I’ve noticed right off in my first JS story is that the writer is a master of the suggestive fact…of facts that have vaporous ghosts of abstractions clingiing to them as if the facts could be haunted.

There are priorities in what Salter wants to talk about. I notice that JS goes on for about half a page, associating M with images of strength…steel glasses (one), he doesn’t need them (two), body parts like the keel of a ship (3).

It’s only after we’ve been though half a page of Malcolm asleep that we are introduced to Nico, his partner. She’s already awake and has gone out to the terrace after her bath. Since I’m myth-saturated, I associate Malcolm with the sleeping Eros…Eros is often depicted in art as sleeping. It’s very dangerous to wake him. It’s not necessary for Salter to have thought of this at all. But the myth helps me to see something…that Malcolm is being presented as a god and maybe, I’m wondering, to Nico he is one.

I’m indebted to Salter for the slow elevator approach to storytelling. Nico goes down the slow elevator of her building to get Malcolm a morning coffee from a restaurant. Can you guess that Malcolm likes it black? “Solo” he says. And that Nico is getting it for him and likes getting it for him?

There was a time in my life when I was on a slow elevator off Spring Street in Soho a great deal. Christ, that elevator took forever. It must have been a hundred years old. But I understand about slow elevators. JS has a great line: as the lift drifts down from floor to floor, it’s like Nico is passing through decades of her life. In my opinion, you have to be in midlife to appreciate a slow elevator.

The slow elevator approach to story telling…you see, we’ve passed down another floor in my post. You don’t discover how the reality of another person changes right away. It happens slowly, like a play, scene by scene. I’m paraphrasing Salter here. This is what Nico is thinking. Reminds me of that Boulez piece, Pli Selon Pli…fold after fold.

Salter goes on to introduce fold after fold of cognitive dissonance until “the story” can’t take it anymore and breaks up into a sputtering coda of non sequiturs. I’m a great fan of having the structure of a story buckle with the sense of what’s happening.

Let’s all go to the beach. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach? So JS sends his characters and his readers to the beach at Stiges. But S introduces a new character, Inge, Nico’s friend from when she was going solo, as the agent of dissonance.

It’s awesome how the great JM piles on pleat after pleat of disturbance, all of it MINOR, but the effect is to overwhelm.

First off, it’s genius to have Malcolm encounter Nico’s old girlfriend, Inge, from her unattached days. This excavates Nico’s old personal history…rarely a positive experience for anyone. Shows the boyfriend what you were like before he met you.

Here are some folds for you: They go to the beach in Inge’s car. She doesn’t realize it’s a piece of junk, Malcolm drives but Inge leans over to use the horn uselessly when they get stuck in traffic. Even though Inge owns a piece of shit, she talks about owning a Mercedes someday…several. She is overweight but wears a dress that’s too short. She talks about the boys in a bar not being able to buy you a dinner. She wants to run on the beach in front of expensive villas so she can be ogled. She berates her boyfriend who she called at 5 in the morning because he didn’t call her back the previous night. She dreams that every guy who lays her for one night may want to marry her.

It’s genius that Nico becomes emotionally exhausted and falls asleep on a couch in the restaurant she selects for the trio afterward. The real nightmare occurs when she wakes up, groggy I would think, and sees Inge in a tete a tete with her boyfriend.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the minor key measures that shadow this less than five page story. It’s called ‘Am Strande Von Tanger’ and it’s in Modern Library’s wonderful reissue in cloth of James Salter’s collection “Dusk and Other Stories”.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.


DH: Iris Murdoch, the mid-20th century British novelist, was the true inheritor of the great Victorian tradition of moral psychologists. Her complex stories turn on questions of what’s the right thing. Only in contrast to today’s dogmatic moralists, who are so convinced that they know exactly what you should be doing, IM wrote stories where good and evil are real but meant to be puzzled over.

In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine an extra-marital affair rivals in legitimacy the marriage it is undermining. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a gay relationship and a straight marriage are both under threat. One will go down. Which deserves to survive and why?

Most readers today remember Iris Murdoch as the brilliant writer whose mind was darkened by Alzheimer’s. But I prefer to remember the writer who has influenced Zadie Smith. And I think we should remember those we love in their best times, in their salad days, since there is no need to memorialize sadness.

