The Tonsil Blog’s One-Man Book Club is back together, this time at Hank’s place. (Okay, every time at Hank’s place. Isn’t a book club so much nicer with one member?)
It’s been long enough since the last meeting that the beverage of choice has switched from a wintry red (malbec) to a nice, crisp white (vinho verde). Although it’s been a long time, the club has been busy reading a buncha new books.
I’ve admonished the One-Man Book Club to try to be more capsule-y this time, but no promises. If it goes too long, that’s the vinho verde typing, I want you to know.
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. I was gobsmacked on just about every fucking page by some painfully beautiful or hilarious or otherwise perfect sentence in this novel. I loved Home Land, too, and The Ask did not disappoint me — in fact, I feel like it surpassed Home Land.
Any writer who’s plumbing the aging issues of so-called Generation X (or wishes to observe our already-very-observed monster-stroller, overpriced-coffee, real-estate-yuppie-envy era of almost evil self-interest and hurt) will read this and want to just give up. It’s that good.
It’s about a guy, Milo Burke, who works in the development office of a mediocre college (which Milo actually refers to each time as Mediocre College). He loses his job because donations and big gifts are way off in the recession and he’s not producing any new “Asks.” Also they don’t like him. But they bring him back to facilitate a big gift from a wealthy donor (aka “the Ask”) whom he went to undergraduate school with. This is a very dark satire more than a nuanced novel — Lipsyte skewers marriage, aging, money, Internet culture, selfish elderly parents, and the way that Gen Y’s utter swiftness and hipness can get under the skin of guys my age. Oh, and there are so many wickedly uncomfortable scenes. Such as when you wake up and your wife is breast-feeding your 4-year-old, who is kicking you in the chest while he slurps away:
“Baby,” I wishipered. “What the hell are you doing? You weaned him. He’s weaned.”
“I know he’s weaned.”
“What are you doing?”
“No, he’s not.”
“I’m not,” said Bernie.
“Maura, come on, stop it.”
“It’s okay. It’s just a little regression. It’s normal. I read about it. I don’t have any milk anyway.”
“That makes it worse.”
“Go back to sleep, Milo.”
“Yeah, Daddy, go back to sleep.”
Chilling, awkward, hilarious, sad, and extremely well-crafted. A One-Man Book Club Top Pick.
• • •
I don’t have a whole lot specifically to say about Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, by Melissa Milgrom. But I should say that it was co-edited by Amazing Andrea, who edited my book, so that right there made me want to read it.
It’s exactly what it says it is, though I’m not convinced the “adventures” label quite applies. The adventure sort of finally comes near the end, when Milgrom attempts to stuff a dead squirrel and see if it’s anywhere near the standards of pro taxidermists. Still Life is one of those books that tries to get a handle on a broad subject by traveling to and writing about a lot of examples of the subject and people who are obsessed with the subject, which can wind up seeming like a series of magazine articles on the subject.
Critics have given Still Life pretty good notice, but it seems like everyone (including the One-Man Book Club) was hoping to read more of Milgrom’s deeper thoughts about the allure and mystery of taxidermy. The writing and sense of voice is always trickiest part of a book like this. It’s a lovely book to hold and look at, though — what a terrific cover and paper stock, all around. It opens with Milgrom’s profile of David Schwendeman, the last official taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History, and his son, Bruce, who run a taxidermy shop in New Jersey. Milgrom could have stayed put and built a book around them, perhaps. Instead, the author is off in different directions: to England to talk about all that Damien Hirst stuff (haha, no pun intended) and then follow the auctioning off of a bizarre, Victorian menagerie of taxidermied creatures that have been assembled into 19th-century domestic scenes and dioramas. She also goes to the world taxidermy competition. (Of course there’s a world taxidermy competition. In these sorts of books, there’s always either a world competition of the [insert Weird Subject Matter here], or an annual convention of [People Who are Obsessed by the Weird Subject Matter].)
The facts and quotes and history and scenes start to stack up, and it’s really up to the writer to either do something entirely new or stylistically provocative with the prose. For all its reporting and research skill, I didn’t feel like Still Life quite did that kind of thing, but I did keep thinking it was tightly sewn, which seemed metaphorically apt.
This isn’t Still Life‘s fault, but reading it made me think of countless other books that are shelved in “cultural studies” (hello, make room, I’m squeezed in there too) that each try to be a broad survey of something Big and/or Odd, in order to prove that it is … Big and/or Odd. I’m thinking here of that disappointing Rebecca Mead book a few years ago about the wedding-industrial complex — One Perfect Day — where she went all over the world and gathered examples of the Bridezilla culture and then didn’t say anything. Mead’s book had an amazing cover (it was a receipt stapled to an engraved wedding invitation, see?) and yet it just fizzled and pooped all the way through. It was about something outrageous and bizarre and hilarious and heartbreaking and yet it was no fun.
These are books of reportage. Most of them lack full narratives, and instead provide glimpses and partial narratives in the form of topical profiles. They always look like they might be absorbing and strange and then often aren’t. They’re always coming out, though — books about NASCAR, about garbage, about sushi, about Chinese food, about poker, about competitive-eating contests, about beauty pageants, about spelling bees, about toilets, about interstates, about everything. My friend Mike Schaffer did a very good one about the pet industry. I maybe could have done my book about America and Christmas that way — traveled the country more, given shorter glimpses of more examples, hopping from here to there for a more “complete” and straight-journalistic picture of the holiday industry and economy. Instead, I chose to hunker down in the same place with a few people and do the story that way.
