Ben Lerner’s new novel tells the story of a young American writer (“Ben”) who, like Lerner, lives in Brooklyn. Ben has recently published a very well-received first novel, never named, but which even the most casual observer of contemporary literature will struggle not to conflate with Lerner’s own very well-received …
Life, said D.H. Lawrence, is a question of what you thrill to. For the restless English writer Geoff Dyer, life is equally a question of what you’re bored by. To say that Dyer is thrilled by boredom might be putting it a bit strongly, but he certainly takes an interest …
Saul Bellow once said that he could make his enemies very unhappy simply by describing them. Quite a boast; and yet, who among us would have been eager to find himself on the receiving end of a Bellow character sketch? The author of Herzog was probably not the first great …
Nabokov described a fictional play in one of his stories as “essentially idiotic, even ideally idiotic, or, putting it another way, ideally constructed on the solid conventions of traditional dramaturgy.” We all know the kind of thing he is talking about. The lengthy, character-revealing speeches, the unannounced guests who throw everything into confusion, the “dramatic irony,” the “rising action,” the over-neat ordering of life into three brisk acts—these are the solid conventions that keep us away from the theater or that make us wish we’d stayed away when we do end up there. Chekhov, whose plays hardly seem to coerce life at all, boldly broke ranks with this wearying regimentation.
Like many of the masterpieces of Western culture to which it humbly invites comparison—Ulysses, Endgame, Pierrot Le Fou—Michael Winterbottom’s new movie, The Trip, does not sound promising in paraphrase. Two successful middle-aged actors take a tour of high-end restaurants in the North of England in order to write an article for The Observer newspaper. The pair bicker, trade impersonations of their cinematic heroes, struggle to come up with interesting things to say about the finicky and pretentious meals they are fed (“Hotter than I would’ve expected,” etc.), and that is more or less it. It is hard to say exactly how Winterbottom and his two leading men transmute this rather lenten premise into the artistic feast The Trip becomes, but humor certainly plays a large part. After a comparatively tame first quarter of an hour, the theater where I went to see it was engulfed in a ninety-minute tsunami of laughter.
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was literature’s great confidence man. Like a Ponzi scheme or a magic trick, his best work is founded on the cornerstone of deceit. In The Inspector-General a young rake inadvertently gulls an entire town into thinking he is an influential government official, then gleefully accepts the bribes and favors that flow his way. In Dead Souls the diabolic anti-hero buys up the names of serfs who have died since the last census in order to pass himself off as a landed gentleman. In the famous short story “The Diary of a Madman,” by contrast, the protagonist seems to play a kind of confidence trick on himself.
When the Beatles called on Elvis at his rented Bel Air mansion in August 1965, the odds of a pleasant evening were always going to be long. Whereas the Fab Four, with five number one albums behind them, were currently basking in the high noon of their creative prime, Elvis had spent the past half-decade squandering his prodigious talents on awful movies and now, at only thirty, looked to be in permanent eclipse. And so, having taken a seat beside a sun-bronzed Elvis on the sofa—where, like any other night, he was simultaneously watching TV with the sound off and listening to music—John, Paul, George, and Ringo suddenly found themselves with nothing to say. “If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me,” said Presley at last, “I’m goin’ to bed…I didn’t mean for this to be like the subjects calling on the King.”
The evening seemed to turn a corner, though, when Elvis proposed a jam session and summoned the guitars. “This beats talking, doesn’t it?” said John Lennon, once the music was underway and it seemed as though they would get along after all. Later, however, Lennon began to press Elvis on why he’d abandoned rock ’n’ roll for Hollywood. The star of Tickle Me and Kissin’ Cousins bragged defensively: “I’m making movies at a million bucks a time and one of ’em—I won’t say which one—took only fifteen days to complete.”
“Well, we’ve got an hour to spare now,” replied Lennon, unable to help himself. “Let’s make an epic together.”
Bob Dylan, according to Sean Wilentz’s passionate and informative (if at times lurchingly uneven) new book, “has dug inside America as deeply as any artist ever has.” This is well put, for it suggests the way in which Dylan’s songs (there are now more than five hundred of them) seem to unearth a strange, alternate, subterranean America, an antic shadow country of dirt roads and frontier towns, abandoned mines and teeming plantations, a land inhabited by outlaws, vagabonds, crapshooters, confidence men, vigilantes, and religious fanatics, to name only its most conspicuous citizens.
The editors of the new Library of America edition of Carver’s Collected Stories made the decision to include the manuscript version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the book that established his reputation, under the title Beginners. Beginners is twice as long, and about half as interesting. One can’t help but wonder whether the Library of America would be republishing Carver now if it had been this version of the book, and not the one pruned and scoured by his editor, Gordon Lish, that had appeared in 1981.