Open Road Media has recently made ten works of Iris Murdoch widely available for download. The one that caught my eye was The Philosopher’s Pupil, which was the first Murdoch novel that I read. It’s my recommendation in our new series: Three Guys One Download. Next month, another of the Guys will recommend a download.


When this gem arrived I thought, “oh cool, I’ll read this someday”, like I do with almost all non-fiction that comes my way. Once I picked it up, and it’s got a great feel to it, weight, touch, even smell, I knew I was going to be sucked in.  I’ve been dragging my feet in finishing it, like any good book, you don’t want it to be over, and this is no different. There are books about television shows, some with pictures, and not much else, and others that sort of brush over the television show with little or no substance. Natasha Vargas-Cooper, or NVC as I call her, (my interview with her will run tomorrow) has done a spectacular job with this delectable and incredibly engaging examination of a television show that has renewed my faith in the medium, by honestly examining the advertising campaigns that shape Don Draper and Mad Men, and how they effect the world we live in. Or how Don and Co. shaped our lives.

I skipped Mad Men the first season, and was I sorry. When I finally did catch up it took my two years to fully absorb Don and Betty Draper, the boys at Sterling Cooper, Pete and Roger, and “girl”, who all took up a place in my mind like a good friend who knows just what I like. I was shocked by NVC’s canny knack at capturing not only what Draper and Co. feels or is affected by, but she develops a magnetic vernacular in detailing the moments in culture which are created by the advertisement campaigns these men develop. In this year’s season premiere, Don takes to task the makers of a swimsuit, and throws them out of the office when they won’t conform to his risqué advertisements, which are basically soft porn. When Don snaps his fingers, snap, snap, snap, “lets go, I mean it, get out of here.” I was floored. How could a man who develops ideas that will slip weave their way into the coils of the common man and woman be so callous with clients, especially since this season Don has started a new agency. How? Because he’s a risk taker and a reckless man, to know Don is to quote him, “live like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably isn’t.”

Draper is trying to get around how bad smoking can be for you, by dismissing the statistics, really, he throws them away, and sticks to “it’s toasted” a line he tries to sell the cigarette maker he’s been tasked to promote.  Don smokes like a chimney, and it’s a form of his masculinity that is on display, his ability to smoke and look good doing it, plus it’s his crutch, for when he has nothing to say, or doesn’t want to say anything. Don never passes up an opportunity to keep his mouth shut and NVC explains this parallel nicely, and in essence defines Draper.

Each section of this book covers something different from the early 60’s, movies, travel, skinny ties, Pete’s college look, and Jackie Kennedy’s interior decorating, just to name a few, and there is an accompanying essay with each picture. I especially like the section about John Cheever and how Draper’s life on the show is very much like a Cheever story. The creator of another AMC show called Rubicon, which is basically a low-fi espionage, referred to Mad Men as John Cheever on television.  By the time you get to the section on the counter culture of the 60’s and how it related to the show, you’ll remember (if you’ve seen this early episode) that Draper and his hippie girlfriend are falling apart, and Don comes to her pad for a quick fuck and a break from his job and life only to find her with a friend who is dropping out and doing drugs, a bohemian to be exact. The Man in the Fez Hat as he’s called is busting Don’s balls about his conformity and it gets around to a moment where Don is given to reflecting on life, which he can do at a moment’s notice, he tells the man to make something of himself, and this man says “Like you? You make a lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.” This man thinks all Ad Men are bullshit, Don is wise to it almost instantly, replying, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” The Man in the Fez hat replies, “Man, why did you have to say that?” It’s funny and it’s true, because the Man in the Fez hat has just been called on his bullshit. Don is capable of incredible insight, profound even, I know it’s the writing of the show, but I wonder did Don make the times he lived in, or did the times shape him? It certainly is up for debate, and with this wonderful work of art, NVC makes the case for both sides.  -JR

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William Burroughs enjoying cake and alcohol at...

JR: Tony came my way through the very cool Patrick DeWitt, and so far, I’m liking Tony’s new book, Sick City, which goes on sale now. It’s published by the very hip Harper Perennial, who lately seem to be right on the mark with their list. Check out Tony’s book…

WHEN I FELL IN LOVE by Tony O’Neill

I grew up in a small, northern English satellite town called Blackburn, which had nothing much going for it except crap weather, rampant racism, and a football team that never won.  I didn’t grow up in a particularly literary environment, and until I asked my parents to put one in my bedroom aged ten, there were no bookshelves in my house.  I read because I grew up in England, and there were only 4 TV channels.  I was an only child.  When faced with a Saturday afternoon either watching television coverage of darts matches, going to football matches, or playing in the grey rain that seemed to bathe the down most of the time, I became a reader by default.