I don’t think a case can be made that one way is more right or not, because it really depends on the book. But I do wonder what convinces publishers to greenlight these sort of “a journey into the world of …” or “dispatches from the strange world of …” proposals from authors, which are basically built around a writer hitting the road to explore a subject in a survey approach. If I was an editor considering those kinds of proposals, I’d want to know what the underlying thread will be. I’d want point of view — which is different from and more nuanced than a book that will be opinionated. It’s about voice. When people pay $25 for a book (or $10 for the e-book), I feel like they’re giving you permission to write the hell out of it and have something to say.
• • •
All right, everything I just said? About books needing more style, more voice, more viewpoint, more artful writing? And what I posted on this blog earlier this month, Michael Brick’s screed about those readers and editors who complain about something being “overwritten”? Well, get ready for the radioactive blast of my contradiction bomb. Get ready for About a Mountain, by John D’Agata.
Oh, how I scowled while reading this PATHETICALLY OVERWRITTEN book, all the way to the very end. (It’s not very long. I kept throwing it across the room in disgust and then had to go retrieve it, so I could continue not liking it. So that’s actually kind of a compliment.) I am fascinated by John D’Agata’s writing, and, clearly, so is John D’Agata.
Also, there is a blurb on the front, transmitted from the grave of David Foster Wallace: “John D’Agata is one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.”
One of. The past few years.
Well, I don’t think so, but I do think he is one of the most egregious Joan Didion imitators I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because it takes one to know one. (He who smelled it, dealt it. Smeller’s the feller. Etc.) And I don’t mean the ’60s-style “Goodbye to All That” kind of Didionesque prose that everyone equates with “writing like Joan Didion,” but the later Didion; the post-Miami/pre-Magical Thinking Didion; the ’90s Didion of all those dense New York Review of Books articles, who piles up statistics and figures and half-quotes taken from deep down in news articles or beneath layers of official reports and sculpts it all into long, lush sentences of ominous doublespeak. That’s the Didion that D’Agata is mimicking here. Really, this whole book is Didion karaoke.
The mountain in About a Mountain is Yucca Mountain — the much maligned, questionably unsafe, and recently derailed Nevada site chosen to house the nation’s nuclear waste into eternity. Yucca is always an interesting subject, I guess, but this is more about how D’Agata learned about it, read it about it, visited it, and then wrote 200 pages of dreamy, spooky, I-just-discovered-the-West, essayistic words about it.
D’Agata teaches creative writing at Iowa. He’s part of that wide world of “creative nonfiction” that I know very little about. Since I’ve worked in newspaper journalism all my life, I’m usually surrounded by people who get grouchy and prickly around the idea of “creative nonfiction,” where the rules of reporting and attribution appear to be looser, because adhering strictly to the “facts” has a way of inhibiting the art of fluid prose. I sort of straddle the fence. I like nonfiction that is diligently reported, cuts no corners, and is as accurate as humanly possible, and THEN has the courage to be imaginatively written and provocative in form and structure.
About a Mountain has, if nothing else, helped me decide where to draw the line. Here’s what you learn from D’Agata, once you get all the way to the “Notes” at the end:
“Although the narrative of this essay suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span between my arrival in Las Vegas and my final departure was, in fact, much longer. I have conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only, but I have tried to indicate each instance of this below [in endnotes]. At times, I have also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single composite ‘character.’ Each example of this is noted.”
Why he had to do all this, I’m not sure. Why he chose this subject, I’m not sure — other than he had to help his mother move to Las Vegas and the place creeped him the fuck out. Clearly he was somewhat interested in the unsolvable dilemma of nuclear waste, but not too terribly much. Why he thought it would be a good idea to bother the parents of a teenager who jumped to his death off the Stratosphere hotel, so that their son’s death could work as some clumsy metaphor for Yucca Mountain, I don’t know.
I keep hearing that we’re leaving journalistic diligence behind; that creative nonfiction is really where it’s at in this era of Truthiness. It’s starting to feel more uppity and old-fashioned to complain — and anyhow, just look at all the kids who still, 40 years later, wave Hunter S. Thompson around and claim his hallucinogenic journalism is the truest thing ever written.
About a Mountain did fascinate me in its later-middle chunk, which artfully rehashed the ongoing debate among linguists, artists, and scientists about how to design a way to warn humans or other future beings to stay away from the Yucca waste tunnels. Maybe they should leave a quote from David Foster Wallace on the lid?
• • •
We’ll there’s more, but not tonight. I hogged all the time and drank all the wine. The One-Man Book Club will be back soon for one-sided discussions of the following: WILSON by Daniel Clowes; NOTHING HAPPENED AND THEN IT DID by Jake Silverstein; THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot; and THE BEDWETTER by Sarah Silverman. YES, all of those, plus three books that failed to pass the 50-page test!
And anyhow, what are YOU reading? Give me some good recommendations. Nothing written by anyone named Stieg.