nicholson baker, “u and i”

Nicholson Baker
U and I
(Vintage Books, 1991)

Somehow I’ve never read any books by Nicholson Baker, on account of, I think, coming across dismissive reviews of his work when I was in college; and I’ve read very little John Updike since bouncing around some of his shorter things in high school. My not reading Updike is a conscious choice, though an old one, from when I saw deciding which fiction to read in a more confrontational light. Updike, Roth, and Bellow were firmly the establishment at that point, the pricks to be kicked against. My resistance to Bellow has softened over time; I could see liking bits of Roth, though I suspect it will be a while before I get around to reading him; but Updike still seems decidedly uninteresting when considered against the other options. There’s a class association with him in my mind, fair or not: he was writing about other people for other people. Updike is someone I always identified with Harvard: he was, I think, the first novelist I ever recognized by sight in the wild, being marched into the Barker Center to be given some award. Gaddis went to Harvard too, of course, but he had the decency to get kicked out. Updike was the well-behaved novelist.

Baker, on the other hand, has become more interesting over time; I’ve liked the shorter pieces by him that I’ve come across, and I suspect I’d like some of his novels. () This book had the premise that I liked most; it’s not, however, as easily come across in used book stores, being consigned to the hell of belles lettres or essays. Obviously, Amazon obviates this problem; but Baker never seemed necessary enough, especially when there are stacks and stacks of unread books around here. Finding it by accident on a stroll from the Met to Bryant Park seemed right: and here I am, having finished his little book about Updike. I’m glad, perhaps, that I waited for this one: there are a huge number of books mentioned in this book, and I’ve read most of them, which helps, a bit, in understanding what Baker’s getting at. Here is is talking about reading, or not reading, Harold Bloom:

I know about “misprision” only from book reviews – book reviews, not books, being the principal engines of change in the history of thought, and contributing in that necessary role a certain class of distortions to the forward flow by allowing those works which contains plots and arguments that are easily summarized in their reviews to assume a level of cultural bulk and threat that the books themselves may or may not deserve. (p. 64)

This is a book about books and their authors; it is not, directly, a book about reading, partially pointedly so. Baker gives himself the constraint of not re-reading Updike while writing about Updike; so the Updike that appears on the pages of this book is the Updike who appeared in Baker’s mind, not the Updike who appears on the pages of his books. Updike stands for influence; behind him stand others, not least Nabokov. In the opening of the book, Baker draws a distinction between the way we think about dead authors and those who are alive: we can compare ourselves to living authors (as Updike was when Baker wrote), while the dead are preserved in amber (Nabokov then and now):

Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly. (p. 10)

A comparison might be drawn to Out of Sheer Rage (1997), in which Geoff Dyer attempts to come to terms with D. H. Lawrence; though maybe Dyer’s difficult-to-find first book,Ways of Telling, about John Berger, might be the most apt comparison. (Does U & I come up in Out of Sheer Rage? It might, but I gave my copy of that book away so I can’t check.) I find Dyer’s account a bit more appealing: that book, ostensibly about Lawrence, is rather a book about not writing and coming to terms with the creative act. This one is about coming to terms with influence: in some ways, a trickier thing. 

A case could be made for this book as a work of fiction, starting with the subtitle, “A True Story.” Baker comes off not unlike one of Thomas Bernhard’s demented, ranting narrators, though that writer isn’t mentioned in the text. The book starts with the death of Donald Barthelme, one of Baker’s teachers; Barthelme’s presence hovers over the text, as does the idea, more associated with Barthelme than Updike, of metafiction. A distinct strand of the book follows Baker as he tries to get his book published, talking to his editors at The Atlantic and imagining what his book might look like; he is explicitly concerned, of course, about the progress of his own writing. 

You could say that this book hasn’t aged well: I could see how in 1991 this would have been strange and interesting, but a decade of memoirs and writing about writing on the Internet have made this seem overfamiliar. Now we know too much about too many writers. In an odd way, this is a book that would be impossible to write now: because of the Internet, there’s no longer the separation between the author and the reader that was enforced by the time when serious writing was done on typewriters and writers communicated largely through the mail or in person. Writing an email to someone who’s influenced you isn’t qualitatively a different thing than composing a letter; however, it’s much easier, and it only takes a moment’s lack of inhibitions. And in an age of rampant self-Googling, it’s almost become expected that if you write about someone, they’ll end up reading about it. Perhaps it’s better to say that this book is something of a time-capsule: it’s the way we thought about writers twenty years ago. 