The first books I read were things like Stephen King, page-turners.  I still have a soft spot for King.  Its hard not to respect a writer who did it by himself, got no respect from the establishment and still managed to sell a shit-load of books.  All this while being a raging alcoholic coke head, too.   Anyway, I always liked books that had some violence and sex in them.

The first book that really changed me, though, was William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.  I was thirteen years old when David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of Burroughs’ most famous book of hit cinemas.  Previous to that, I had seen things like Scanners and The Fly on late night television. When I heard that the book Naked Lunch was supposedly strange and controversial, I went to the one bookstore we had in town to find it.  They didn’t have it, so I had to order it.  I remember the old woman who worked behind the counter looking quite concerned.  “Naked Lunch?” she said.  The emphasis on Naked reddened my cheeks.  She obviously thought it was some kind of smutty sex novel, the kind that they used to sell in sex shops back then.  This was before the Internet was widely available in England, the days when people would still actually jerk off to smutty paperbacks with no images at all, apart from a garish illustration on the cover.  Which just goes to show you that the people who have benefited most from the digital revolution have definitely been the wankers.

Anyway, I checked in every weekend, until the book finally arrived.  It was a hideous edition, tied into the movie with a picture of Peter Weller and a Mugwump on the cover.  I still had no idea what Naked Lunch was even about.  I took it home and read it.  After I was done, I still had no idea what Naked Lunch was about.

What I did know was that it disturbed me.  It was a similar reaction to seeing the film Eraserhead for the first time.  These events both happened in the same year, the year I turned 13.  I rented Eraserhead because I was taken with the black and white image on the videocassette, not because I had any clue about who David Lynch was.  Eraserhead made no sense to me, but gave me strange hallucinatory dreams about steam erupting from pipes and screaming deformed babies for months afterward.

As for Naked Lunch, I had never before read a novel that did not have a storyline, or even a main character.  It took me a long time to strop trying to make sense of it as continuous narrative and accept it for what it was – a series of vignettes.  This was a totally new form for me.  I found sections of it erotic, others repulsive.  I found all of the talk of drugs confusing.  I knew next to nothing about heroin and it’s effects, apart from these wonderful ads the British government did in the 80s with the tag line “Heroin Screws You Up”.  The image under this slogan was of an emaciated young boy, sitting in the barren corner of some squat, who looked for all the world like a skinnier version of a Calvin Klein model.  He had prominent cheekbones, and bad skin.  I thought he looked really, really cool.  Evidently, so did other people.  Years later, when I was a heroin addict in London, many people my age would reminisce fondly that those ads had been their first exposure to the glamour of heroin.

I tucked Naked Lunch away for a long time.  Sometimes I would crack open the covers, and try to read it again.  When I saw the movie, I was disappointed.  I had to wait for it to come out on video, because it was an 18 cert (equivalent of an X in America) and anyway, our local cinema didn’t even show it.  But I realized that in trying to impose some kind of structure to the narrative, Cronenberg had actually done a massive disservice to the source text.  Whereas Burroughs book was weird and confusing, I was actually bored by the movie.  I got into music and moved away from home when I was 18 to join a band.  I toured around, and eventually crash landed in Los Angeles.

Years later, I would read my next Burroughs book:  Junky.  I was already a heroin user at the time.  A girl I used to get high with lent me her copy.  “You’ll like this one,” she said.  “It’s the best book ever about being a junkie.”

This girl had a lot of opinions about the best book / song / film about the life of an addict.  All junkies do.  Just for record, I’d say: “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground, and Drugstore Cowboy by Gus van Sant for song and movie.  I have to agree with about Junky.  It was amazing.  And much easier to follow than Naked Lunch.  I really sympathized with the lead character.  Reading Junky brought me back to Naked Lunch.  Thinking that it might make a bit more sense to me now, I picked up a copy at the LA public library, and read it again.  In the intervening years, it was like I had somehow managed to learn the cryptic language that Burroughs was speaking in.  Of course the drug talk and the drug slang – which was surprisingly not as out of date as you’d imagine – made perfect sense to me.  I knew what it felt like to hear the flutes of Ramadan in the junk sick morning, all right.  And away from England, that sly, deadpan humor suddenly made sense to me.  There was something profoundly American about Burroughs’s sense of humor, and suddenly what was once scary, incomprehensible and confusing, now seemed as funny as hell to me.

