Monthly Archives: June 2014

You are browsing the site archives by month.

A review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Despite being a jaded and cynical person who’s grown weary of fashionable literary enterprise, I’ve decided to start using this wildly popular soapbox as a depository for my reviews of trendy new book releases. I haven’t written any of these reviews yet, nor have I read any of the books in question, but I’m looking forward to having firm convictions about the art of other people. I say this as if it’s a joke when in fact insightful reviews are the lifeblood of the book industry—an industry which would immediately be overtaken by Big Oil or the pharmaceutical lobby if influential critics like myself were suddenly to cease their bloggings.

But it’s hard to know where to begin. I reject most contemporary novels because they recount events that clearly didn’t happen and describe people who clearly didn’t exist. The fusty old guys didn’t have this problem. No one would ever dispute that Anna Karenina, Charles Kinbote, Julien Sorel, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, and Moby Dick were once alive and walking/swimming around. No one would ever allege that H.G. Wells wasn’t close personal friends with an English scientist who traveled by time machine 800,000 years into the future where he was threatened by Morlocks. My chief criticism of today’s novels and works of short fiction is that they’re not real. And it’s annoying. You think Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice’s adventures using his imagination? No. He did the research. He went to Wonderland, interviewed its inhabitants, ate the cakes, smoked pot with a caterpillar, etc. Readers deserve at least that much due diligence from modern authors.

I suppose this old-fashioned interest in being real is where metafiction was born. Reading David Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis or Martin Amis for the first time feels as if you’re being let in on a secret. And naturally their books ring true because the self-aware authors responsible for them are so miserable and exacting. Having your attention drawn to that extra layer of contrivance endows the made-up story with dumb reality, to which everyone can relate. It’s like being occasionally reminded of your own hands holding the book. You don’t continue to think about your hands as you read, because that would be distracting, but you appreciate that the author is kind enough to acknowledge the existence of your humble appendages because they’re always going to be in the background anyway (unless you’re a spambot, which, judging by my comments of late, most of you are). After all, you’re a character too, even when you’re utterly lost in a book. It feels good for everybody to be on the same page: The reader has two hands and the author has a word processor. From here fabulous things will happen.

But for some writers the established metafictional techniques are not enough to drive home the truth of what they’re saying. Their reverence for the real takes them deeper into authorial self-awareness until the book is them and/or they are the book. Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe. The reader is encouraged to identify the narrator with the author, either through name (“Sheila” in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) or circumstance (both the narrator and Jenny Offill have similar career trajectories in Dept. of Speculation). It’s daring, I think, to pretend to be the author of your book, when in fact you’re the author of the author of your book. People might look at you funny (as my mom did when I named my nymphomaniac, first-person narrator “Wishter” in the first draft of my novel). But it’s damn effective as far as vraisemblance is concerned. It channels the memoir vibe without ever purporting to be a memoir (as many novels also do to great effect). The writer is simultaneously perceived as a creator of art and a willing confessor, making both these books seem deeply private and real, though only Heti explicitly states that hers is “a novel from life.”

But ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s the language, not who’s writing it, that is going to make or break a book. That, and the action has to take place in a city that actually exists, like Hogsmeade or Kings Landing.

Finally, read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It was good and I liked it.

 

 

Taking the role seriously

Because every blogger’s opinion about the world at large is valued and unique, I have decided to weigh in on some of the day’s top controversies. By doing this I hope to prove that I am a woman of broad social engagement. A political being who won’t be silenced. A tastemaking culture vulture whom other people turn to when they want to know how to think about things.

The World Cup

I’m totally for it. What began eight years ago as my excuse for day-drinking has now blossomed into an aggressive spectator sport that has me rooting for any number of obscure, rowdy nations that somehow manage to exist outside of America’s borders. But as much as I enjoy learning about the soccer players’ family backgrounds and signature hairstyles, every once in while, because I am a refined and cosmopolitan person, I vaguely wonder what’s going on within the homelands of these athletes, and where those homelands reside on a map. So it would be helpful to me if this information could be printed somewhere on the team’s jerseys. The players can still keep their numbers and their names (as long as those names aren’t interminably Greek or Russian), but the jerseys should also incorporate a news headline or two from the originating country, and maybe a diagram so I can tell how far that country is from America.

Student debt

I have very few friends who aren’t at least $100,000 in debt. I write that, and I’m shocked. Shocked. What am I doing hanging out with such impecunious people? From now on I’m only fraternizing with peers who never made it past the eighth grade, so they can buy all my drinks.