Do I feel the need to read Updike at the end of this? Not particularly, though I can understand why Baker likes him. But Updike is beside the point, really: this is a book that could have been about any forebear.

edmund white, “city boy”

Edmund White
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s
(Bloomsbury, 2009)

The first question that arises with this book is why. Edmund White has already written a biography, of a sort (My Lives); more to the point, he’s also fictionalized the period in time in which this book is set in his autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, the books for which he’s probably best known. Why then do this as non-fiction rather than fiction? One might suspect this book of being a cashing in on the present popularity of the memoir; but White has been studiously playing with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction since A Boy’s Own Story, where he began the project of fictionalizing his own life. Most recently, in Fanny and Hotel de Dream, he moved to a project of fictionalizing American literary history (the lives of Fanny Trollope and Stephen Crane, respectively); in the latter, he went so far as to fabricate apocrypha for Stephen Crane. This book, then, should not simply be taken as a clef for his romans à clef: it needs to be observed in context.

The trickiness afoot commences with the first, one-sentence paragraph in the book:

In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.

A fine beginning; this is what those of us who weren’t in New York in the 1970s assume about life then. But this might be instructively compared to “Uncle Ed and My Life with Him,” an essay by White’s nephew Keith Fleming. Fleming lived with his uncle in the 1970s; this is engagingly fictionalized in The Farewell Symphony and described at length in City Boy, as well as in Fleming’s own memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. In the section excerpted on White’s website we find this description:

The first book he had suggested I read had been Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, and I instantly recognized my uncle in Chesterfield’s dictum that a gentleman never rises later than ten in the morning, no matter when he might have gone to bed, and that his day should be divided evenly between study and pleasure, which mutually refresh each other.

Lord Chesterfield certainly shows up in City Boy: on p. 27, White talks about how much he liked his writing, though White doesn’t mention what time Chesterfield thought a gentleman should rise. If one actually looks at Chesterfield, things become even more complicated:

But then, I can assure you, that I always found time for serious studies; and, when I could find it no other way, I took it out of my sleep, for I resolved always to rise early in the morning, however late I went to bed at night; and this resolution I have kept so sacred, that, unless when I have been confined to my bed by illness, I have not, for more than forty years, ever been in bed at nine o’clock in the morning but commonly up before eight.

How do we resolve the disjunction between Fleming’s account and White’s broad statement? Assuming that Fleming is accurately remembering his uncle’s habits, the “everyone” in White’s line must not include him, as we would have expected. If Fleming is misremembering Chesterfield but correctly remembering that this passage made him think of his uncle, White’s behavior is even more atypical of 1970s New York. Memory and truth are complicated; and this is a book that needs to be read carefully.

Looked at from the New York of 2010, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s in New York can’t help but seem a golden age for the arts, which we observe from mannerist decline. It’s not easy, for example, to think of a New York novel from the past decade that’s likely to hold its own in twenty years. But that past is a hard thing to nail down: talking to people who were in the New York art scene in the 1960s, one quickly realizes that any two accounts of the same events in that period are bound to be contradictory. White’s strategy, then, is to approach the same events several times, using different techniques. Reading his novelizations, the uninformed reader won’t always match names to characters correctly; the names remain ciphers, and what the reader is left with is the relationship between the characters. With names attached, as in City Boy, it becomes a record of the celebrity: this is what Richard Howard did, this is how Susan Sontag was, this is the sort of person that Harold Brodkey was. Both ways are valid ways to tell a story which is important; however, the fiction read before the memoir is going to have a different effect than the fiction after the memoir. Perhaps this is what White is getting at when he says, after a description of James Merrill:

Having actually known such a person doesn’t give one a special purchase on the reality. In fact familiarity can lead to slightly idiotic complacencies. The French critic Sainte-Beauve wrote that he couldn’t see why everyone made such a fuss over “Beyle” (Stendhal), since good ol’ Beyle would surely have been the first to laugh at his exaggerated posthumous reputation. Even so, everyone wants to hear the story just because it “really” happened, and yet in truth its reality – fragile at best and now largely mythologized into a new shape – is scarcely telling. (p. 86.)