For me, reading Naked Lunch is a bit like what reading The Bible must be like for those religious types I see sitting on the subway reading that book.  I still pick it up sometimes, and read a section, or even just a paragraph, and I get something new from it every time.  Some people still think that it’s a confusing mess, and all I can do is feel bad for them.  They really are missing out on something special.

I wonder if the book would have had the same power if I didn’t have so many thrilling associations with it – guilt, the sense that I was reading something I shouldn’t, that I was transgressing somehow?  To me, back then, books still felt dangerous.  There was a rebelliousness about reading books like that, especially in a culture were reading wasn’t particularly encouraged.  None of my friends at school read for pleasure. At least not as far as I knew.  You kept stuff like that secret; otherwise you would be laughed at.  Owning books felt as illicit as having pornography, or illicit stashes of low-grade hash.

Yeah, it was love all right.  Years later I had the privilege to do some work inside The Bunker, Burroughs NYC hangout through the late 70s and early 80s, via the poet and performance artist John Giorno.  I sat at his table; my hands touched the scarred wood that Old Bull Lee’s hands must have touched at one point.  The books of Burroughs, along with Herbert Huncke, Dan Fante, Alexander Trocchi, Charles Bukowski, etc etc were instrumental in my decision to try to quit heroin and write instead.  That and a woman who loved me, and a daughter who was about to be born.  But in those quiet moments of desperation, when I was sick and hurting, and all I wanted to do was tear up what I was writing and go back to doing what it was that I had always done – fucking the needle, turning off the screaming in my head – it was those books which pointed towards a direction out.  And I’ve been moving steadily outwards, ever since.

DH: This is the last of my three posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel, How to Read the Air. It’s about the lying at the heart of the novel, in the creation of the character, Jonas Woldemariam. If this were a 19th century novel, a novel by Dickens, then Jonas Woldemariam , like David Copperfield, would be the best title for it. But Jonas is no hero.

Jonas’ fitful employment history starts out in a non-profit agency that helps illegal immigrants to stay stateside. DM’s very effective narrative strategy sets up these little scenes where the hapless applicants lay out their paltry documents, stories, photographs to justify their appeal for asylum. Jonas doctors them up. He uses his fiction skills to make the refugees seem more appealing to the authorities. Where an emigrant says he was threatened in his homeland, JW says their house was burned down. If they say they were threatened with imprisonment, then Jonas writes down that they were arrested three times and did prison time under torture.

Later, Jonas teaches at an upscale Manhattan private school, you know, like the Dalton School …a place that I’ve visited. It’s a plum job for a gifted English lit major fantasizing about getting a doctorate. His wife, Angela, pulls strings at her law firm to get him the job. One of her law partners is a trustee at the school.

His privileged students get treated to a long-winded tale about his father’s attempt to leave Sudan. The story is distorted family mythology. Jonas is a diffident David Copperfield…a Dickens’ impossibility. Jonas lies because he withdraws. He withdraws so he can be a writer in the most generic sense…so he can lie.

At home with Angela, he tells more lies to spin his life over. The scenario is that he is going to be promoted at his “academy” to a full time position. It’s as if David Copperfield said: “I’d like to say that this is what happened. I am imagining that it could have been this way.” But one way to view any novel is to say “this is what might have happened”.

Dickens’ conception of character is moral and reforming. But DM’s approach, through his lead character Jonas, is aesthetic and “fraudulent”. It’s lying. “How to Read the Air”, what does the title mean? My take is that it’s quixotic. It’s impossible. You can’t read the air. Reminds me of Kierkegaard…and Camus. The aesthetic approach to life as an evasion because the character can’t do the moral or religious. The lying “fiction” as a critique that uncovers. Because where the lying fails, there the truth can be glimpsed…if only for a second out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

