Tuesday, January 16, 2007

3. E.L. Doctorow "Creationists"

So, the problem with volumes of this kind, beyond the normal concerns with clarity, diction, syntax, etc., is one of subject matter. Where the focus (and its corollaries) of a non-fiction book dealing with a single subject can be reasonably sustained for hundreds of pages, the essayist dealing with multiple subjects must consider the whole, as well as the particulars of each segment. In much the same way works of short fiction can lead us onward in one of two ways (either as a loosely connected riff on one character or place [see: Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son"] or as a less-connected assemblage united by a stylistic consistency [or an inconsistency that works, perversely, to the same effect] collections of essays dealing with a wide array of "characters" should (though perhaps not necessarily) commit to one and only one sort of viewpoint (and by viewpoint I do not mean an ideology but rather the way in which the authors sets pen to page when she or he is well past the point of "deciding" on an ideology; when the actual work begins). The degree of consistency to which the author adheres is another matter. In Elizabeth Alexander's "The Black Interior,” we find parts as disparate as JET Magazine, Denzel Washington, and Langston Hughes. To the casual observer these examples are united in their being products and (more interestingly) producers of African American culture. Upon closer inspection, however, JET can stand in for "low" culture, Denzel (though very much indebted to the coverage typically found in JET) for "high" culture, and Langston Hughes, as the Most Famous Black Poet of All Time, the most known "unknown" (to borrow a phrase from Three Six Mafia) becomes something else altogether different. The point being that, though all of the above are united by being black, they have, at the end of the day, about as much in common as Hawaiian Punch and Punch Drunk Love.

But I (because I am forever annoyed by complex matters reduced to platitudes; by vast histories scuttled away into single months) digress. "Creationists" is compelling mostly because of how much it makes of the idea of being consistent. Doctorow, the critic is obviously at play, though more importantly, Doctorow the historian and teller of tales is with us, guiding us with the same faculties that made Sherman's long march beside the coast that much more illuminating. His viewpoint, if we are generalizing, is ultimately that of the storyteller; forth and back in a chronology tied to what came before only as it relates to both what we know now and what the plot reveals of what might arrive later still.

Monday, January 08, 2007

(Belated) '06 Wrap-up

In lieu of a top 10 or top 50 or 87 best one-act plays written by teenagers in the Tri-State area, I will say only that "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy was the best (new) book I read this year (best "old" book honors would probably go to Hanif Kureishi's “The Buddha of Suburbia”). Also notable (and in no particular order): Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," and Edward P. Jones' "All Aunt Hagar's Children."

As for '07, you can expect more of what you saw in '06--that is, a list of books, plus links to others lists of books, plus, per Jeremy Sosnoff's suggestion, short reviews of said books and/or links to reviews/essays of said books (when there is, for example, a conflict of interest, as in the case of likely-book-number-one-for-'07, Forrest Gander's "Eye Against Eye").

And since you are, I am sure, still smarting from the loss of another best of list, I offer as a consolation:

Books I Am Looking Forward to Reading in 2007:

Richard Powers' "The Echo Maker"
Lisa Moore's "Alligator"
Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day"
Alice Munro's "The View from Castle Rock"
Tisa Bryant's "Unexplained Presence"
Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games"
Colm Toibin's "Mothers and Sons"
Diane Williams' "It Was Like My Trying To Have a Tender Hearted Nature"
Jonathan Lethem's "You Don't Love Me Yet"
Kate Schatz's "Rid of Me"
Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"
Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach"