Although I have read a fair amount of literature that can safely be called experimental or at least non-conventional, I tend to doubt my ability to make fair, sound judgments about which among these works are good works. Much of Barth is tedious and masturbatory, and there’s plenty under Pynchon’s name that strikes me as very weak, for example, and yet both are widely regarded as masters at what they do. (And of course they’ve also both written plenty that I do find worth serious study.)
In spite of my self-doubt when it comes to such judgments, I think I’ve made some correct calls. Gaddis and Wallace write good books. Some of Bolaño and Pynchon I recognize to be quality work even when it doesn’t appeal to me personally. When a book is a great book, I think I generally have the sense to recognize it as such.
Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton, a Biography, however much it is a book I found myself rooting for, is not a great book. It is not, in fact, even a terribly successful book. But it is a book that I really wanted to be successful, whose conceit I found appealing if, in the end, very overworked.
The promotional blurb sets the novel up rather promisingly (if a little over-enthusiastically):
Chris Eaton, A Biography is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we’ve heard from others. Chris Eaton, A Biography constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.
This, it seems, will be a book about what it means to be a person struggling through life, and this is what the great books tend to be about. I won’t say that I agree with every word of the blurb, but I thought the use of a shared name as the thread through a life, or a series of lives, demonstrating the universality of the human condition, seemed new and interesting. So often it’s time and place that throw characters together, and I was receptive to this different organization of a novel’s happenings.
Right off the bat, Eaton introduces us to a number of characters whose histories are compelling. It’s a little confusing at first, not least of all because without further comment, he begins suddenly using the feminine pronoun for one of the Chris Eaton characters. It’s unexpected and gave me a pleasant little jolt. A little confusion in a book like this isn’t really a liability. It’s probably part of the point, in fact. But as the book unfolds, we meet more and more characters and some of the story lines begin to blur in what for me were unpleasantly disorienting ways. Was I reading, at a given moment, about the life of the punk rocker, the politician, the artist, the wrestler, the pornographer, the carpenter, or somebody else? And for that matter, was it possible that some of these apparently distinct characters were in fact the same character at different times of life, with me having simply missed the connections linking them across the novel’s time? And if so, was this all really the designed point — that blur that the novel’s blurb mentions — or was it a flaw of the book? And if it was the designed point, was it a good design? These are the sorts of questions that I think make assessing non-conventional literature so hard. It’s tricky to decide when the flaw is in the work and when it is in the reader.
Chris Eaton, a Biography grows more fantastical as we move further into it, with conspiracy plots and people with comically specific occupations and proclivities. Some of these I found rewarding and others gratuitous. We meet many people tangentially related to the various main plots, and they become, in spite of the humor with which their stories are so often told, a really big distraction. Think of Pynchon’s lightbulb conspiracy or adenoid taming repeated over and over in a much shorter book. What’s more, their names or the names of their organizations or areas of interest tend to be anagrams of Chris Eaton, which is clever given the underlying conceit of the book but which becomes so heavy-handed here as to become not just a distraction but a game one can’t help but play.
I’m reminded of a thriller by Dan Brown entitled Digital Fortress whose entire plot hangs on the existence of someone’s anagrammatized name. The last half of Brown’s book hinges on this clue that none of the inspiringly brilliant people in the novel can puzzle out, which turns out to be the anagram that practically blinks on the page. The inability of the novel’s brilliant inhabitants to see this obvious thing becomes infuriatingly comical.
Similarly, Eaton’s book becomes a sardonic game of “spot the anagram.” Some of the anagrams are cute, and I enjoyed some of the stories that go with the name variants, but the game became tiresome. Tonia Hersc? Tina Cerosh? Hornet Cisa? Ian Rotches? A pair named Chorea and Nits studying creatures known as antioch ers? Those couldn’t possibly be anagrams for Chris Eaton, could they?
Many of the side stories Eaton presents seem to exist solely for the purpose of introducing another anagram of the name, so that we get a three-page digression here and another there as back story for a back story. These are often hilarious and well enough written, but they also become a little annoying, the more so because they contribute to the muddling of the plots of the main Chris Eatons.