But How to Read the Air is slipping away from me as I try to grab hold of it. Its complexity fights being analyzed. What a great book club selection it will make! And what a devious writer Dinaw Mengestu is! That’s why I love him. As Jonas crashes and burns lies into the fragile connections of his world, one is led to a wondering about his real sensitivities to his parents and himself that he is trying so hard to conceal from Angela. How can any relationship bear up if it is being asked to bear so much concealed emotional weight? Even the novel’s narrative style buckles and twists all over itself as events are related as they happened, or as they might well have happened, or as they expressly did not happen as the reader sees the lies that the audience in the novel believes. Massively well-constructed, How to Read the Air will be published by Riverhead in cloth


I didn’t meet Lindsay Hunter; so much as her fiction ran me over.  She’s part of theFeatherproof posse, and I’m partial to most everything that goes on over there.  I asked Lindsay if she’d be interested in taking part in our When We Fell in Love essay and she jumped at the chance.  In September of this year her first novel Daddy’s will be published by Featherproof Books.

When We Fell in Love – Lindsay Hunter

From the beginning I read everything I could get my hands on. I remember in kindergarten fingering the dried, obelisk-shaped booger stuck to a page in Freckle Juice; I remember—wanting to emulate my father reading the newspaper—reading the comics on the toilet; I remember reading with terror about Baba Yaga and her traveling cauldron and her chickenleg hut in these musty books we had in the fancy bookcase in the fancy living room (not to be confused with the run-of-the-mill bookcase in the run-of-the-mill family room).

In fifth grade my class read Sideways Stories from Wayside High by Louis Sachar, a book I chalked up to a nightmare I had (the hidden 13th floor!) until one day embarrassingly recently when I decided to Google what words I could remember from the title and realized it wasn’t a nightmare, it was real, and tons of other kids had read it and were perfectly fine with it.

In middle school I opened the book my dad had apparently been reading in the bathroom and it was bookmarked to an incredibly real, no-frills account of two characters having boredom sex in an un-air conditioned motel room. At one point, their two sweaty stomachs slap together and smash a mosquito. I read that scene again and again until one day I looked and the book was no longer in the bathroom.

Around that time I read Crystal by Walter Dean Myers three times in a row, and then a suite of V.C. Andrews books. I was hooked on V.C. Andrews—you could get them anywhere you went back then. I remember finding the next installment in the Cutler family drama in the grocery store paperback aisle and trying not to let on that it might not exactly be in the vein of Laura Ingalls Wilder when I asked my mother if I could have it.

Reading was pure entertainment for me. It was adventure, discovery, private horror, and then the re-reading of private horror. These books were answering questions about the world that I didn’t even know were okay to ask. And maybe they weren’t.

And then. In eighth grade I read Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle. I checked out the beige hardcover with the simple Ferris wheel illustration from the library and brought it home. I read it, I devoured it. This was a book written to entertain on a different level than what I was used to. Or maybe it was that I was maturing, more able to notice and appreciate language and imagery as well as plot. Whatever it was, Ferris Beach became my favorite book. At one point, the main character, Kate, is in darkness outside her house, able to see but not be seen (and if memory serves she is watching her mother in the kitchen), and has this sudden primal need to remember the moment somehow, to mark it, and she begins to dig around until she finds a plastic flower petal, which she will keep to remember. I was astonished. I’d felt that exact urge many times before. McCorkle had written a world I recognized and could relate to, and this was often painful. But also, irresistible. (In college I saw Jill McCorkle read and then tearfully asked her to sign my worn copy ofFerris Beach. She was wearing bright red Hush Puppies and I thought, That’s what a writer looks like, I guess.)

Over the years I’ve come upon books that I’ve felt that same immediate bond with—I read Infinite Jest with a pen so I could underline all the lines I loved and have a lion head in my bathroom to commemorate “And who could not love that special and leonine roar of a public toilet?”; I recently read Why Did I Ever and then held and stared at the book for a while after finishing; I read The Stones of Summer and applied to graduate school because it made me realize there was work to be done; I read Blood Meridian and realized the work would never end.

Whenever I ask myself why I write, why I even try, I automatically think of how reading has the capacity to make me feel—how it accesses this completely private, beyond-words well of emotions that is exhilarating to experience, even if it’s painful. And I’m reminded that I write because I want to make people feel, too. I want readers to recognize themselves in the words, to form a bond with the story, to feel anger, shock, arousal, joy.

All this to say that I think my writing is just as informed by the paperback aisle in the grocery store as it is by the literature aisle in the used bookstore. As a writer, I want to surprise and entertain (myself as well as my readers) in the language, imagery, voice—just as I sought and continue to seek books that do that for me.


