A Review of Chabon’s Debut Novel (& TMI Re Me).

There’s a Pulitzer in the house or garage of Michael Chabon, I imagine. Also, in my mind, little children scurry below the shelf on which the prize is precariously perched, no glass or protective measure for it, other than elevation. The award acknowledges his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was informed by the internet (thanks, internet) that the long piece of fiction I’ve been giving my time to is classified (thanks, Aristotle) as Young Adult. The classification has to do with the age of the story’s protagonist, the content/subject matter, perspective and word count. Currently in YA, John Green is the preeminent author, the one who is selling massive amounts of books that are not serialized—which contrasts Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. On Twitter, Green, who apparently was in Pittsburgh at the time, cited Michael Chabon’s debut novel as the “first contemporary novel I [Green] ever loved.” I read this the day that I had heard another author praise it when he was talking about first novels.

I had seen The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay on a colleague’s desk. He has voiced his admiration for Chabon twice to me. These factors were enough for me to immediately begin Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s debut novel, which he published as a 25-year-old. The book was his master’s thesis, from his time at UC-Irvine’s MFA program.

So what does a 26-year-old expect to find in a debut novel that was published 25 years ago and was written by a person who was younger than 26? Whatever I expected, I found something different, as is usually the case.

The last debut novel written by someone younger than me—or really just a novel written by someone younger than I was when I read it—that I also really liked was written by the preternaturally talented David Foster Wallace. It was also a master’s thesis.

Mysteries gives a love triangle from the first person perspective. And the triangle has two boys and one girl as its angles. However, one of the boys is the vertex. Like, our main character is angle A, and our “triangle” is BAC, which—as you geometrically savvy readers can see—might do some harm to the tried and true metaphor of love triangles. At any rate, this is indeed a triangle, because our main character Art (angle A) falls in love with Arthur (Art; angle B) and Phlox (angle C). And Arthur and Phlox work together at a library. And yes, our main character struggles with the bisexuality.

Art works at a bookstore. It is the summer after he graduated from college. Meeting these two wonderful people confuses him and constructs an amazingly unforgettable summer.

Art’s father is a “gangster,” which is written in the first line of the book. Like a Disney movie, Art’s mother is dead. And Art doesn’t really understand what his father does. In fact, his father keeps him out of the-know purposefully. However, Cleveland—a character who embodies and is represented as larger-than-life—is friends with Arthur, and he learns of Art’s father, and he aspires to make a name for himself via the gangster vocation.

And this all leads to some bizarre scenes. The most moving scenes involve Art and Phlox or Art and Arthur, or all three of them. This is the first book I’ve read that had a young character’s struggle with sexual orientation as one of its main arcs. And I thought the added layer of confusion resonated true. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been told from a high schooler’s perspective. It’s a coming-of-age story that is representative of the cultural directive that everyone goes to college: like you cannot come of age until you are free, and you are not free until you finish college.

Chabon crafts wonderful bits of language for action, dialogue and description, but none of these things ever seem to add to a real life character. Yeah, as I typed that, I understood it sounds tough, and I don’t mean that. What I would like to tell you is that some of the plot in this book, which seems to illustrate a fictionally large and excessive real world—some of that plot interferes with the characters.

Also, Chabon is—already in his debut—demonstrating his mastery of storytelling, which must’ve come from his reading. He knows how novels work.

Honestly, it’s sort of disconcerting, because on every page I see wonderful language or lines of dialogue. These characters say some amazing things, and usually that’s enough, but I just didn’t feel like the love triangle plights were real. I mean, they were very smart, but they each did things that seemed to me very dumb—in the name of love or because it was just really mean and careless/selfish. Also, Cleveland’s aspirations led to hyperbolic scenes, especially the culminating event, which is rich with tongue-in-cheek bigness.

Art is remembering this summer, from an indeterminately distanced future. The last line is, “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated.” Chabon’s wonderful writing will pull you through the narrative, but when I look back on the novel, I feel those aforementioned tinges. The end does however explain—or to a cynic, cover up—the criticism.