These side stories also result in the book’s seeming to consist of summary after summary. Again and again we read “he did, she did” prose but precious little (if any) dialogue that brings us closer to the characters. We skip around from one zany summary to the next, and though the book does contain a number of conflicts, it seems to me by and large very emotionally sterile, devoid of any humanizing drama presented in a way that makes me feel for the characters. The result is a book full of cleverness but lacking the gravity that I think is necessary for a book purporting to offer truths about what it means to be alive.
I wanted to like this book on the basis of its conceit alone, and I did enjoy many of the stories in the book, but I don’t think it holds up very well as a novel. It often feels as if Eaton made a list of anagrams and wrote little stories for each one, then stitched them all together into a book loosely centered on the lives of a cluster of Chris Eatons. I’m receptive enough to fragmented narratives, but Chris Eaton, a Biography I think ultimately falls short because of a lack of coherence among its parts. There’s too much in the book that’s not essential.
Still, on the basis of this effort, I’ll root for Eaton. I would try another of his books. I think what he’s written here is intelligent and well-meaning if not altogether successful. It’s something more than a curiosity if something far short of a masterpiece.
Something of a fanatic about Moby-Dick, I’ve read a number of books peripheral to Melville’s work. Some I read years ago, and some I’ve picked up more recently for the first time or to reread. Brief impressions of a few of them appear below.
A Whaler’s Dictionary
Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary was the first secondary source I purchased once I began to consider leading a group read of Moby-Dick. The book contains a set of what I think are best called meditations on various ideas and items that appear in Moby-Dick. Beachy-Quick says in the introductory matter that the book arose out of a decade of reading Melville’s book, and indeed it does read like the musings of a person obsessed with the text. It’s even cross-referenced. Beachy-Quick suggests in the introduction that the best way to read his book is to thumb through it until you find something interesting and then to hop around from there; the cross-references help with this. In an apology at the beginning, he fesses up that it’s not responsible or well-researched, and this may be true, but the little essays are often lyrical and always thoughtful and full of neat connections. In a way, his project seems similar to the project that these group reads have become, but much more ambitious and far far better-wrought. It’s a necessary text for the Moby-Dick completist and a great addition to the collection for even a dabbler (if a serious dabbler) like me.
A good friend gave me Philip Hoare’s The Whale for my birthday this year. I had been wringing my hands a little over whether or not to try a group read of Moby-Dick, and he happened to see a review of Hoare’s book in a national magazine. It’s a great read, full of information about whales and whaling. I learned, for example, that whaling not only extended into the 20th century but peaked in the 20th century: “In 1951 alone — one hundred years after Melville’s book appeared — more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling.” Consider for a moment how big a sperm whale is (think roughly school-bus sized), and then consider that in 1965, some 72,000 were killed. Even if you’re not of a “save the whales” temperament, the sheer mass of such a killing season is mind-boggling. Hoare writes about a number of beached whales and tells the stories of the preservation of several whales in museums. He provides background information on Melville and always has Moby-Dick as a subtext. In addition to disbursing a trove of facts about whales and the history of whaling, Hoare invites us to take a more personal peek at his infatuation with whales — which after all many of us who love Moby-Dick share with him — beginning with his nearly-submersive (as in on a submarine) birth and culminating in a dive during which he was able to swim with a sperm whale. What a chance! Hoare shares with his reader the tragedy and the majesty of the sperm whale. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested in either whales or Moby-Dick. I’ll let Hoare have the last word: “[T]he sperm whale also bears the legacy of our sins; an animal whose life came to be written only because it was taken; a whale so wreathed in superlatives and impossibilities that if no one had ever seen it, we would hardly believe that it existed — and even then, we might not be too sure. Only such a creature could lend Melville’s book its power.”