Sexism

This bizarre and hurtful essay came to my attention last night as I was trying to decide which of my poorer friends to de-friend on Facebook. As far as I can tell, Ed Champion (a popular literary blogger known for being persnickety) had a playground crush on Emily Gould (a writer and Gawker gossip alum), which Emily never reciprocated, so Ed stole all the Number 2 pencils from Emily’s classroom desk and then stabbed her with them a million times. Then he had a mental break and got sent to reform school. If Ed’s rant (and I was almost with him until the third paragraph) hadn’t been written in misogynistic earnest and didn’t involve real people and was included in a first-person novel about a narcissistic boy who never grew up or learned how to use English properly, then I would be thoroughly entertained. But the whole thing made me want to protect a difficult woman’s vagina, and that is a weird place for me to be. I will continue to relish literary eviscerations, but they shouldn’t be so ad hominem that every female writer in America feels the need to rally around the victim. That is just too many voices, and we all know there can only be one authoritative voice in random cultural affairs—my own.

Racism

How can Ta-Nehisi Coates allege that racism still exists in America when every once in a while we white people look up from our gimlets of Grey Goose to the martini bar’s high definition television set and cheer on a BLACK man in an uninformative soccer jersey? How?!

Income inequality

This one really bothers me because yesterday I discovered that my roommate has an entire BOWL full of dimes and quarters in her bedroom while I could not come up with ten cents to help my boyfriend buy a loosie cigarette from the bodega downstairs. I even looked under the couch cushions because in movies these often conceal a great wealth. I am okay with my roommate having more change than I do, but I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to know that some people in the world have their pockets bursting with coinage while I have to scrounge around in filth so I can buy a soda. Hey rich person, you were in the right place at the right time to beat the slot machine, so just take your winnings and go. But if you stay, and you want to live on this great green earth with the rest of us (or potentially share my microwave), then at least scatter some pennies under the couch cushions from time to time so we can keep the bodega in business.

The oceans

Say goodbye to the whales, everybody. I would not be surprised to find out that an early version of man existed around the time of the dinosaurs but we kept putting poison in their food and water dishes again and again until we killed them off and sterilized their babies and then we were all butt-hurt because the dinosaurs didn’t share our superior survival skills and then a meteor came and wiped us out because we suck.

Iraq

I’m not afraid to tackle the hard stuff. At heart (when they haven’t been exploded), terrorists are miserable, desperate people. Let’s find out why they are so miserable and desperate so those conditions can be addressed. Maybe they can all play in a soccer tournament with their grievances stitched onto their jerseys. I would definitely watch those games on TV. But from a bar in a well-off, gentrified neighborhood. Not in person because that would be terrifying.

Watermelon

Still delicious.

Kesha

She is probably going to be okay.

My time being the wise and lucid spokesperson of a generation

Up.

Drunk and in Danger in Luna Park

Because I’ve been working nonstop on my miserable books, I think I’ve forgotten how to write (as opposed to revising/copying/pasting/crying/hating/etc.). It’s been a long time since I stepped away from the same two stories I’ve been trying to tell for two years and faced a blank page. Writers are supposed to write things, or at least I think a superior said that to me once in an expensive MFA program somewhere. But here are the current mental obstacles impeding my elite practice of the literary arts:

1)    Fuck writing

2)    Fuck that I’m even sitting here writing about writing. Let’s go to Coney Island instead.

Every few weeks Coney Island summons me with its don’t-go-in-the-water-if-you-have-so-much-as-a-paper-cut-or-you-will-die-from-sepsis siren call. The last time I went swimming at a beach of better repute a maxi pad brushed past my leg like a menstrual jellyfish, so the film of grease on Coney’s fair waters doesn’t tend to bother me. Something about this Brooklyn resort town resonates with me deep inside, tickling me and delighting me and stirring up all the Chlamydia I caught the last time I swam there.

I really don’t get why I like the place so much because I’m always too broke to ride the rides and I don’t eat hotdogs due to the nitrates and the freak show performers always strike me as bored out of their skulls even when those skulls are firmly fastened to their persons by the swords stuck down their throats. Coney is the kind of place where most of the girthy sunbathers are simultaneously chain smoking and drinking Pepsi. It’s the kind of beach you bring your portable television to. If you want soleil, go to the French Riviera. If you want to step in sandy dog poop, take the F train to the end of the line. For whatever reason my idea of a fanciful getaway is much more aligned with the latter.