But also the ending makes total sense to me. I get it. It just didn’t feel the way I felt when I graduated from college, but I didn’t graduate in standard time—nor was I single.

So without reading myself into the book, I can happily encourage your reading of it. There are some totally human parts and some parts that are just beautifully crafted. And when those two come together, those parts are worth your time. Some follow:

“It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.’”

“I’m an atom, I bounce all over the place, like a mercenary. No, not a mercenary, a free agent—a free atom—isn’t that something in chemistry?”

“Hopping the low white rail, I checked as always for the little tangle of graffiti I’d scrawled on it one laughing, runny-nosed night with Claire two winters before.”

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Slapstick – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the authors who welcomed me into adult fiction, or adult-themed fiction. So I go about the world with an understanding that he has impacted me and my reading. I respect him, which is clearly seen by my inclusion of the erudite “Jr.” after his name.

My wife also really likes his work. While we were dating, she read all of his long fiction—so, yeah, her birthday and Valentine’s Day were graciously easy one year.

The first of his books I read was Slapstick. I saw a used copy at a used bookstore and picked it up because it had a clown’s face on it and its first line was instantly inviting. I had heard of the author, Mr. Vonnegut, from a friend, whom I respected. My friend was reading Cat’s Cradle, which is probably my favorite novel by Sir Jr, and he had that book ostentatiously sitting in his passenger seat when I entered the vehicle one afternoon.

When I got home with my new clown-clad book, I was expecting some uproarious alone time. My expectations were engendered by the raving claims all over the front-/back-covers (just above the clown’s drawn eyebrows and below his painted lips). The claims said my gut would be busted and my side would be split and that I’d, in short, look like the clown after reading it, my face becoming that permanent rictus of the joyful because I’d—just as my grandmother warned—made the same face (a grand smile here) so much that it had stayed that way.

That didn’t happen.

However, I did smirk at some things. And I failed to understand others, which made me think that I didn’t understand the things I smirked at, which added to the whole discouraging affair. Thankfully, I have been equipped (a priori) with the facility of finishing. I dislike bookmarked books. I must assist that little booger on his quest to escape, so I read (except Twilight—there’s a copy of that book somewhere in the world that I started, and there is a sad, sweet, little bookmark, between pages 73 and 74, stalwartly fighting the good fight, keeping my page, a page that will forever be unturned).

So I persevered. I finished the book. And now, I think, that much of my praising of Mr. Vonnegut was really a positive projection (or is it displacement?) of my satisfaction with having finished a book I didn’t fully understand. I had read a book, but saying I’m such an awesome and cultured teenager because I read Kurt Vonnegut was somehow too much, so I instead said that the book and its author were great, which obliquely but sufficiently delivered the image of myself I wanted people to see, because saying Vonnegut was great meant I had read Vonnegut, which meant I was smart.

So now, something like ten years after I first read Slapstick, I returned to it.

The book is an autobiographical sketch by a 100-year-old, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, living in a post-apocalyptic NYC. He gives his current living conditions, which are characterized by a deluge of ignorance—ignorant people ignorantly acquiescing to ignorant situations. And then he shares his life’s story, which is meant to explain how the world became the way it is, Mr. Swain being at the center of the change, not causing it but witnessing it (though he played his part; we all do).

So I didn’t really like the book because it didn’t feel like a real story. It felt instead like a sequence of outlandish events that were all constructed so that Vonnegut could turn a hyperbolically enlarged mirror to us, which held our own American and ignorant image. Yeah, that sounds mean. And the humor that was there felt stale in such a way that it didn’t pay off the debts the story incurred. And there was no answer offered. In fact, it felt so defeatist that an answer doesn’t exist in Slapstick’s universe except for exceptionally small Asians who do not share though they have recognized the power of togetherness and community. This is indeed Vonnegut’s answer, but the way to cultivate community is not given. Maybe reading Vonnegut is the way. (Let’s all read his book and discuss it, huh, what say you all?).