The project of going back to the same history again and again makes sense with this in mind. City Boy is a blunt representation of reality; but it’s also a more measured one given that more time has passed since White’s last attempts to write about the period. This is maybe counterintuitive: The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) was written at a moment of crisis; while panic about AIDS in the U.S. was calming by the time that The Farewell Symphony appeared in 1997, its repercussions were still being strongly felt. If one were attempting simply to document what was being lost (a charge frequently leveled at autobiographical fiction), it would have made more sense to work in the memoir form then. But obfuscation allows for better representation.

A case might be made that one of the most interesting works of fiction in the past few years is White’s contemporary James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, a sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, his novel of gay opera devotees in New York of the 1950s besotted with Irishness. Now Voyagers is an enormous, fantastically intricate book; it’s one of the most explicitly Joycean American novel that I can imagine (and McCourt has promised a sequel). But one senses, reading it, the heartbreaking feeling that this is a book that might never actually find a readership: it’s a document of a vanished age, in a vanishing language. I can sense how well it’s done, but my knowledge (of opera, of Irishness, of gay life in the 1950s) isn’t enough to really understand McCourt on his own terms; I can only admire his language. Now Voyagers is reminiscent of White’s first few novels, especially the elliptical allusions of the first, Forgetting Elena, which seems underrated despite Nabokov’s approval. White seems to have moved in the opposite direction, providing easier ways in to the past. I’m not sure, though, that this is an outright rejection of his earlier experimentation: rather, he’s continuing to play with style across what we think of as fiction and non-fiction.

geoff dyer, “yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it”

Geoff Dyer
Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It
(Vintage, 2003)

There are plenty of reasons that I should not like this book by Geoff Dyer: the name of this book, for one; the horrifying blurb on the back suggesting that it was a combination of “Hunter S. Thompson, Roland Barthes, Paul Theroux and Sylvia Plath”; the promise of reading anything about Burning Man. The horrible grunge-y display type used inside for chapter openers, presumably reused from the poorly designed hardcover edition. The copyright page promises that an excerpt from Auden’s “September 1, 1939” is used in a book published in 2003. The prospect of British people writing about the United States. And worst of all, the marketing designation “Travel/Memoir” on the same back cover: a stint in the travel writing business still keeps me filled with horror at the thought of most travel writing and the people associated with it, and it doesn’t need to be said that no one needs another memoir.

And yet I make an exception for Geoff Dyer: somehow, I allow him to get away with things that I find deeply objectionable in most other writers. Part of this is context: I picked this book up at the bookstore in Fort Greene after a disheartening show at BAM, in need of something to pick me up for the subway home. Dyer’s writing works for me in that way as few others can reliably. (Also in this category, off the top of my head: Gertrude Stein, Ashbery’s Three Poems, some of Donald Barthelme, The Man without Qualities. Others exist, I’m sure, but it’s a vanishingly small group.) A lot of this has to do with style: Dyer’s a good enough writer that he can entertainingly talk about nothing will giving off the impression of effortlessness. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that it’s an effortlessness that’s taken a great deal of work: everything functions. In this book, as in Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer has the flâneur down to perfection: he pretends to be doing nothing, but there’s a great deal of thought involved in that doing nothing. It helps as well that there’s a sense that Dyer’s using writers to think through the world: Auden and Rilke come up repeatedly in this book (“September 1, 1939,” for what it’s worth, does not come up with respect to 9/11) as do Brodsky and Henry James; epigraphs from the Goncourts and Nietzsche lead off the book. The way he’s using these writers is interesting: not so much name-dropping or academic reference so much as finding people whose thought can be usefully applied to his life. There’s the feeling you’re in the hands of someone who can be trusted, a trust that comes because of these shared points of recognition.

