Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. —Andre Gide
You might think, given how hopeless we humans are, how condemned we seem be to repeat the worst mistakes of our history over and over, that our literature would have been completely tapped dry by now, with everything having been said too many times in the 550-plus years since Gutenberg invented the printing press. But no. Not only must everything be said again, as Gide (and historians) would have it, but people keep wanting to say it all again, in fresh, original ways. Which is why writers keep writing and readers keep reading. And listeners keep listening? There may only be a few themes out there, but if you’ve got what it takes to work the right magic, suddenly—wham! they are brand spanking new. Just as the sun sets each night, but the way it slips unobtrusively behind my house in the evening is one thing and what went down at Race Point on Cape Cod last Monday night was something else:
That may be a forced analogy, but I needed an excuse to share the pictures.
On late October Sundays, it’s important to sustain a reasonably good mood, isn’t it? At least here in New England, where we have to accept the fact that almost all the leaves have fallen from the trees and are wetly carpeting the yard and garden and that near-perpetual darkness will soon be upon us. It is all fine, I tell myself. Let me just flip through the depleted Times Book Review, and go plant some bulbs, a gesture of faith that spring will come again. Then maybe I’ll blog in praise of a few books to keep my spirits up. Hmm, here on page ten, David Leavitt is reviewing Edward St. Aubyn’s early novel. But wait—he is describing the past two years as “a moment when our literary scene was dominated by tepid, tediously introspective fiction.” What? Can he really just have said that? I know he’s trying to make Edward St. Aubyn and his Patrick Melrose novels look thrilling by contrast. Granted, the Melrose novels are a wonder, but…
Come on, David, how many writers did you just casually slap in the face? Thirty, forty, fifty? It’s hard to estimate how many excellent novels, some of them cool, some of them hot, have appeared on the “scene” in recent years. At least on my scene—where is yours exactly?
[Mental health break, as Andrew Sullivan would say:]
Two such writers are the American nominees short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. This is the first year American writers were eligible and apparently feelings ran high on the island that Yanks were elbowing their way in where they didn’t belong and it wasn’t fair. I have no opinion, other than the general one that the more prizes for authors, the better. By coincidence I’d recently read both Karen Joy Fowler’s and Joshua Ferris’s novels. They couldn’t be more different. The one quality they have in common is their striking originality—and they’re both winners.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a coming-of-age story with a difference–the narrator’s sister, the one who disappears and causes the rest of the family to fall apart–is a chimpanzee. The book is brilliantly imagined, cleverly plotted, irresistible. I will say no more, because plot is important here.
Joshua Ferris’s brand of originality is more conceptual and cerebral. (His first novel, And Then We Came to the End, written entirely in the first-person plural, is also remarkable.) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, narrated by a Park Avenue dentist in a perpetual existential crisis, offers very little in the way of plot. But Dr. Paul O’Rourke, obsessive, tortured, atheistic soul that he is, won me over. (He’s given to introspection but it’s far from tepid.) Ferris has a delightful, subversive sense of humor that had me laughing out loud. Warning: Once you read this novel, you’ll never feel quite the same again when your dentist asks you to “open wide.”
Readings on Vietnam
In my last post, I promised some good books on the Vietnam War. Remarkably, as per Gide, in the last few years both an acclaimed new novel and a Pulitzer-prize winning history of the war have been published. I haven’t read the history, Embers of War by Frederick Logevall (2013). But I was enthralled by Matterhorn, which Karl Marlantes, an ex-Marine, spent more than thirty years writing and rewriting, then even more years trying to convince someone to publish. Matterhorn is the nickname of the jungle hill near the demilitarized zone with North Vietnam that a Marine company is capturing, losing, and recapturing at terrible cost for no purpose. The novel’s power is in the telling; it is shattering.
A Rumor of War . This memoir by Philip Caputo of his experiences as a Marine lieutenant with one of the first combat units on the ground in South Vietnam is a journey into the Conradian heart of darkness.
Dispatches by Michael Herr. A collection of some of the finest, in-your-face, searing reporting from the front lines. (Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket.)
A Bright Shining Lie. Neil Sheehan won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for this compelling and tragic portrait of John Paul Vann, an architect of the Vietnam War who later became disillusioned with South Vietnam and helped to leak the Pentagon papers.
If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
Going After Cacciato
The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien is no doubt the one Vietnam vet writer known to this generation of high school and college students. Each of these books about his war experience is remarkable in its own way: If I Die…, written soon after O’Brien returned home, is straightforward memoir. Going After Cacciato, a novel published three years later, steps in and out of the nightmare reality of war, departing for the surreal as needed. Although it won the National Book Award, the book that came out twelve years later is the author’s triumph. The Things They Carried, a collection of stories mostly featuring a character named Tim O’Brien, transcends genre. It is O’Brien’s brilliant attempt to capture the essence of war through what he calls “story-truth.”
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Le Ly Hayslip was a peasant girl dozing on the back of a water buffalo one afternoon when the bombs fell on her village and her world turned upside down. Terrible events, misadventures and betrayals followed, but Hayslip, a survivor, eventually made her way to California and lived to tell this extraordinary tale.
Buffalo Afternoon by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. An epic story of one man’s struggle with war in Vietnam and its aftermath at home by a great storyteller. As far as I can tell, it’s only available as an audiobook through Audible, but it’s worth the listen.
Coming soon: Some great–or at least entertaining–advice from novelists on how to write novels that won’t be tepid or tediously introspective, because we all want to keep David Leavitt happy about his scene.