At any rate, I am conflicted. Vonnegut sits atop lists of great twentieth-century American authors. But give me Catch-22 or The Crying of Lot 49 before Slapstick. Fortunately, I am still in love with Slaughterhouse-Five, but I’m scared to reread Cat’s Cradle (it’s really great in my nostalgic-tinted shades). I still love Vonnegut, but I am sadly but properly growing out of him, I guess.

Here follow some context-less sentences from the novel:

“Hi ho.”

“I spoke of American loneliness. It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky. It was the only subject I had. It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan. I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.”

“And all the information we received about the planet we were on indicated that idiots were lovely things to be.

So we cultivated idiocy.”

Carrie – Stephen King

“Stephen King is marvelous.”

I said this sentence twice on Friday, unsolicited really. It just came out. And no sooner had I said it than I began believing it. Or, was it that it only then became consciously known to me? Yes, I am telling you that I just found out that I love Stephen King.

I hadn’t read really anything by him before, except his On Writing twice and a few short stories. I’ve seen some of the movies based off his work, and I have often ignorantly criticized him, saying he should’ve been a screenwriter, because I thought it unbelievable that someone could write that much fiction and the fiction still be good. But I am coming at this from a different point of view now: his fiction, all of it, based on my inductive reasoning, is good.

Carrie was King’s first published novel. That happened in 1974. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen the full movie, certainly not planned or in one sitting, but I’ve seen scenes on the TV. And both the first adaptation and the recent one were influential in my expectation. Plus, I knew the plot, because I’m pretty good at getting that from previews, etc. But also, King gives a synopsis in that other book I’d read.

I don’t really read this sort of stuff, because (simply) I am pretentious. By “this sort of stuff,” I mean horror or pop-fiction or whatever. But King writes well.

A teenage girl who is bullied has a telekinetic talent. She uses it to destroy a lot of stuff, virtually a whole town.

There’s the short of it. But even there, a rich conversation could develop. Was she vindicated because of the bullying? But also, the novel deals with religion’s effect on the way we treat people, the way we treat stories, the way we think about high school, and a bunch of other big ideas.

It’s good.

The book reveals Carrie’s special power on the first page, and the culminating event is uncovered early also, so while I was reading—with that annoying forward-looking part of my psyche guessing at future events—I expected the ending to surprise me with something else. But it didn’t.

Carrie, to my mind, is not about its eponymous character. The truth (or, I’m sorry, theme) of the novel has to do with the way we traffic truth. And I think this theme is motivated by the most apparent storytelling device—its use of other texts (interviews, memoirs, scientific, etc.) to tell the story. And because the novel is 40 years old, I revered King’s method, thinking it novel. (You read that last sentence correctly: novel was used as both a noun and an adjective [I am progressing: I previously would have edited the sentence to include, “novel novel.”])

Now normally when in a lit class the question of multiple perspectives comes up, the stock answer is that the author employs them to get closer to the truth. But that seems so easy that I disregard it initially. However, I thought about it again, and I think the various sources from which we receive the story do help to construct a real picture (King’s talent at characters’ voices is largely responsible). But this isn’t because of the method as a device; the story becomes true because it, again, is not about Carrie. It is about the telling of stories—which, apparently as King says in his On Writing, is one of his consistent themes.

And here, the narration confronts this theme head on, locating it (the theme/truth/story) in Carrie, the character—from the mind/mouth of another character, Susan Snell: “They’ve forgotten her, you know. They’ve made her into some kind of a symbol and forgotten that she was a human being, as real as you reading this, with hopes and dreams and blah, blah, blah.” So the irony here is that most of the characters around Carrie didn’t consider her a human being while she was alive either.

But the quote is true. We do that. People are used as symbols, regularly, especially after they’re dead. But being a symbol as a dead person is substantially better than the symbolic use of a real, live person. Right?

