The profundity of art. Or not.

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. … The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

— from the novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner

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Sally Rooney’s growing pains: watching a novelist mature

Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel “Normal People” is soft, stingy with lyricism, psychologically wispy, and not altogether gripping. I like it (I do!), but it isn’t an essential read, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drooly commotion surrounding its recent arrival. I’d give it an ambivalent B.

Rooney wrote this and her prior, similarly vaunted novel “Conversations with Friends” before she was 28, and both books betray the Irish author’s — here the grizzled elder clears his throat — youth and callow inexperience in love and literature. 

In the latter instance I mean she is a plain, safe, lukewarm stylist, who, while honing a palpable personal voice, lacks the assertive confidence, the prosey musculature of a more seasoned writer. Rachel Cusk she is not.

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Yet the author’s inexperience in tracing the contours of youthful relationships, both romantic and platonic, has also proven her strength, even her selling point. She understands her young characters, their collegiate insecurities and romantic gamesmanship. It has earned Rooney the title of the “first great millennial novelist” from a magazine that should know better.  

“Great” is too strong a descriptive. Rooney’s feathery comedies are decidedly not great. They are good, quite good. Greatness isn’t hers yet. As one publication said of “Normal People,” it is “in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band.” Another called it a rush job.

Still, the sycophantic likes of Vanity Fair imbibe the buzz: “The Church of Sally Rooney started to form around the release of her first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends,’ in 2017. Heralded by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Zadie Smith, Rooney immediately became Someone You Need to Know About.”

It’s the hype-machine in clanking action, unctuous celebrity journalism at its finger-licking gooiest. (Church? Sarah Jessica Parker? “Someone You Need to Know About” in Gen Y caps? Certified bull-bunk.) Elsewhere, some genius crowned Rooney “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” We can never unsee that.

“Conversations with Friends” and its hasty follow-up “Normal People” are sharp-eyed comedies of manners set in and around Dublin, lightly plotted stories about struggling twentysomethings looking for love, college scholarships, jobs and purpose. Also coming into vigorous play: literature, class frictions, social jockeying and plentiful sex. 

Her dialogue is naturalistic, stripped down, never fiery or memorable, cutting or discernibly clever. The books are light on their feet, fitfully sparking to life with taut passages and startling scenes of social discomfort.  

They are breezy and easy books, eons from the thorny ruminations of Philip Roth or plush poetics and thematic heft of Toni Morrison. They’re more like Anne Tyler lite. 

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Amid stubbornly lean prose, literary beauty is scarce. Two passages in “Normal People” poked me in the eye for their uncharacteristic flair: “The sky was extremely blue that day, delirious, like flavored ice,” Rooney almost effuses.

Only 12 pages later, she again swoons over the amazing azure of the heavens: “The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.”

But she’s just playin’. Her allergy to the florid is concrete. Typical sentences, surgically removed of metaphor, run more like this: “Lorraine covers her mouth with her hand, so he can’t make out her expression: she might be surprised, or concerned, or she might be about to get sick.” That, reader, is on the more colorful end of the Rooney spectrum. 

Last week “Normal People” crashed the NYT bestseller list at No. 3. Maybe it deserves it. I enjoyed it for all my nitpicking. Yet I wonder who reads Rooney with the avidity of Sarah Jessica Parker or Zadie Smith (who at Rooney’s age was already a true literary giant). 

Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking, in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature. I give her a B, for now. Though the promise she shows tells me that grade may rise with each new book. We read and watch. And hope.

A book with bite

A girlfriend once said I have dog teeth. For real. She didn’t mean I literally have a mouthful of, say, Doberman teeth. She meant that my teeth reminded her of a dog’s. (My canines are on the long side.) Either way, it was a comment that falls under the heading “shitty.” I should have bit her. But I’m over it. In fact, I think it’s riotous, edging on genius.

Anyway, I just picked up the novel “The Story of My Teeth” by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, whose current book “Lost Children Archive” is a literary smash, a timely drama about family and the immigration crisis on our southwestern border. I’ve read a chunk of it. It’s very good. Pick it up. 