I was eager to read this book when it came out years ago. I wanted it to be good. I started reading it with an open mind. But it became clear fairly early on that Sena Naslund had an agenda that lay pretty far afield of dramatizing anything with any real relevance to Melville’s great work. She wanted to write a strong female character in Ahab’s young wife. I applaud writing strong female characters. But to distort reality and insist upon anachronisms in order to do so is to patronize, and the book began very early to do just these things. I can think of no other book that I’ve ever put down partway through with no intention of ever going back to it again. In preparation for this group read, I thought I might give Naslund’s book another chance (readers mature, after all, and maybe I simply hadn’t given it a fair shake) and checked it out of the library. I got a page or two in before I decided I simply couldn’t go on. I’d rather stab myself in the eye than try again; my resulting eyepatch would more closely resemble something authentic and nautical and Melvillean than Naslund’s long long book.
Allan Drummond’s take on Moby-Dick is a little hard to swallow. Although it has the external appearance of a children’s book, it’s awfully bloody, and when my children were younger, I found myself wanting to avoid the bloody pages. Of course, it’s probably hard to adapt the book and cut out all the bloody violence without watering it down too much. It’s the sort of book that’s interesting for an adult to read to himself but that is annoying to read to a child, since it has speech bubbles in addition to primary text. Maybe it’s a strange preference, but I tend to prefer one or the other. I may be unique in this, and if so, then Drummond’s book can hardly be faulted. About the art I can say nothing terribly useful. The drawings seem a bit off-hand, neither realistic nor especially cartoonish. It’s a matter of style and not of aptitude (that is, it’s an intentional off-handedness), and it happens to be a style that doesn’t float my particular boat, but I imagine many find it appealing. Drummond does a fine job of condensing Melville’s book into a minuscule amount of text, and he certainly portrays a brooding Ahab. On the whole, I like having the book because it is a way of sharing a version of Melville’s story with my children, but I’d love to see another interpretation.
In the Heart of the Sea
It’s been many years since I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, but parts of it remain with me vividly still. He tells the fascinating story of the whaleship Essex, which set out with its young captain and first mate and was sunk by the battering-ram head of what by all accounts was a vindictive whale. Philbrick details the horrors of being afloat in a small boat for months with limited food and water. The men resort at last to the last taboo of cannibalism, supping at first upon those who died naturally and finally drawing lots and killing a shipmate for food — and this after having chosen their ill-fated course rather than a nearer course to the Pacific for fear of the cannibals they feared they’d find there. It’s a riveting tale told with immediacy, and it’s a must-read for anybody with even a glimmer of an interest in texts peripheral to Moby-Dick. Philbrick appears also to have adapted the text for a younger audience in the form of a book entitled The Revenge of the Whale. If it’s half as deftly-done as In the Heart of the Sea, it’s sure to be a treat for youngsters.
Melville: His World and Work
Andrew Delbanco appeared in the recent PBS documentary, Into the Deep. Having read precious little about the life and work of Melville, I decided to try Delbanco’s rendering of Melville’s life. It arrived just yesterday, and I’m only 35 pages in, but it has so far been outstanding. It not only holds a wealth of information, but is also eloquently written. The introductory material rang so many bells for me that I spent more time underlining and making notes and pestering my wife by repeating enthusiastically what I had just read (e.g. Hardy’s career as a fiction writer turned poet mimics Melville’s) than I spent reading. If the rest of the book lives up to the promise of what I’ve read so far, it will have been a valuable purchase indeed.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps that was less than favorable. Having failed to find much satisfying in that book, I thought I owed both Meno and myself a second shot and reread his short story collection, “Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir,” which I had read and enjoyed when it first came out several years ago. I’m happy to report that it holds up with age.
The physical book itself is a pleasure to hold. This perhaps merits mentioning in the days of the iPad and the Kindle. It’s a small, thin, square book — six or seven inches per per side — with spacious margins, comfortable line spacing, and the titles of the stories running vertically in the margin of right-hand pages so that you always know right where you are. Something about the book makes me want to call it a boutique book. It strikes me as one that wasn’t your average ordinary print run. So +1 for book design.