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion was published in 1970. I decided to read it based on its inclusion on a literature syllabus of DFW’s and Brett Easton Ellis’s claim that he wouldn’t be a writer without it.

The book begins in a mental hospital, after the action of the novel. We follow Maria through the hell of Hollywood. She is an actress who has been in two pictures, both directed by her husband, who is embarking on a successful career. Those two pictures were a couple of years ago though, and years are lifetimes when we’re talking about the silver screen.

Maria is the center of the book. She tells the story, and she is the story. She sleeps with people polite enough to ask. She is conflicted and base and sad. She has a daughter, with her husband Carter. And she aborts a pregnancy that did not involve Carter—the pregnancy didn’t. But the abortion did: it was Carter’s idea, even the doctor (used very loosely here—I mean, more accurately he’s a guy who performs abortions in hotel rooms) was recommended by Carter, because he was the “only man in Los Angeles County who did clean work.”

So from the mental hospital Maria recounts a short period of her life pretty closely, but she also gives her childhood, which she tries to argue as nondescript or unimportant. She has a problem with the past, calling it “as it was”: “I have trouble with as it was.” But all of the parts of her past were quite constructive of her character: her mother and father, his penchant for craps, and the desert she was raised in.

I don’t like anyone in this novel, but I feel for Kate (if I really have to choose), Maria and Carter’s daughter, who is also in some sort of mental hospital—you know, like daughter, like mother.

Something that most people talk about when they speak of this novel (or Didion) is language. It’s akin to Hemingway, which makes for an easy read (as does the fact that the novel is just over 40,000 words). The book just feels so base and despairing and sad and impenitent that I stopped caring about Maria and the other characters (some cardboard).

Didion seems to comment on language throughout the book with the following sentence, and variants of it: “Maria said nothing.” This seriously happens like forty times, in a short book. Characters respond by saying nothing, which certainly, as we know, still communicates. I like that.

I liked the language, and I liked Didion, but I do not like her book. However, again, it’s very short, and other people love it. So maybe you should try it.

Some representative quotes follow, uncommented upon:

First lines: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.

“He kept his eyes on the highway and his foot hard on the accelerator. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled. The late sun glazed the Pacific. The wind burned on her face. Once they were off the Coast Highway he pulled over to the curb and stopped the car.”

“Maria closed her eyes at the instant BZ’s hand hit Helene’s face. ‘Stop it,’ she screamed.

BZ looked at Maria and laughed. ‘You weren’t talking that way last night,’ he said.”

A final thought, which is reflective, and thus might not concern the unconcerned: This book is a lot like Brett Easton Ellis’s first book. And he says as much—that he was influenced by it, that Less than Zero wouldn’t exist without Play it as it Lays, etc. I read Ellis’s book around seven years ago, but man oh man, do I like it so much more than this book. Even flipping through LtZ today, I still read passages that move me, that I love. So his book could be better, but I think it ignorant to not consider that there may be some sexism within me, concerning my reading of characters. I do not like Didion’s Maria very much—I like her at the beginning, but that’s just conditioned behavior. I do like Ellis’s Clay. And they are not very different. So perhaps I wish to sympathize with female characters, however Maria prevents this. And perhaps I expect to condemn some male characters. This certainly rings true in my marriage.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace – D.T. Max

I haven’t read many biographies; truthfully (whenever I consider this stuff), I haven’t read many of any particular genre or group of books, except maybe DFW’s oeuvre. I’ve read everything he published before his death. And in the last year I’ve consumed anything that appeared interesting concerning the author on the web, including much from D.T. Max. But still, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (a line from Wallace’s Oblivion) contained so many new stories and ideas and facts and perspectives, facets of the jewel that is David Foster Wallace.

The book’s success, as I understand it, rests on two equally important poles: the genius of the content (DFW was a supremely interesting and talented and troubled individual) and the genius of the biographer (Max understands his place as reporter, never showing himself while presenting some comprehensive research).