“The Story of My Teeth” is also a hailed exemplar of storytelling, making a zillion top 10 lists in 2015 and shortlisted for juicy awards. Yes, it’s about teeth. About the teeth of folks like Plato, Virginia Woolf, Petrarch and Borges that are collected by eccentric auctioneer Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez, the story’s kooky narrator.

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And it’s a lot about his teeth and his desperate goal to get his calamitously crooked choppers fixed. In this funny, fanciful book observations about people’s teeth abound. 

There is for example: the man with “the slightly sinister smile of those who have paid many visits to the dentist”; Octavia Augustus’ “small, few and decayed” teeth; and the remark “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”

Teeth, teeth, teeth. And this is in just the first two dozen pages. By page 26 our homely hero Highway has hit dental pay dirt. 

Like how? Like this:

At auction he buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. “Yes indeed, the teeth of the Hollywood diva. They were perhaps slightly yellowed, I believe because divas tend to smoke,” he explains. 

Back home in Mexico, “Each of the teeth belonging to the Venus of the big screen was transplanted into my mouth by a world-class dental surgeon.”

How over the moon he is! Highway tips his hat to himself in mirrors and shop windows, awash in good fortune, elated, Monroe’s dental work now his. At long last, his rows of teeth, once tornado-whipped picket fences, are even and upright, straight and sturdy.

“My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.”

And this is where I’m at in Luiselli’s toothsome feat of imagination. It’s the end of Book I — there are seven books, littered with photos and floating quotes and graphics, plus an afterward by the translator — in a slim 195 pages. I don’t know if Highway keeps Monroe’s teeth throughout the story, but I’ve read enough to enjoy a cameo by John Lennon’s molar, which fetches $32,000 at auction, rather on the low side, I thought.

But where we last left off, Highway was musing about “the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.” Which is where I began this post — my dental autobiography, the story of my teeth. (Recall: mutt mouth.) The book aside, let’s pursue that thread. Hang tight.

Dental histories aren’t pretty. They are violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Anxiety and discomfort are operative words, shrieking like exposed nerves. Drills, needles, pliers. Teeth are the worst.

When I was 14, the dentist noticed my gums were receding. He wanted to prop some of them up. His solution: slice chunks of skin from the roof of my mouth and use the flesh to support the falling gums. This happened. I was knocked out, but I briefly came to mid-operation and saw the surgeon’s smock and gloves smeared in blood.

I was luckier when my wisdom teeth were pulled. The dentist put me out so deeply that I woke up in a wheelchair. My mouth was swollen and filled with blood, but I was giddy.

I had braces. I have too many fillings to count and three crowns (a grisly business requiring a jackhammer). I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed by needles the length and girth of bratwursts.

That is the partial story of my teeth. I have crooked teeth, stained teeth, chipped teeth. I’m making my mouth sound like a massacre. It’s not. Maybe I do have dog teeth. Maybe I have teeth like Marilyn Monroe’s. Maybe I can sell them at auction. After all, some of my molars are encrusted in gold. But time is of the essence, before I get too long in the tooth.

Ha.

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The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.

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At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”

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* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

The acrid bite of literary realism, in brief

Realism rules. Consider the first 10 words in Richard Yates’ novel “The Easter Parade”:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”

Sting, sizzle. 

This opener is massively effective. Knifelike, it plunges into the story, ducking preliminaries or decorous setups cluttered with background frills and bunting. Before we’ve even met the protagonists we are told in the chilliest terms how things will unspool for them tonally, if not dramatically. It’s a great entrance, pungent, punchy.

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I broach this because I’m half-way through “The Easter Parade” and its satisfactions are abundant, much like those in Yates’ corrosive classic of marital dissolution “Revolutionary Road.” That masterpiece of American realism is fiction with fangs, casting an unsparing eye on mainstream domestic rituals.

And it’s part of a 20th-century literary tradition, stories and novels, mostly by male writers, that scrutinize the age of anxiety, explicit sex, cynicism, malaise, regret, envy, jobs, kids, homes, husbands, wives, lovers, losers, drunks, the city and the mirage of the white suburban dream.

Highlights in this unofficial canon of realism include: Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”; Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”; John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff’s unflinching stories; James Salter’s “Light Years”; John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy; Richard Ford’s “Bascombe” trilogy; and so many more.