This is a book that’s ostensibly a collection of travel essays: eleven essays about particular places. The copyright page suggests that it’s a compilation, as much of the material has previously been published. It is, to a certain extent; but when read closely, one notes threads connecting the various pieces in the book. A pair of Tevas is bought in the first essay, on New Orleans; these Tevas thread their way through the later essays, just as Rilke and Auden do and a concern with the idea of a “Zone,” found first in Apollinaire and later in Tarkovsky. It’s difficult, however, to ascribe a chronology to these pieces: there are a handful of dates which suggest that these essays take place across the 1990s, but it’s difficult to order them. Girlfriends come and go; there are occasional references to things that came before. One has the sense of a writer who’s constantly traveling: but one can’t sense an overriding narrative in the traveling, the frequent problem with travel writing. (Kenneth Gangemi’s The Volcanoes from Puebla, one of the handful of travel books I like, also escapes the temptation of a narrative arc by the formal device of presenting its short essays in alphabetically.) An introduction to the last essay in the book suggests that it was written in 2000 and describing events of the year before, a decade after the first 1991; however, one is hard-pressed to find a clear sense of growth. Rather, one finds a document of a period in time: how Dyer lived in the 1990s, and how, in a sense, travel worked in that decade. While intended as a document of places, it’s become a document of a time. Travel doesn’t function in quite the same way any more.

Dyer wanders the world: he presents himself as an aimless wanderer, but this is something of a ruse: in the decade he covers, he published at least six books. These books aren’t really mentioned here: the reader familiar with Out of Sheer Rage will be able to place his Roman adventures within that context, and one suspects that his essay on New Orleans has something to do with his book on jazz. Dyer presents himself to the people he meets as a writer: but because he doesn’t mention his books in the text, he seems willing to come across as being without portfolio. Dyer’s presentation of himself contains a weird mix of humility and artifice: he presents his flaws and his frequent disinterest – there’s a certain sense in which this book is an apologia for an extended youth  – but there’s the sense that he’s holding something back. We know what he likes and doesn’t like, but the reader is left with a certain sense of distance after finishing the book: there’s a certain lack of autobiography. We’re not over-familiar. I like this.

The essays themselves vary. The pieces on Detroit, Miami, and New Orleans are better than one might expect, as they don’t overreach. Dyer isn’t trying to draw grand conclusions about American civilization from a city; rather, he records specific interactions and impressions. His descriptions of south-east Asian travels make him out to be one of those terrible tourists that one meets on the road, uninterested in anything around them but the next party: but again, one suspects this isn’t quite the case. The final essay, on Burning Man, shows its age: written at the height of San Francisco Internet boom hubris, there’s talk of Hakim Bey, who seems to have mostly been forgotten now, for better or for worse. Descriptions of drug experiences are almost invariably uninteresting. Here, though, he integrates it into larger experience: telescoping out from his local context to past experiences of travel, to Freud’s discussion of the ruins of Rome as metaphor for the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents, to Francesca Woodman’s photography, to Stalker. It works, though it shouldn’t.

stanley crawford, “mayordomo”

Stanley Crawford
Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico
(University of New Mexico Press, 1988)

I came to Stanley Crawford through his fiction – Log of the S. S. The Mrs. Unguentine got a reissue from Dalkey Archive a few years back with an afterward by Ben Marcus, and there was a bit of attention. It’s an easy book to read, though one that will require re-reading; from there, I quickly went through Some Instructions, Gascoyne, and Travel Notes; his most recent, Petroleum Man is on a stack of things to be read. Gascoyne and Travel Notes feel like juvenilia compared to his later books; stylistically, they feel like Pynchon and Robert Kelly’s Cities, a writer trying out forms. In Log and Some Instructions, the novelist has found his subject: the relations between people. Though formally very different, both are about marriage and the unknowability of others. Crawford doesn’t present this as an endpoint, but as a position from which to think about the ethics of our interactions with others.