The writing in “Bluebirds” is easy. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic or lacks depth but rather that it goes down smoothly. It is easy but not necessarily light or lightweight. Or, it is even mostly very light but is light without being lightweight. It’s a hard distinction I’m trying to draw here. It reads, let’s say, like lightweight writing, but there is substance to it. I think this is probably a very hard thing to pull off, and Meno does it very well. It’s clear that he’s going for something similar in The Great Perhaps, but in the novel, the substance isn’t quite there. Where he tries to force the substance in the novel, he makes it seem effortless and exactly right in the stories.
“Bluebirds” is composed of seventeen stories averaging low-double digits each in page length (some a bit longer, some a bit shorter). Most of the stories are told in the first person, and they all seem like explorations of voice or perspective. The curious thing about this, to me, is that there seems to be something approaching uniformity of voice. That is not to say that the same voice tells all the stories, for it surely doesn’t, but even where there are clear sociocultural boundaries that would distinguish one voice or outlook from another in real life, the voices are often similar. It’s almost as if the various stories are being chewed up and retold to us by someone with a knack for turning a nice phrase (which of course they are). Whether this is Meno’s intention or is a lapse I can’t say. I like the voice and the easy way in which it tells the stories, so I’m comfortable with the similarity.
Meno writes about connection and about loneliness. Loss and loneliness and yearning run through all of the stories, and yet he avoids monotony by dreaming up wacky, quirky circumstances around which to drape the sadness (and occasional happiness, moments of real humanity and connection). It is a reflective book but not a melancholy one. I’m reminded very much of Daniel Wallace both for the sometimes fantastical stories and for the light way in which they both address dark subjects.
This is a good book, one that was given to me by a friend and one I’ll recommend to friends. It doesn’t require a significant investment of time to read, and for me, the payoff was phenomenal. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to write short stories. It’s not life-changing, but I’d go so far as to call it day-changing, for it’s a delight almost cover to cover. I’ll leave you with a few quotations that I dog-eared (only the first two are from the same story).
Junior, Carrie, and I went to the Olive Garden on Pulaski. We lounged in the fake Italian setting. We loaded up on bread sticks and free salad. We ate until we couldn’t speak. I thought, Olive Garden! You have saved us with your imitation Italian cooking!
I got this idea that for some reason I should be thankful for my father leaving. If my dad never left, my mom would never have gone crazy, and, well, my brother and I would not be living together and I would never have met Carrie, and this moment with my brother and me standing here like this would definitely never have happened. I was suddenly thankful for all of it, the comings and goings. I thought I would tell my brother about it sometime later when he wanted to talk about it, maybe, and I started to hope that this moment, this one here, would be the one we looked back on. It was too soon to tell, I guess, and we settled for standing there for a moment, watching the whole world take off and land.
There are some things that might make me angry, some things that are very wrong, and some things that are only for me — things that are very beautiful, full of beauty, like the old pistol and the tiger tattoo and the girl with the wig lit up by the sun. They are moments I refuse to share. They are moments I have never told anyone.
When I came back to the couch, Margaret was trembling. In the soft crook of her elbow, her pulse was beating like a hidden rabbit.
Birdie McCoy is a girl I make cry in third grade. When I do it, I doom myself forever. In the woods behind the elementary school, blue bows in her brown hair, her face red from a race, she is given a yellow ribbon for winning. I say, out of breath, “Who’s going to marry an ugly girl like you?” and she begins to cry quietly, for being faster than me, smarter, so small, so pretty. As she cups her hands over her eyes, I fall in love for the first time. Many years later I realize it is there, that moment, that dooms me forever. I fall in love with a woman as soon as she begins crying, which always, always occurs at the end of everything.
This is off-topic for the current group read, but as this is kind of my literature blog, the post goes here.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a short story collection entitled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, by Joe Meno. I haven’t read it in years, and — who knows? — my opinion of it may be different were I to read it again, but I do remember really liking it. The stories were short, little vignettes of what I remember as whimsical people telling sometimes folksy, sometimes improbable stories. The stories were simple and easy but engaging. Delightful is what they were. The book was a real delight to read. Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to read more by this guy. His books haven’t been at the top of my must-read pile, but a couple of them have been on my amazon wish list. For my birthday, I finally got one of them, his most recent, The Great Perhaps.