JC: I was lucky enough to learn about Tatjana Soli’s new novel The Lotus Eaters through JE. All I can say is if you like your war novels with a heavy dose of influence by Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s an astoundingly good book with cinematic flair and a gutsy recasting of the last days of Vietnam. More on The Lotus Eaters later. Here’s her WWFIL:

Loneliness, Love, and Hemingway

by Tatjana Soli

I’m sure that I was exposed to Hemingway in school, as a necessary and dreaded English assignment, but reading him left no impression other than he was a chore to be gotten through. Then I turned seventeen, fell in love and promptly got my heart broken (big time), and suddenly Ernest Hemingway became my best and closest friend. I have a theory that after thinking in childhood that we will never be alone, in adolescence we suddenly see that we are alone (big time), and then along comes First Love, and we jump, thinking maybe we don’t have to go it alone after all. This is the primal reason why we become readers — to have that deep companionship of a good book. But at seventeen, nothing — not loving parents, or sympathetic girlfriends, or any of the usual remedies — worked, at all.

One afternoon, moping through our family bookshelves, I opened The Sun Also Rises (thankfully the publisher changed it from the original proposed title, Fiesta, which I would probably have been skipped over) and came upon Robert Cohn’s line: “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it?” Yes! That book became as much a guidebook for life to me at seventeen as The Purple Land became a guidebook for the deluded Cohn. No, I never did make it (yet) to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, but I understood Cohn’s unrealistic longing for South America, as well as Jake Barnes longing for Lady Brett Ashley. I always found the vague war-injury excuse to undercut Jake’s understanding that no one is going to keep Lady Brett happy for long, injury or no.

As I blazed — indiscriminately, promiscuously — through the rest of the novels, then the short stories, then the non-fiction, I didn’t care about the story line or the subject matter. I felt at home in Hemingway’s prose, and the only thing I really dreaded was coming to the end of all of his books (this was before I discovered the prolonging of joy called rereading). What did I fall in love with? Place is a big one: a bygone Paris, the small towns in France, Italy, and Spain, the old-movie version of African safaris. But I fell in love, too, with his sense of time. There is a magic to his arrangement of words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, paragraphs on a page, that feels as true as your own breath. For me, Hemingway is as much an artist of the way time passes as Proust, as in this short passage from A Moveable Feast:

All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife — second class — and the hotel where Verlaine had died where you had a room on the top floor where you worked.

The big revelation for me in Hemingway is that his subject matter was beside the point. I hate bullfighting, safaris, and even fly-fishing seems kind of boring, but in Hemingway’s hands I understood that he was writing both about the subject matter and through it about life. In all of his best work — The Sun Also RisesA Farewell to Arms, “Indian Camp,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “In Another Country,” and A Moveable Feast — the common theme follows Faulkner’s dictum that the best writing is always about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I wasn’t seduced by the machismo of bullfights or deep-sea fishing, but I was seduced by Hemingway’s deeper quest of living an authentic life. Forgive me, but I never got Fitzgerald. Gorgeous sentences, and the ending of Gatsby is indeed one of the most beautiful and profound passages in American literature, but in general it frustrates me how dazzled he is by surfaces. The famous exchange (true or not) with Hemingway is telling:

Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than us.”

Hemingway: “Yes. They have more money.”

For a period of about a dozen years during and after college, I purposely stayed away from Hemingway, the influence of his style simply too seductive and overwhelming. Now, I return like the prodigal daughter, curious what I might find changed. One is always a little wary that what thrilled you at seventeen won’t quite pack the same punch at twenty-seven, much less thirty-seven. I’m happy to report that unlike that first false love that led me to Hemingway, my love for his work has stayed and matured. A clean, well-lighted place, indeed. Someday I intend to go to Pamplona, sit in a café, and raise a glass of wine to Papa.



DH: This is my second post on DM’s How to Read the Air. Perhaps by the time that I finish this survey, I’ll have figured out what that great title means. You write about a book several times because you are peeling the onion. But there has to be an onion to peel. The praise is in the treatment, the attention that the book receives. Saying “I loved this book!” is silly. Talk it up. Books are the malls (agoras, if you prefer) of a literate society. When the mail packet from England arrived in NY harbor with the latest installment of the new Dickens serial, don’t imagine that the eager readers who snapped it up just read the content and then sat on their asses. They talked about it. And because the plot unfurled like a slow growing vine, everybody was on the same page when they talked about it.

