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O Ye Laurels

There are two novels about librarians. One is Allen Kurzweil’s hero and narrator, uneasily married to a French artist called Nicole, whose fractured English (“You are the apple of my eyeballs”) charms him, but whose chaotic methods of storing things around the house offend his occupational devotion to order. As the man Nicole calls his “shrimp” tells him, “my impulse to catalog functioned as a kind of ‘belief system,’ one I maintained ‘with an ardor others reserve for their gods.”’

The heroine of Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel, The Giant’s House, librarian of a small town on Cape Cod fifty years ago, also broods on such stereotyping.

Librarians are supposed to be bitter spinsters, grudging, lonely. And above all stingy: we love collecting fines on overdue books, our silence.

I did not love collecting fines; I forgave much more than I collected. I did not shush people unless they yelled. And though I was, technically, a spinster, I was only bitter insofar as people made me. It isn’t that bitter people become librarians; it’s that being a librarian may turn the most generous person bitter.

There is a touch of the bizarre (rare in the volume as a whole) in this story, inasmuch as the narrator is infatuated with a pubescent boy suffering from abnormal growth, but its strength is in the revelation of her passionate character through, and in spite of, her dry, ironic, declarative prose style.

There are extracts from novels about young men from provincial backgrounds negotiating the puzzles and pitfalls of new social territory. Ethan Canin tells a Fitzgerald-like story of a freshman from the Midwest at Columbia, who comes under the spell of a charming fellow student and his cultured, eccentric family, whose male members are gifted, or cursed, with photographic memories. The hero-narrator of Jonathan Franzen’s novel-in-progress is a compulsive liar whom we meet successfully defeating a polygraph test to qualify for federal employment. Tom Drury’s hero Paul, from rural Rhode Island, is working his way through college, and takes a night job punching felony statistics into an aging computer under the supervision of a dour and disapproving criminologist with a passion for old cars called Leonard Draco. When Draco dies suddenly, Paul attends his funeral.

Some of Leonard’s friends got up to talk about his life. They said he liked the art of the Southwest, that he was a gifted mimic and that he had a well-hidden generous side. No one mentioned cars. Paul imagined a speech he could give: “I did not know Leonard Draco well and yet I say to you that he loved cars and car parts.” Then the priest and his helper gave communion. Paul knelt at the rail eating the bread and drinking the wine. He did not believe in God, but he believed in communion.

The story of his subsequent seduction by the widow is told in the same droll, deadpan style. One wonders if the hero is named in homage to Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather.

There are four pieces about crime and/or prison. The one that made the deepest impression on me was an extract from Rober O’Connor’s non-fiction novel-in-progress, based on his experiences of teaching composition to convicts in a high-security penitentiary. The narrative manages to convey both the brutality and terror of prison life (generated by conflicts between prisoners rather than between prisoners and warders) and the comedy of the total incompatibility of the author’s liberal humanist values with the macho ethics of his students. In one episode O’Connor sets an assignment in which the students have to tell a story and then draw a moral from it. A convict who answers to the name AKA Diaz tells the story of two men who are drinking together. Bill takes a quarter from the counter that belongs to Fred and they begin to quarrel about it:

… whereupon Bill pulled out his piece which he happened to have handy, shot Fred to death and received a sentence of twenty-five to life. It was, Diaz mentioned, a true story, Bill being a pseudonym for his brother-in-law, now serving time at another state prison.

Now came the moral. The moral of the story, Diaz wrote, was “You shouldn’t take what isn’t yours.”

Don’t you think this is an unusual moral?” I asked.

AKA Diaz looked his paper. “I think this pretty well covers it.”

You might also conclude that Bill traded twenty-five years for twenty-five cents.”

Diaz shook his head, as if disappointed at my obtuseness. “Fred took his money,” he said. “No way Bill could let him get away with that.”

After further argument, O’Connor finally understands what Diaz is saying: “In prison … the thresholds were set high. Once one took the first backward step, one would never take another forward.” He gives Diaz an A.

Chris Offutt’s “Moscow, Idaho” is a story about two prisoners on some kind of parole work scheme, unearthing coffins from a cemetery due to be covered by a new highway. They swap stories of prison life. Baker decides on impulse to steal a car and run. Tilden declines to join him.

