Where were we? The one-man book club (which shall now be written as One-Man Book Club, after a unanimously ratified amendment to the One-Man Stylebook) is adrift. Members keep offering excuses: “I have too many TV reviews to write.” “I’m too goddamn tired.” “I feel too fat to blog.” “I would rather drink a little and read these magazines.” Etc. etc.
First up, The Room and the Chair, by Lorraine Adams: The author, a Pulitzer winner for reporting, used to work at the Washington Post. I didn’t know her, but I did wind up at a New Year’s Eve party back in the very early aughts at the nice, big house she used to live in on 19th Street. She was a great newsroom character, and now she’s written a novel about some great newsroom characters. But let me back up for a minute to her first novel, Harbor (2004), which I had on my list of my favorite books of the ’00s, and is, I think, among the very best novels to come out of the immediate vibe of the 9/11 era. I strongly recommend Harbor.
As for The Room and the Chair, I’m much more ambivalent. It’s a vivid (often too vivid) story of a female fighter pilot (who barely survives the crash of her fighter jet, which lands in the Potomac River between the Kennedy Center and Roosevelt Island); a spook (aka “The Chair”) who works for one of those No-Such-Agencies out in an office park in McLean; and a young, black reporter who is assigned by the night editor of the Washington Spectator to look further into the plane crash, long after the rest of the newsroom (“The Room”) cares about it. Based on all that, you’d think it’d just be another Washington potboiler AND a Post roman-a-clef. But Adams has a whole lot more ambition than that. The writing is often amazing and she clearly means to bend a lot of Washington cliches (actual and literary) into some new form of art. The first 100 pages are maddeningly lush — it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on, which is partly the the intent of the story. The theme is not “You can’t handle the truth!”, the theme is more there is no such thing as truth. To achieve this, Adams has thrown a lot of gauzy language in front of the reader’s vision.
As for the Washington Spectator, I couldn’t help but gobble up the details of a very Washington Post-like environment, where some of the characters definitely possess traits that any Post-ie will recognize. There are some delicious analogues; a Bob Woodward, who in this weird parallel realm, seems to have married the Sally Quinn. A few pages in, I started taking notes, if for nothing else than to save Amy Argetsinger the work of having to read it herself! I don’t wish to slag on The Room and the Chair — there’s something lovely and cool about it, but I don’t expect many people will find it a satisfying read. It’s far too arty for people who like Washington thrillers and it’s not fully realized enough to score with the highbrow reviewers. And for those of us who loved Harbor so much, it’s a teeny bit of a comedown. Want to read something far more articulate and spot-on about this book? I point you now to Louis Bayard’s review in the Post.
After that, I took on You Are Not a Gadget, a manifesto by Jaron Lanier. This is one of those books that gets talked about a lot when it comes out; sometimes you can probably get what you need to know about this kind of book from the reviews of it.
But I was intrigued by his central premise, which sort of goes like this: the Internet revolution got off to the wrong start, constrained by fixed ideas that were part of the initial software designs of the 1980s and ’90s, and biases of the people who fashioned together the World Wide Web, and then ruined by the anonymous bad manners of its users.
There’s a lot more here too, much of which had me nodding along in sound agreement. I especially liked a mini-rant midway through that bemoaned the ultimate result of the Internet: people went to things that comfort them in a nostalgic sense, looking up old friends and enjoying long-gone cartoons and songs — instead of creating something new. The whole thing is trapped in cultural “retro economy.” Lanier makes a compelling argument that the music of the post-Internet generation fails to sound unique, in the way that music from other decades clearly does.
That’s just one example. I feel like if I’d been reading Wired all these years (I havent; have you?), I would have followed Lanier better down some of his rabbit holes. But on the whole, I enjoyed this book because it validated a lot of my heartache about the Internet, which is not a Luddite response (or the death bleats of a newspaper employee), but just the sinking feeling that this renaissance we’re in is in fact a false start, and is destroying more than it invents. This is one book where I wish my One-Man Book Club actually had another member, because I want to talk about it with someone who’s read it. Also, though, it’s been about three weeks since I finished it, and I have to admit, much of it has already left me. Hmmm.
I read Union Atlantic in one long day, a day in which I absolutely needed a book like Union Atlantic, a day which I spent waylaid in Memphis — a missed flight connection, a night in a Hyatt, and then most of the next day spent reading on a sofa in the Hyatt lobby, ordering diet sodas and waiting to go back to the airport for an airplane. (Does that sound awful to you? Let me tell you, I love those sort of days. File under: I’m really not hard to please.)
Union Atlantic is a novel by Adam Haslett, and it’s being hailed by some as the best novel yet about the economic excesses of the 2000s. It weaves together several stories, set in and around Boston. Union Atlantic is a big, Wachovia-like banking institution, at which Doug Fanning runs a big hedge fund. Doug is a former Navy officer who served on the USS Vincennes when it shot down that Iranian airliner in the 1980s. Now (middle ’00s) he’s a cutthroat hedge fund asshole — and he’s just built a fittingly ostentatious mansion in a wealthy little burg outside Boston. This brings the wrath of his neighbor, a kooky old lady living in squalor next door, with her two dogs (who talk to her). She also happens to be the older sister of the head of New York Federal Reserve Bank. The old woman, a former history teacher, is hired to tutor a young man who (I’m going to keep this short) winds up having an inappropriate (but pretty damn hot, if emotionally abusive) affair with a character I’ve already mentioned. There’s more, but that gets us started.
I voraciously liked this book, if only because I was hooked. In hindsight, the last 50 pages get somewhat ridonkulous plot-wise (and a little obvious), but so what? It delivers a strong dose of catharsis to the BS that’s gone on with our economy AND Union Atlantic has the added bonus of knowing what it’s talking about. Haslett’s done his research and it feels right, down to the elegant descriptions of the economic hocus-pocus that ruined the American economy. He’s not an elegant prose stylist; the thing to admire is his (no pun) economy with words and images. For all its sprawl, this novel comes in at 300 pp. I’m not sure it’s the be-all/end-all novel that captures our era and will therefore last for the history of western lit, but I got a real bang out of it.
• • •
Finally, you’ve been to Hawaii, right? Actually, have you ever been to any place that tries to put forth a “tropical” summery vibe, up to and including the place that rents innertubes at Harper’s Ferry? Then you know the sound of Iz.
That would be Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. (Everyone called him Iz.) He’s the one who recorded that ukelele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which appeared on his album “Facing Future,” which was released in 1993. (The “Over the Rainbow” cover was made one drunken night in 1988.) Millions of record sales later, that song has been used in commercials — especially commercials aiming to make yuppies feel more ethereal about their purchases and vacation plans — and basically anyplace you’ve ever ordered a daiquiri. As much as it makes me think of the Sheraton in Kona, it also makes me think of the Internet bubble economy circa 2000.
Ah, but the story behind it: Who was Iz, the imposingly large Hawaiian who, long after his death in 1997, has come to be such a revered icon in Hawaii?
That’s where my friend Dan Kois comes in. He’s written Facing Future for the 33-1/3 book series. (The series of books pairs a writer up with a legendary album and has the writer do a pocket-sized book-length essay about it.)
I had the pleasure of reading Facing Future in manuscript form last summer. Of all the friends who’ve ever asked me to read their book for them, this was the one I put the least amount of red pen marks on. It’s an engaging and tragic story, quite well told, about a darker and more wistful side of life and death in Hawaii. Do my bruddah Dan a solid and pick it up. It’s a bargain.