And I think that was part of the point of lengthy Victorian novels. Their book talk was as measured out as the pacing that CD decided on for his storytelling. Our community has missed out on that. And don’t say that TV series perform that function. Even the most sophisticated series, most likely written by a committee, granted, of the talented…is trite in comparison to what Dickens could do with Little Dorrit in 1855. You may not think that’s so. But you’ve been listening to DM’s voice being watered down for your consumption for one hundred and fifty-five years. You have to restore Dicken’s words to the effect that they had on impact two centuries ago when every word that he wrote was fresh.

The central topic of How to Read the Air is marriage. And that’s my hope for the commercial success of this novel. Most readers won’t find the background material that helps explain the dysfunctional ticking of that marriage all that interesting. It’s my guess that DM has some issues that he is working out in this story. I wish he would forget about that

It’s wonderfully ironic that when Jonas and Angela realize that they are having some growing issues with their relationship, their half-thought out solution is to get married. But Jonas and Angela, as young adults, are always acting out the roles that they think they are supposed to play. This is very Updike of them. Read John Updike The Early Stories which is a blueprint of martial role-playing.

I greatly appreciated DM’s fine remark that you have to be in a relationship to understand that locations can become “haunted” (my word) with decisive emotional events that have taken place there. The writer is talking about the couple’s home. And aren’t there places in your own home, in my case one is the end of a cabinet in the dining room, where you will never forget what was said there? The atmosphere lingers, like a faint smoke or an odd feint of light.

DM’s remark is interesting enough. But then he points out that Jonas and Angela have a studio apartment. The small living space becomes emotionally charged with their conversations. No wonder Angela and Jonas begin a long dance of finding excuses to be out of the apartment. Their conversations at home become an electrically charged field that either repels or attracts the spouses as if they were moths. The reader greatly looks forward to eavesdropping on these conversations. DM is a master at dialogue with shadows.

But there have to be characters that can cast a shadow. My greatest confidence in Dinaw Megestu as a author is that he can write characters. Angela is a bit easier to understand. She’s had an insecure family background. Now she is a young lawyer at a white shoe firm. She’s  anxious to make it and wants a stable marriage as part of a rock solid foundation on the anthill of Manhattan.

Jonas is the puzzle and DM’s great character creation. He has not been swallowed by the whale so much as it seems as if he is trying to swallow one. He’s drowning in adult commitments that he is not ready to make. Emotionally. he’s a child who doesn’t want to tell the truth, or stand out, or get emotional. Jonas wants to distill all the emotional terror of life into a fine nectar or subtle Bordeaux that can be sipped, appreciated as if he was a connoisseur of adulthood.

That doesn’t work for Angela. She wants the five year plan to material and martial success. She wants a life trajectory that will give her confidence that the walls won’t come tumbling down.

The great DM lobs volleys of conversational shots into this scenario as if he he were an authorial Roger Federer. It’s martial tennis without any nets or balls. I’ll try to sum up what I think about How to Read the Air in one last shot some other time.


I’ve never met Gina Frangello, and when we hooked up on Facebook we both wondered why weren’t already friends.  Gina and I both write for The Nervous Breakdown (she more than I), and her book Slut Lullabies has just been published by the independent label, Emergency Press. Gina is cool lady, and a great voice of of our generation. I know that’s a bold statement, but check her out, she won’t disappoint. -JR

When We Fell In Love by Gina Frangella

In the world of my childhood, books were not common objects. Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood, what I remember about the shelves often were built into the walls of Chicago apartments is that they were usually full of cheap, decorative items (plastic flowers; imitation Lladros), rarely books. Most of my friends’ parents were first generation American, and had grown up speaking Italian or Spanish; few had finished high school. One friend’s mother devoured paperback V.C. Andrews or Sidney Sheldon, and her reading habits all but rendered her “intellectual” status in the hood . . .