I suppose my expectations were high.
The first line certainly drew me in: “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.” Clouds of varying types (by which I mean not merely cumulus and cumulonimbus but supernatural and nuclear and inkish and rhinosceric) figure prominently in the book but wind up being, for me, an unsatisfactory and in fact a downright forced conceit. Meno tries to use clouds as a vector for making a point about complexity vs. simplicity, a dichotomy he he also touches on with references to evolution and a strange psychoanalysis of Casper’s fainting, seizing spells.
The story puts us in the midst of a family breaking apart. Jonathan Casper and his wife Madeleine are undergoing a second separation and career crises while their teenage daughters confront angst, in the case of the older, and a desire for fulfillment through a misplaced and overzealous religion, in the case of the younger. Everyone in the novel is searching for something, and no one seems to be anywhere near finding it. Naturally, by the end, they’ve found it, and it all ties back in neatly to the notion that oversimplification breeds unhappiness, that complexity is beautiful.
Although they all show development from the beginning of the story to the end, the main characters are all very flat. The obsessed scientist. The woman juggling a career and domestic life and being particularly successful at neither. The rebelling, asshole child. The child interested in nothing but religion. It seems to me not to be enough to show development of flat characters into slightly rounder, or at least more fulfilled, characters. Meno concludes that complexity is beautiful, but he declines to imbue his characters with any complexity. There’s very little satisfaction to be had here.
The book insists upon a few things that seem bizarrely naive or off key. For example, Jonathan Casper studies squid and nurses a hope of finding in their genetic makeup something to help him discover “a unified idea about why the world is the way it is, and where, as human beings, we truly come from.” This seems a stretch, but then Meno goes on: “In his search for the prehistoric squid, Jonathan is looking for a single, uncomplicated answer to the mystery of human life: there must be one somewhere, he is sure of it” (21). This strikes me as a feeble attempt to unify the strands of a story that, like the mystery of human life, may simply defy tidy unification. There are several such things in the book. They feel like feints, almost. They feel contrived.
Contrivance turns out to be the book’s primary flaw, I think. Fiction is naturally contrived. It’s the throwing together of characters and situations whose intersection makes a neat story. In the best fiction, however improbable the intersections or the situations (take wheelchair assassins descending upon a tennis academy, for example), it all feels somehow merited or forgivable or even wonderfully inventive. The Great Perhaps feels to me like something that began as a neat enough idea but whose central conceit required more buttressing than was optimal, done at last with weaker struts than were needed. It feels, in a way, like some of my own efforts at writing fiction, in which something fundamental collapses out from under me and I scramble to jam something in its place. It’s not half-heartedly exactly. It’s more as if whole-heartedly (over-heartedly?) but in service of something that simply needed rethinking altogether.
Meno does some interesting things formally in the book. Sections about Madeleine Casper are often in something like numbered list form. And Jonathan’s father — who appears in some of the best writing of the book, I think — writes one-liner letters to himself that are sprinkled throughout the text; these I found quite lovely.
The Great Perhaps concerns itself at least obliquely with war, and its most interesting sections, from the childhood of Jonathan’s father, take place in the very middle of the war. Meno mentions terrorism and war in the modern context (the action of the book takes place at the time of the Bush/Kerry election) and even makes what I imagine seemed to him like a dramatic reveal pertaining to that most horrific cloud of all — the mushroom — and yet he never really ties it all together. Had he done more with that complex, conflicted father and his experience of the war, I think Meno might have had a great book. As it turned out, I get the feeling he started with the central image of the mushroom cloud and worked backward to build up a weak set of stories to support a cloud motif that was more contrived than beautiful.
All in all, it’s inadequate. Not bad exactly, but inadequate. I like Meno’s writing, and this book doesn’t turn me off to reading his other books, but it did disappoint me in some of the ways that writers like Powers and T.C. Boyle — though considered good, serious writers — sometimes disappoint. I suppose there’s worse company for Meno to keep.