Another toot of Max’s horn and description of the book’s structure: Max tells a few different narratives that follow linearly from David’s beginning to his end, but Max moves between the strands seamlessly, explaining everything at the moment the reader needs it (not for understanding but for psychosomatic satisfaction).

Fortunately because of the nature of our world and the subject, much of Wallace’s correspondence and interviews and notes and output was available to Max—as it theoretically is to us. Max never met Wallace. But throughout the book, he relies on the voice of DFW, as it’s found on the page and in audio or video. And Max lets Wallace speak unhindered in virtually each paragraph—if not Wallace, then one of his family members (his sister Amy or wife Karen Green) or friends (e.g., Mark Costello, Jonathan Franzen, Don Delillo, et al). Max does give some subtle readings of Wallace’s texts too. And per his MO, they assist in the construction of the narratives about Wallace rather than intrude.

Again, I haven’t read many biographies. Indeed most of the non-fiction I read presents abstract ideas; biographies purportedly deliver real, physical reality. Because of Love Story’s brilliance, the way it convinces me that nothing in time or space is hidden, that I am indeed receiving the full story (as full as possible), I am encouraged to read other biographies, probably of literary figures—Joyce is next.

To the text: 3 representative quotes:

1a: “Wallace was still deconstructing existing stories trying to find what held them together.”

This bespeaks two integral components of the biography’s story: DFW was a veritable student of fiction, and early in his career he used and excelled at postmodernism, even consciously composing on existing forms of fiction, but later worked hard—maybe unsuccessfully—to surpass the project of postmodernism, to exhibit its brokenness and…

1b: “For Wallace, the great flaw of most fiction was that it was content to display the symptoms of the current malaise rather than to solve it.”

…fix it, DFW’s great project.

2: “’My best thinking got me here’ was a recovery adage that hit home, or, as he translated it in Infinite Jest, ‘logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.’ He knew it was imperative to abandon the sense of himself as the smartest person in the room, a person too smart to be like one of the people in the room, because he was one of the people in the room.”

Max is here recounting DFW’s time at Granada House (a recovery house immortalized in IJ), which marked a shift in DFW’s worldview. The perpetual turmoil within the man shows itself: he and ideas of himself fought against himself and other ideas of himself, until his end.

3: [Quotes from DFW]: “It’s all very confusing. I think I’m very honest and candid, but I’m also proud of how honest and candid I am—so where does that put me.” … “The crux, for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his(her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily fucking war.”

Wallace is speaking in a letter here, which demonstrates his profoundly recursive* mind and Max’s thorough research.

*this is a word that runs around and around the book and in Wallace’s writing; I am still trying to make sense of it—with this (http://knowpomo.com/?p=167) on the docket.

While reading through reporting of what Wallace was up to while writing, this giddy feeling of possibility welled up inside me—like DFW is writing just off the page, and what he did I could do, etc. And my goodness, the book lists a litany of literary influences or places where DFW looked for—and sometimes felt—truth. Endearingly or satisfying to my prideful images/expectations of myself, DFW appreciated Derrida, which was heretofore unknown to me.

To reduce: the book was jarringly insightful and encouraging.

Paper Towns – John Green

The last book I read in 2013 was Paper Towns (2008) by John Green—a personality who needn’t be spoken of because he probably has the most (and most virulent) fans of all authors writing today. This is the third of Green’s books I’ve read. And though I wouldn’t say it’s his best story, I think that it has the coolest idea and maybe does some really important things that Looking for Alaska (2005) didn’t—and I think this comparison is apt and doesn’t necessarily diminish the enjoyment or value of either book.