Amid this, my mother was an anomaly, with titles on our shelves like Understanding the City Child and Love on the Left Bank and The Brothers Karamazov. And yet even in her case, these books were relics of a bohemian youth: the mother of my childhood—in her early 40s as I am now—had long since abandoned reading as a pastime, either out of depression or a desire to assimilate into her surroundings, my father’s world. These books loomed over my daily life of watching Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie, scanning the “funny pages,” playing kick the can or sitting endlessly on the front porch listening to ladies in house dresses gossiping, or practicing dance moves to the Bee Gees or Donna Summer on the record player. They hinted at something else—a life my mother had left behind to marry my father. Another kind of world that might be out there, someday, for me.

I trolled the library. I do not recall ever entering a bookstore until I was in college, though this seems hard to believe in retrospect so I’m open to the possibility that it is an exaggeration. In my library forays, I was confined to the children’s section—the librarian did not let us into the adult section, and so what we knew of adult literature consisted of a school friend’s smuggled in copy of The Friendly Uncle, glued into the spine of Moby Dick, or borrowed gang-rape-and-kidnapping-love-stories by Harold Robbins, loaned out by my best friend’s mother, a party-girl divorcee who never seemed to consider that this might not be the best reading material for twelve-year-old girls. In the children’s section of the library, I made lifelong friends. The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs; Anne of Green Gables; A Little PrincessThe OutsidersAre You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Titles flood my memory: Foster ChildThen Again Maybe I Won’tThe Westing Game. Characters as diverse as Esme Sanchez and Ramona Quimby. These books were my childhood friends. They served, if anything, as stark relief from the world of my actual friends, many of whom, by twelve, were blowing twenty-year-olds in exchange for coke, running away from home, having pregnancy scares. Like the titles my mother had treasured in her younger days, these books served as a guidepost to me that there was another lens with which to view the world—many other lenses, and many possibilities as to how I might “turn out.”

I had started writing. By the time I was eleven, I had a “novel” of several hundred pages on butcher paper, ripped off into roughly equivalent sheets. By the time I began high school, I had three such completed projects, all about the same characters: a quartet of orphans living in an urban orphanage worthy of Dickens or Kafka, though I had never read either. I fancied myself a reader, a writer, and imagined it, in some way, as my ticket “out.” As soon as I could, I had headed across the city to a college prep high school you had to test into, high on my perfect Reading test scores that had landed me there. Gladly, I left my old peers behind, prepared to reinvent myself and conquer the world of books.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my first two years of English class at this prestigious high school left me dry. I was entertained by Greek mythology, but by and large the Important Work we studied failed to move me as the novels of my childhood had. Shakespeare sonnets or Beowulf. The gimmicky schmaltz of Flowers for Algernon. Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which I vividly recall provoked me to write a diatribe of a paper on why symbolism sucked. I can’t say why entirely—perhaps I was simply too young, with a shoddy early education—but these works simply failed to move me on any personal level. Too old for Judy Blume and too . . . something . . . now for the strange romantic misogyny of pulp fiction, I began to lose interest in reading altogether.

Enter The Crucible by Arthur Miller. I was almost sixteen, nearing the end of my sophomore year. If this was not the first book I loved, then it was the first book I read with what would later become my obsessive adult habits: underlining passages I liked and copying quotes into notebooks, dog-earing pages, memorizing lines that still ring in my mind. What was it about this short play that resonated so deeply—that knocked me on my ass and made me remember again the power of reading? Well, what is it ever? The answers to such questions are elusive to some degree. I can say that The Crucible contained many elements that would later work their way into my own fiction: sexual secrets, the theater of hysteria, jealousies between women, the hypocrisy of religion. I can say that while the books of my youth sometimes did take risks and end semi-unhappily, on a note of murder (ah, The Outsiders!) or war, that The Crucible pushed beyond that to a place where darkness and death could also be triumph, and where the illusion of triumph through death (on principle) could also be absurdity, because lines are blurry and truth itself is subjective. After reading The Crucible, there was a hunger in me not just to “escape” through books as I had in my girlhood, but to learn about people, their minds, their foibles. How intimate reading could be! What it could reveal of the human psyche! And because it was a play, I saw what dialogue could do for character development, and long before I ever sat in a creative writing workshop I internalized a major dose of “show, don’t tell.”

The Crucible was not a first love, and in the end (it no longer figures on my “favorite books of all times” list, exactly) not even my Great Love. But it was the love that came precisely at the moment I needed it. It was my transitional object/ rebound kind of love that took me from the realm of childhood escape to the complex, sometimes-scary world of adult lit, and reminded me again not only that I was a reader, but why.