My last visit to Coney was particularly fun. I was a touch drunk, which makes everything free because money is just pretend, so I was tossing dollar bills at the French fry vendor and quarters at the skeeball machine like I was freaking Beyonce. And then M suggested that we ride the Cyclone, the ancient wooden skeleton held together by pipe cleaners that dominates Luna Park. On all my trips to the Island, I’ve never approached this terrifying roller coaster, not necessarily because I’ve feared for my life but because it costs $8, cash that is better spent on cheap sunglasses or two ounces of beer from the boardwalk. But fortunately money was no longer an object that day. We had already lost $30 to a carnie who inveigled us with the empty box that a Macbook Pro once occupied. We had already paid $10 to watch a man squeeze his entire body through a tennis racket. What was eight more dollars to me, a rich and famous pop diva? So we bought our tickets and got in line.

[Note that I’m now switching to the present tense after all that preamble.]

And we wait and we wait. And we get sunburned while we wait. And then we’re not Next but Next After the People Who Are Next, and we are so goddamn excited. Counting down the seconds until it will be our turn. Adrenaline coursing through our veins with the pricey light beer. Making sure we have nothing valuable in our pockets that could fly out.

The four or five sleepy high school boys who operate this roller coaster of death so they can use their seasonal paychecks to buy Crackerjacks or whatever have been hustling trains through the loading area with the utmost boredom and efficiency. It makes me a little nervous that they ask all the women in any mixed gender pairings to take the far seats of the cars. This means that the Cyclone lawyers want more weight distributed on the outside of the train so it won’t topple off the tracks when going around bends. But all right, that’s fine. No one ever requests that of me at Busch Gardens, but I get it. Still feeling pretty good about my survival prospects.

The People Who Are Next wait in their coveted positions as a train pulls up with passengers in various states of heart attack. These passengers stumble from their cars, and the People Who Are Next take their sweaty places. But one car in the back is clearly off-limits for whatever reason. Maybe its safety bar is broken. Maybe it has throwup in it. Maybe if any weight, male or female, is inflicted upon it then the whole coaster will go down in flames. Whatever, it doesn’t bother me. I am Next.

But this teenage girl a few people down from me is also Next. And after the high school boys gruffly lower and lock all the safety bars and the train starts to shoot quickly down the tracks, this teenage girl who is Next leaps into the empty, off-limits car in the back. She does not understand why any solitary car would remain empty on its journey through the pits of hell. She does not understand why she can’t just ride the Cyclone now instead of with her natural community, the new and improved People Who Are Next. She does not understand why she can’t just sit quietly atop the safety bar permanently locked down at the tail end of the train and enjoy a little spin at 60mph, 85 feet above the pavement, around harrowing loops that look and feel like 90-degree angles. She does not understand that a safety bar is supposed to be in your lap, not under your butt.

The train is now speeding toward the loading area exit where it will immediately drop 20 feet and then throw its entire being into trying to buck people off. And this teenage girl is just riding in the nethermost car as if she’s in Cinderella’s carriage or the Popemobile or something and not about to lose her life.

We all start screaming. The high school boys are now wide awake and wishing they’d gotten summer jobs at Arby’s instead. One guy who looks as if he might be a veteran Cyclone operator because he’s over the age of sixteen shouts things like “Fuck!” and “Retarded!” and sprints to a tall metal pole on the far end of the tracks which I gather is the universal roller coaster brake. He seizes this pole and yanks on it with all his hotdog-fueled might. With a lot of screeching, the train gradually slows to a stop. Then the teenage girl nonchalantly climbs out of her car and rejoins the new and improved People Who Are Next, who are still too shocked and dazed to tell her that she’s been banished from their number for life.

M and I think the crisis is over. We search the teenage girl’s face for some indication that she’s recently had a lobotomy. And then, while everyone is still distracted by this near-calamity, another full train comes barreling into the Cyclone loading area. And naturally it rams into the back of the braked train, giving passengers whiplash on both ends of the collision.

Fortunately the car that would have suffered the most from being rear-ended is now empty of its teenage stowaway, but overall the atmosphere is chaos and confusion and the high school boys seem utterly astounded that no one has been maimed or killed on this fine June day. But the boys don’t have time to gather their wits about them because the Cyclone is committed to its infernal schedule and before anyone in the first train has a chance to escape or call a chiropractor about the pain in his or her neck, the cars start moving again and the accident victims quickly disappear in a violent jerk around the corner. Back in the loading area, looking like people who’ve just survived a Great White feeding frenzy, the passengers in the rear-ending train bound from their cars, women first. I look at M in horror. We are Next.