Tilden crossed the road and lay on his back beside the wheat. He spread his arms. Wind blew loose dirt over his body. The ground was soft, and the air was warm. In prison he had figured out that laws were made to protect the people who made the laws. He had always thought that staying out of trouble meant following those laws, but now he knew there was more. The secret was to act like the people who wanted the laws in the first place. They didn’t even think about it. They just lived.

This is well done in a classic American vernacular style. Stewart O’Nan and Melanie Rae Thon use their first-person narrators in the more artful and self-conscious form of the dramatic monologue. O’Nan’s unnamed speaker is a young woman convicted of murder. The crime in which she was implicated seems to have been a callous killing of some innocent strangers by drink-or drug-crazed young people. From death row, on the eve of her execution, she dictates a letter to Stephen King, answering his questions about her life and her crime. The premise is that Stephen King has paid her for this information, as source material for a novel, and that she is giving it to him partly to vindicate herself, partly to provide for her child, and partly because she is a King fan. Now a born-again Christian, she contemplates her imminent death with eerie calm. It is not surprising to learn from the introductory note that the novel from which this piece is extracted is currently the subject of litigation, but one hopes that it will not be suppressed. The imaginative creation of a life, and a voice, evidently very different from the author’s own, is impressive.

Melanie Rae Thon’s narrator and her friend Emile are teen-age prostitutes working on the streets of Boston to pay for their drug habit. On a cold Christmas night they seek shelter by breaking into an unoccupied suburban home. The narrative is addressed to the hypothetical absent housewife.

I’m your worst fear.

But not the worst thing that can happen.

I lived in your house half the night. I’m the broken window in your little boy’s bedroom. I’m the flooded tiles in the bathroom where the water flowed and flowed.

I’m the tattoo in the hollow of Emile’s pelvis, five butterflies spreading blue wings to rise out of his scar.

I’m dark hands slipping through all your pale woman underthings: dirty fingers fondling a strand of pearls, your throat, a white bird carved of stone. I’m the body you feel wearing your fox fur coat.

It’s another creditable effort to inhabit vicariously the life of the American underclass, though the lyrical elegance of the style tends at times to work against the story’s credibility.

By far the largest group in this rough-and-ready classification are the novel-extracts about childhood, growing up, family relationships, often viewed in a nostalgic and/or pastoral perspective, evoking and celebrating a more benign and innocent America than the one reflected in the media today. “[A] sort of Norman Rockwellization of the novel” seems to be going on, Ian Jack observes, with a certain puzzlement. Representative of this trend is Tony Earley’s account of a fatherless boy growing up on a farm in the corn belt. On his tenth birthday he tries, prematurely, to enter the world of adult work, and learns from his Uncle Zeno, a stern but upright man, that you can’t play at hoeing. Uncle Zeno finds a corn stalk that Jim accidentally severed and stuck back in the ground.

Uncle Zeno held the corn stalk up like a scepter, as if seeing it better would help Jim answer his questions. “Jim, this was just a mistake until you tried to hide it,” he said. “But when you tried to hide it, you made a lie.”

Jim looked at the front of his overalls. He felt a tear start down his cheek and hoped that Uncle Zeno hadn’t seen it.

David Guterson, who has enjoyed considerable success with his novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), offers an extract from a novel-in-progress set early in the century in Washington State’s apple country. “He remembered the new, fresh orchard country of his youth and the rows of apple trees his father had planted on the east bank of the Columbia River,” it begins, and goes on in the same idyllic vein, evoking the childhood of the central character Ben and his brother Aidan. Their father takes them on a hunting trip, and shoots a buck. They kneel and thank the Lord for providing them with meat; then the father shows his sons how to dress the carcass.

Five minutes later, riding down the ridge, their father halted his horse. There was blood across the front of his coat and on his jaw and nose and hands.

That’s how it’s done,” he said to his sons. “That’s just the way you’ll want to do it when I ain’t around anymore.”

One is reminded of Hemingway, of Cormac McCarthy, occasionally, in passages of local chronicle, of Faulkner; but the tension, the possibility of evil that is always present in those writers, seems quite absent here. Perhaps it will appear in later parts of the novel, when the story reaches modern times.

Mona Simpson’s forthcoming novel has a similar regional setting to Guterson’s. “Jane was born in Gray Star, a settlement in remote Eastern Oregon, where her cries were lost in miles and miles of orchards stilled by a constant rain,” this extract begins. She is the daughter of a hippyish single mother and a rich but absent father. Jane’s mother teaches her ten-year-old daughter to drive a truck, with wood blocks tied to the pedals so she can reach them, and sends her off in it one night to seek her father. “The most terrible and wondrous experience in Jane di Natale’s life was over by the time she was ten, before she’d truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle.”

The interest in childhood, roots, and origins cuts across ethnic boundaries. The extract from Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone (1993) is another affectionate memoir of childhood—in this case of attending the funeral of the narrator’s grandfather in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Sherman Alexie’s central character is an American Indian adopted by a white middle-class couple. The account of his problems with a white middle-class girl in adolescence is somewhat predictable, but the extract begins with the hero imagining, and partly fantasizing, his own birth on an Indian reservation, and being immediately snatched away by helicopter to his waiting adoptive parents. This striking sequence has the pace and immediacy of a movie and incorporates hallucinatory images of movie mayhem:

The jumpsuit man holds John close to his chest as the helicopter rises. Suddenly, as John imagines it, this is a war. The gunman locks and loads, strafes the reservation with explosive shells. Indians hit the ground, drive their cars off roads, dive under flimsy kitchen tables. A few Indians, two women and one man, continue their slow walk down the reservation road, unperturbed by the gunfire. They have been through much worse. The what-what of the helicopter blades. John is hungry and cries uselessly.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a Shandean take on the story of the narrator’s origins, going back to his own conception. The setting is a Greek-American community in which inherited superstitions struggle against the scientific know-how of the New World. The narrator’s parents want a girl, since they have two sons already. Father has been told that the best way to conceive a girl is to have intercourse twenty-four hours before ovulation, as determined by a temperature chart. Mother thinks it is a matter best left to God and the predictive power of grandmother Desdemona’s silver spoon. Father presents mother with a state-of-the-art thermometer and mixes them both dry Martinis to put his spouse into a receptive mood.

When he brought hers over, my mother took a sip, closed her eyes and said. “This is going to go straight to my head.” She put the thermometer into the glass like a swizzle stick. She stabbed the olive with it, brought it to her mouth and ate it.

As a writer with some experience in this vein of comedy, I tip my hat to Mr. Eugenides.

There are extracts from two more novels about families. Kate Wheeler’s young heroine sits at the bedside of her dying grandmother, a feisty and loquacious old lady who startlingly claims to have had an affair with an Asian Indian early in her married life. Is this senility, mischief, or true confession? The question disturbs the calm surface of the white middle-class family. David Haynes writes with a pleasantly light touch about tensions within a black family in St. Louis, adopting the point of view of a woman in her late thirties, Deneen, who returns to live with her mother and young sister on the rebound from an unhappy love affair. Deneen’s taste for lurid clothing and junk food offends her mother’s notions of thrift and aspirations to middle-class respectability. There is an effective comic sequence involving a gadget new to me, a speaking supermarket trolley.

Viewed collectively under the aspect of fictional form and technique, this collection confirms what Robert Stone calls, in a letter quoted by Ian Jack,”the resurgence of realism” in American writing. The trend began in the1980s,and Buford was typically quick to spot it. In 1993 he dedicated a whole issue of Granta, the one immediately following the first Best of Young British Novelists, to something he called “Dirty Realism,” represented by such writers as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who wrote serious literary fiction about the concerns of ordinary Americans living in dusty small towns and trailer parks, “lowrent tragedies of people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances or listen to country and western music.” Stylistically, these writers descended from the Twain-Hemingway tradition in American writing, concealing poetic and metaphysical resonances under a deceptively simple and colloquial language. It was the beginning of a reaction against the rhetorical exuberance and post-modernist experimentalism of the 1960s and 1970s that now seems to be complete, if the current Granta is reliable evidence. Of the twenty pieces gathered together here, every one is written in the code of realism. Apart from the occasional dream or fantasy, clearly framed and controlled by a realistic context, there is no surrealism, no magic realism, no mythic subtext, no overt intertextuality, no metafictional frame-breaking, no word games, no abrupt switches of style or type of discourse, no parody, no radical deviation from well-formed syntax, no unconventional layout and typography. There is not a trace to be seen of the influence of John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, or other luminaries of the “renaissance” in American writing hailed by Buford in his inaugural editorial in Granta.

It is also noteworthy that the contributors to The Best of Young American Novelists are, compared to that older generation of writers (and even the generation before them), conspicuously restrained in their use of four-letter words and descriptions of sexual behavior. Apart from O’Connor’s piece which, for obvious reasons, is full of expletives, there is little here which the prudish New Yorker of thirty or forty years ago would have hesitated to print. This may be connected to the absence (not remarked upon by Jack) of any novel or story dealing with gay or lesbian characters, since such fiction tends to focus on erotic experience.

A surprising reversal of the literary situation described by Buford in 1979 seems to have occurred. Young American novelists today are (to judge by these samples) less idiosyncratic, less experimental, and certainly less raunchy than not only older American writers, but also their British contemporaries. In contemporary British fiction fabulation (represented variously by writers like Rushdie, Winterson, Okri, Norfolk, Jim Crace) flourishes alongside realism which fully earns the epithet “dirty.” There has been a spate of novels by young writers (including women writers) in Brixtain recently dealing with contemporary society in a way designed to épater les bourgeois, full of obscenity, scatology, violence, sexual perversion, alcoholism and drug addiction, black humor, and opaque slang. Much of this fiction is crudely sensational and clumsily constructed, but it has a raw and reckless energy that is a sign of life. (Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is a paradigm case.)

There is no bad writing in The Best of Young American Novelists, but there is nothing very startling or ambitious either—nobody who, in Norman Mailer’s metaphor, seems to be running for president in his or her head, who would “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time” (Advertisements for Myself). Ian Jack

… was struck by the kindness and humanity of most of these authors; their concern to be domestic and geographically specific;…their anxiety to write open and spare prose. A lot of new British fiction is altogether wilder and stranger—less interested in clarity, less competent at storytelling. In America the influence of creative-writing schools and an older generation of writers—Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff—is obvious.

If there is a certain sameness, and tameness, as well as a high standard of technical competence, in The Best of Young American Novelists, it is certainly tempting to look for an explanation to the influence of creative writing programs in colleges and universities. On the evidence of the short biographical notes prefixed to each contribution, at least two thirds of the thirds of the writers are graduates of master’s or doctoral programs in creative writing and/or teach creative writing; and it’s a fair bet that most of the remaining third had some experience of creative writing courses as undergraduates. Creative writing as an academic subject has only recently established itself in Britain, and is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. It is a very distinctive feature of American literary culture. But by the same token, it has been an influence there for a very long time. It is hard to think of more than a handful of significant postwar American writers, including the postmodernist experimentalists of the Sixties and Seventies, who were not involved in some way with creative writing programs.

So what’s new? Could it be the climate of what, for lack of a less tendentious phrase, one must call political correctness pervading the American campus these days? An intellectual environment in which it is frowned upon or expressly forbidden to say or write anything that might offend any individual’s or group’s values, self-esteem, sense of cultural and ethnic identity, religious beliefs, or special interests is not one in which the budding literary imagination is likely to flourish. Important writers are often rebellious, arrogant, irreverent, even outrageous in their apprenticeship years, and some (like Norman Mailer) remain so. Political correctness encourages caution, parochialism, and self-censorship. It is interesting to note how Robert O’Connor has deftly slipped the handcuffs of such inhibitions. By choosing to write in the mode of the nonfiction novel he has provided himself with an impregnable defense against anyone who might find his subject matter offensive: that’s the way it is. And by making himself the narrator and central character he is able to voice the liberal pieties of tolerance, decency, and fairness while exposing their total inadequacy to the facts of prison life. The irony goes deeper: venturing into the prison ostensibly to bring the hardened convicts sweetness and light, redemption through creative writing, he has stolen from them a priceless hoard of material, and carried it back to his safe suburban home to work on it as he knows, much better than they ever will, how.

The elaborate and scrupulously democratic procedure by which The Best of Young American Novelists were selected, designed to resist the dominance of the East Coast publishing establishment, and to open up the competition to the regional variety of new American writing, has surprisingly produced a final selection in which resemblances of form and content are more striking than differences, and the reader is charmed and disarmed more often than challenged. This may be an accurate reflection of the work being produced by young American writers. Or it may reflect more accurately the priorities and preferences of the regional judges, themselves sensitized by the ideological climate referred to above. The final list might have been more interesting, and conceivably more truly representative, if Ian Jack and his colleagues had reserved a few places on it for their own choices.

Letters

Granta’s Best October 17, 1996

Granta’s Best October 17, 1996

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