Paper Towns is young adult fiction, like all of Green’s work. It is a first-person story told by a boy named Quentin (“Q”) who is a senior at an Orlando high school. The action—excepting a flashback “Prologue”—occurs in the month preceding graduation. The book is split into three parts that have good names and short chapters:

(1) “The Strings” details a truly amazing idea—what I previously called Green’s “coolest idea”—in which a marvelous girl (the girl in the story, Margo Roth Spiegelman) chooses to embark on a one-night adventure she demands Q attend;

(2) “The Grass” outlines the inexplicable disappearance of Margo and Q’s attempt at reconciling the girl he thought he knew that night with the one who has apparently left him a bevy of clues (a veritable mystery!);

(3) “The Vessel” follows Q and three friends’ 24-hour road trip from Orlando to [a place], where they wish to find Margo.

Each of the titles of the sections names an important set of metaphors that streams through and is built through (and builds) the book: a way to understand how we are related to this place (earth) and these people (the communities) who surround us. Green plays with a variety of texts throughout his own to inform and influence our reading: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Plath’s The Bell Jar, etc.

If I were to boil the truth of the book down, to distill it, I’d say something like this: most humans get arrested at a common psychosocial stage of development, the stage before the stage in which we can understand, truly understand—against that natural solipsistic illusion—other people, before we can empathize and see them instead of ourselves in their behavior and words and lives. (Green does this with a motif of “windows and mirrors.”) So that doesn’t sound so distilled, which is probably OK because it’s one of those BIG TRUTHS. I say something very similar to this over and over to my students, because they are typically on that threshold of development, between the stages, seeing dimly the other people who people their worlds.

Anyway, Green does a pretty good job of demonstrating and elucidating this truth. And by God, it’s a most important truth for teens (in development or age).

 

Some representative quotes follow:

#1:  “’Sorry’ she said. ‘ Maybe things would have been different for me if I’d been hanging out with you the whole time instead of—ugh. Just, God. I hate myself so much for even caring about my, quote, friends…’”

So here’s some classic-but/thus-true teen angst, the kind that sneaks up on an actual teenager who’s realizing that it could not have been different. What a truth, right? And there’s this sort of immediate nostalgia that’ll hit you when you naturally read yourself into this line, into this book.

What’s also great is that this quote, like everything that’s been ripped out of its context, loses its life and its truth; it becomes all flaccid and flaky and flavorless. She sounds like a paper girl, but she calls herself this. And we all know you can be whatever you please free from judgment as long as you know it and claim it. (Thanks, irony!).

#2: “Why hadn’t she left me a specific place? All these scary-as-hell clues. All this intimation of tragedy. But no place. Nothing to hold on to. Like trying to climb a mountain of gravel.”

In these fragments, we receive the thinking of the very thoughtful Quentin—a true voice.

This passage yields a discussion of place, which the book must be about because the title deals with places, as do many of the movements in plot. And again, without place, we aren’t contextualized, ripped from the setting that gives us meaning, which is certainly a truth this book confronts: a paper town is a fake town, one that was put on a map by a cartographer to prove copyright infringement if another mapmaker placed the fictitious town on their own map.

#3: “But before he was this minor figure in the drama of my life, he was—you know, the central figure in the drama of his own life.”

This might be the most concentrated (though still figurative) form of that BIG TRUTH I mentioned earlier. It’s a wonderful analogy, for readers. We all imagine ourselves as the main character of this story that we are either making happen or that is happening around us, and it’s kind of disgusting, right? But natural, so excusable, I guess?

It’s a truth that DFW details in a footnote (no less, of course; in his review of Garner’s MAU) about a necessary fact that student writers must learn. From memory, he explains that writers must imagine a reader who will read what they are writing and also imagine that this reader has convictions, preferences and beliefs that are as important to him as the writer’s c/p/b are to her. It’s an act of empathy for a nonexistent (yet) person.

And because Paper Towns can deliver a DFW-level truth (I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a truth that I have experienced and know and keep learning), I will recommend this book to my students, and I’ll include it on those lists of books they can read for the various projects in my classes.

Oh, and I’d recommend it to you too. It’s one of those books that’s easy to read, and very quick (because YA), but it shows or reminds you what books can do.