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Disillusionment, loss, heartbreak and disappointment are fragrant themes of these authors. But strangely the stories don’t feel forlorn. They almost feel consoling, perversely empathic — even when the human condition is laid bare and loneliness, our worst fear, takes hold.

”If my work has a theme,” Yates said, “I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

These realists serve up banality without bathos, unnerving wisdom in unfussy, largely conventional language. They are bleak and blunt, sometimes cruel in their honesty.

A (bitter) tasting:

“The hell with this aching, suffering, callow, half-assed delusion that he was in ‘love’ with her. The hell with ‘love’ anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.”  — Richard Yates, “Revolutionary Road”

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” — Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”

“She perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how cruel and frail it was, like a worn piece of burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness.” — John Cheever, “Stories of John Cheever”

“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.” — James Salter, “Light Years”

“Any time spent with your child is partly a damn sad time, the sadness of life a-going, bright, vivid, each time a last. A loss. A glimpse into what could’ve been.” — Richard Ford, “Independence Day”

51aBkOQUbQLThese are acid words. They are tough and unsentimental. I gravitate to them, and I can’t recommend them enough. They are beautiful. In them I locate unembellished truth. I’ve lived a little (Christ, I’m starting to sound like a grizzled cowboy) and none of these sentiments rings false or fabricated. They sound snipped from life in all its tarnished glories and burnished failures, and it is intoxicating.

Having a ‘Good Time’? Me too.

Finished Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” — terrific, explosive — and I’m now onto Amie Barrodale’s arch short stories “You Are Having a Good Time.” After just a few of these fun-size fictions, I am firmly in the book’s thrall. The title alone thrills me a little.

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I am glad I’m reading “You Are Having a Good Time,” because I am indeed having a good time. But frankly the stories are a lucky place holder for a book I’m waiting to arrive, “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude,” by travel journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom.

The book is about her year traveling solo in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York — four of my favorite cities, especially the first two — and all that she loved, loathed and learned basking in that life-expanding mode of emancipated alone-hood. I’m an inveterate solo trekker enamored with the places she visits, so Rosenbloom and I might have a lot in common.

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For now, Barrodale’s “You Are Having a Good Time” is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.

Barrodale conjures “stories that don’t behave as you expect stories to behave,” notes the book flap. “Beautiful or Grotesque?” asks the headline on a review of the 2016 collection.

Or there’s this review headline: “Stories Exploring the Misguided, the Unrequited and the Mortified.” That review concludes: “None of these stories explain themselves willingly.”

That is true. Take “The Imp,” in which a possible ghost upends the relationship of a man and his pregnant wife. A tarot reader is involved. Or the bleakly comic “Night Report,” which follows a troubled woman to a New Age mountain retreat where she breaks down and declares, “I wish that I were dead. I’m heartbroken, and if I had a gun I would use it. … I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve in the chest.”

Then there is “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” which opens with a dry, quizzical flourish: “A woman who was lonely and depressed should begin by getting on some medication. She should clean her house and throw away clutter. After that, Dr. Sheppard told his patients to lose weight and wear dresses.”

Her eye for detail is keen: “The restaurant was empty except for a guy at the bar. He was a little chubby. I could tell he was single because he was wearing white tube socks with black dress shoes. His jeans were too tight on him. I don’t mean that he had on skinny jeans. I mean that he had on jeans that were two sizes too small, and he was uncomfortable. He kept squirming, fooling with his phone. …  Outside, through the window, I saw an old guy stop under a tree, pull down a branch, and smell a flower.”

On love: “Being torn apart is what a relationship is. So don’t be afraid. Play the game.”

The stories groove to mercurial rhythms, and sometimes seem to bear a torch, in search of a point. They withhold facile answers and spurn tidy bows. They’re fun like that, and funny. They are dark, but giddy.

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Barrodale’s stories — this is her only book — are a cousin to the blithely jagged fiction of Ottessa Moshfegh, who’s an avowed fan. “It’s one of my favorite books,” she recently said. “Like (Michael) Ondaatje, Barrodale makes me hold my head and ask, ‘How?’”

Moshfegh shouldn’t be too envious. She’s the better writer, more probing, bolder, weirder. But Barrodale is a force, an alchemist of the odd, fabricating devilish modern tales that totter your balance and leave your mouth dry.