From this, it’s a small jump to his non-fiction: A Garlic Testament is his account of growing garlic in New Mexico, which seems to be his primary occupation; it is about growing garlic, and can be judged as such, but it’s also about the problem of how we live our lives. There’s a similarity to the two books that Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin put out (How to Imagine and Why Duchamp) about Baruchello’s attempts to use Duchamp’s thoughts to run a farm: like Crawford’s books, these are meditations on the place of work in our lives, a subject that’s more and more interesting to me. Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico precedes A Garlic Testament. It’s a book about his time as the mayordomo of an irrigation ditch used by himself and the neighboring farmers in New Mexico. The givens are simple: there’s a certain amount of water in the ditch, which everyone needs; water use must thus be rationed, especially during the dry season. The ditch is community property: it must be maintained, which may require a fair amount of labor, which must be apportioned. The mayordomo is paid to keep the ditch in order. Not knowing a great deal about water law, I’m not sure if ditch councils are still in existence: writing in 1988, Crawford speculates that water rights adjudication is likely to massively overhaul how water is administered in the area. Probably western droughts and the massive influx of population into the Southwest has also changed things. But the value in this book isn’t so much in its documentary quality (though I’m sure some readers might find it important for that) or how it functions as a memoir (though it does that). Rather, it’s a study of how people organize and relate to each other, their work, and the world they share. 

There’s a focus on the interactions of communities in this book: Crawford’s ditch shares water from a river with several other ditches, and in dry seasons negotiations with representatives of other ditches are necessary. These are associations of people rather than corporate bodies: those who share the water are small-time farmers, with a few acres of crops. It’s very much a version of the American dream, but one that’s not so blind to believe in self-sufficiency. The amount of water is limited; it needs to be shared. Ditch-sharing agreements, Crawford points out, extend well before New Mexico became a state; the acequia system of management came from Spain, a remnant of an earlier time:

There are few other civic institutions left in this country in which members have as much control over an important aspect of their lives; relatively autonomous, in theory democratic, the thousand acequias of New Mexico form a cultural web of almost microscopic strands and filaments that have held a culture and a landscape in place for hundreds of years.

(p. 176.) In its extended treatment of a subject that might not initially seem interesting, this is a book that forces the reader to slow down. Here, for example, Crawford talks about horses, which he’s just admitted that he doesn’t particularly care for:

There are a few old farmers still using horses up in the higher valleys where the internal combustion engine arrived a decade later than here. The horse has its advantages. Like you it tires with work, needs rest, food, water: your rhythms are similar. A tractor, a machine, invites you to work at a pace unnatural to the body, and while the machine does the work faster and better in some ways it is also designed with complex needs that seem like deep ulterior purposes to connect you to international fossil fuel and manufacturing conglomerates, banks, insurance companies; and its waste products, unlike a horse’s, are toxic and useless.

(p. 95.) When stated this way, Crawford’s point about rhythms of the horse and the machine seems obvious; and painfully applicable to our own lives. A rural Midwestern upbringing is more than enough to inoculate one against romanticizing agrarianism; but there’s something here that’s hard for me to ignore. Maybe it’s the cultural moment we’re in, where it’s hard to look forward to anything substantially improving; maybe it’s New York in a recessionary winter. Watching Paris Is Burning – filmed here while Crawford was minding his ditch in New Mexico – the other night suggested how much the city has changed in the past twenty years: there’s so much more wealth now, but people seem less alive, less attuned to each other. We spend more time in front of computers than we do in front of other people; I won’t argue that’s entirely bad, but one does wonder about how one ought to be living.

Technological mediation seems inescapable right now: correspondingly, maintaining a ditch seems much more interesting than it might have. Crawford, it should be pointed out, was not born to his ditch: born in California, he went to U. Chicago and the Sorbonne before spending time in Greece and moving to New Mexico; he’s acutely aware that he’s a latecomer to the land, but it’s his perspective as an outsider that finds the interest of the story. It’s strange, really, how little notice has been given to his work: no mention of him can be found in the Harper’s database, where one might think he’d fit. A longer piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg appeared in the New Yorker (21 September 1995, p. 125) on the occasion of the publication of A Garlic Testament. There have been a handful of appearances in the New York Times (most notably a generally disapproving review of Travel Notes by Stanley Elkin), but not since 1992. Maybe this lack of attention will change as the increasing importance of water as a social issue has been receiving a fair amount of careful attention recently: Joseph McElroy considers water and writing (his treatment of Crawford is probably the most thoughtful this book has received); and William Vollmann’s Imperial, a book that seems to have awakened reserves of resentment in the nation’s book reviewers, is deeply concerned with the ways in which water use affects communities, amidst the myriad other forces that shape the California-Mexico border. Both McElroy and Vollmann could be read profitably against Crawford.