 

Review: Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (2004)

So last week, I read Quack this Way, a transcribed interview/conversation between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner. (IYI [wink-face]: This year has been very much about DFW for me, in terms of reading and thinking and living, etc.). But anyway, often during the time of this interview (2006), DFW would mention Cynthia Ozick at the top of his list of writers whose writing he enjoyed, felt, believed, or genuinely connected with or whatever.

I hadn’t before read anything of Ozick’s, so I decided to read whichever of her titles was most likely to be on DFW’s mind when asked this question—i.e., whichever was most contemporaneous with the interviews. I guessed it her 2004 Heir to the Glimmering World: a book with an absolutely stellar cover (pretty and peacefully blue with a whimsical font).

A structural note or two: Heir is a full novel (336 pages) and is comprised of 64 chapters, which make it easy to put down sometimes, especially over a holiday break. It introduces itself as a first-person narrative, but then somewhere not-so-early-on switches to some stuff our narrator wouldn’t know, in which it/Ozick chooses a distanced (but ironically aware) tone.

A bit of plotting or offering of subject matter: NYC in 1935, a German refugee family (professorial parents; five kids) hires an orphan girl (our narrator) for a job within their house, which is initially nebulous, but she becomes the father’s (a religious studies professor, specializing in an ancient sect of heresy-opponents named the Karaites [actual group of people, btw]) scribe. The family is beneficiary to a wonderful character named James, whose father wrote a children’s series (The Bear Boy, like Winnie-the-Pooh) that provided (virtually) infinite wealth for James, who was also made an orphan at a young age. The Bear Boy series was based on James, and with this fact comes a load of attendant identity issues within and without James.

The book details the narrator’s life and her entire stay with the refugee family. Though she is really in the house and really in the scenes, she’s never the most dynamic character, which is a lot like the Victorian novels referenced and played with throughout the book.

Noteworthy/Representative Passages:

#1: “He had opened—to me!—his violation, his rending. They had torn him—like wild beasts, they had torn him. They had thrown him out, he had escaped with his life, with all of their lives; and they had severed him from the Karaites, who were as dear to him as his children.” – 50

Here’s some first-person narration that demonstrates her tone and relationship (and her need for it). But also, what is actually there is the professor’s relationship with his children and his studies, which are his identity. At any rate, if the book is about anything, it’s about relationships: among family members, among humans thrown together, among people to their culture (specifically: when one is ripped out of her context [culture] and how adaption/assimilation can occur), etc.

#2: “His father had created a parallel boy; his father had interpreted him for the world. The Bear Boy was never himself. He was his father’s commentary on his body and brain.” – 106

In addition to relationships, the book really attacks our notions of the nature of identity and reality, which is certainly also a question of relationships. Moreover, the book self-consciously asserts itself as resting on the shoulders of other texts, just like James/Bear Boy was constructed by his father as a text—and this concern of our parentage’s construction of us is in the air from the beginning.

#3: “It was not unusual: raccoons sometimes scurried at night up from the weedy woodsy outskirts of our neighborhood to sniff after the scent of habitation and its rinds and castoffs, bold enough to invade the very thresholds of human sancta.” – 244

And this passage (late in the book but “spoiling” nothing of the Story) bespeaks the real beauty of the book. Ozick is a master of language—of syntax and diction and whatnot—to be sure, but her writing really resonates with this reader when she sneaks powerful commentary and truth at the end of a sentence or with a seamless metaphor or the like. Here, those last two words create this spectacle of our homes and the way we feel about them. Ozick’s heavy (and heavily wrought) hand however never feels like something other than the story, at hand [wink-face] (here: the assertion is at once about homes, which the narration rarely leaves and is thus central to Heir).

So, would I read it again? Would I like to teach it? I’d probably say yes to both. I think there is a lot here, and it would take a second reading or second thinking for this reader to figure out definitively if Ozick provides enough meat for the grand (and grandiose) philosophical and psychological bones she beckons us to behold.