Preface: I’m just catching up on books that everyone else read a decade and more ago. So sue me.
John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle
I’m still sort of confused about this novel (Cheever’s first, after a career spent more-famously writing short stories). It’s several kinds of stories rolled into one: part semi-Biblical novel about one family; a tale of the Wapshot kids’ growing up and, well, boning; and maybe an exploration of male paranoia.
It starts out feeling like it’s going to be some fusty novel about quaint rural life in some old-school sleepy New England town. (Cheever was born in Quincy.) There are little hints early on that it won’t be so, like when Cheever mentions in an aside that the kids are occasionally going out whoring. And then there’s the bizarre grandmother, who holds the rest of her family under her sway through the threat of withdrawing her inheritance; this inheritance depends upon her grandchildren producing male offspring.
Then that matriarchal Sword of Damocles, so far as I can tell, disappears from the rest of the book; the matriarch herself does too, mostly. The kids go off into the world to make their fortune and escape from their little town; one goes to New York and another to D.C. One of them marries a beautiful woman who is, forebodingly, bound tightly to her mother, who also dangles her family via some invisible string. The beautiful woman, not to put too fine a point on it, goes crazy at some point. Meanwhile, the other brother marries another woman who goes crazy in her own way, writing him a Dear John letter from back home, whence she’s returned.
But no matter: by the time the novel is done, both couples have gotten back together, for reasons that are completely unclear. One of the joyful reunions involves a completely unbelievable deux ex machina.
This is all so oddly plotted that I have to imagine it was deliberate — a book like this couldn’t turn out the way it does by accident — but the allure was completely lost on me. There’s something in here about being a man, surely, and about male feelings of powerlessness; that’s not to be scoffed out, despite a feeling (voiced by a long-lost friend many years ago) that books about male emotion ought to take a backseat for the next few decades so that books about women can take the spotlight. (We were discussing Philip Roth at the time — The Dying Animal specifically, if memory serves.)
Books about men are important, and can generally be worth reading. I’m not so sure about this one, though.
Amy Poehler, Yes Please
This book made me laugh uncontrollably on a few occasions on a cross-country flight recently, to the point that I was feeling spasms in my chest as I tried to avoid annoying my seatmate. It also made me cry repeatedly: Poehler seems to genuinely love life and love her family, and her love is contagious (at least if you’re a sentimental fellow like me).
This is a book about Poehler’s rise through the Chicago comedy scene, through to Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation (a television show that I recommend in the highest terms, at least from season 2 until Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones left). It’s a pure delight. Imagine your most ebullient friend gushing about the amazing life she’s led in little ten-minute essay chunks, and you’ve got a good sense of Poehler’s book. I started it right around the start of a 5.5-hour flight, and finished it maybe two hours from the end. You should buy it, read it, and love it.
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
This novel is partly a historical epic, spanning several generations of one Greek family from its hasty departure out of Smyrna as that city burned to cinders in the 20s, through its arrival in Detroit as that city did the same in the 60s. But it’s also partly an emotional study of our intersex narrator. And in the process of studying him, it’s a scientific walk through intersex issues generally.
Honestly, I’ve never read anything like it. No book I’ve ever read has been both grandly historical and richly character-driven. It’s got the depth of character of a Love in the Time of Cholera, with the (never-dry) historical arc of a work of nonfiction. It’s breathtaking.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
This is completely unlike Eugenides’ later novel. I think it’s fair to call this a very, very black comedy, though it’s so black that sometimes I don’t know whether it’s a comedy. We know early on in the novel that all (sic) of the daughters in this one family will, by the end, have committed suicide. We watch the story of their gradual deaths through the retrospective eyes of a man who grew up in their neighborhood and — like all his street-mates — lusted after them mightily, if confusingly. They’re identical-looking beautiful blonde girls, or at least they’re identical when viewed from afar. And as it turns out, afar is the distance from which awkward teenage boys will view them. So we’re listening to a man in his 40s or 50s describe his memories of girls whom he was mostly too scared to touch 30 years earlier.
And they all die. But I’m inclined to say that the fact of their deaths is not even the point of this book. I mean, yes, it’s the central frame off which the rest of the story hangs. The girls’ parents slowly withdraw into their home, progressively allowing it to rot while the neighbors all watch in stupefied horror. No one really does anything about their decline, which is maybe the point — or maybe not. I really think the point of this book is in the endless little details that add up to something that is just alarmingly funny. For some reason, for instance, a couple parts of these sentences caught me:
The Pitzenbergers toiled with ten people — two parents, seven teenagers, and the two-year-old Catholic mistake following with a toy rake. Mrs. Amberson, fat, used a leaf blower.
First, “two-year-old Catholic mistake.” And there’s something just beautifully economical and perfect in “Mrs. Amberson, fat”. Given the chance to express that idea, 99% of humans — myself included — wouldn’t have given it a second thought: that would have been “Mrs. Amberson, who was fat” or “the fat Mrs. Amberson” or a dozen similar alternatives. But no, she’s “Mrs. Amberson, fat”. That’s an immeasurably better sentence.
I can’t quite articulate whether that’s why The Virgin Suicides is so dry, and so funny. But it is both. And the accumulated effect of page after page of this dryness is that you’re laughing uncontrollably while an entire family is dying. This left me permanently off-balance throughout. Other examples start you in one place and end abruptly in a way that makes you back up and ask, “Wait, really?” E.g.,
Our interview with Mrs. Lisbon was brief. She met us at the bus station in the small town she now lives in, because the station was the only place that served coffee.
I can’t get over the hilarity of a town so rotten that the best coffee is to be found in a bus station. This immediately calls to mind at least four forms of grey, bleak disgust: the sort of town about which this would be true, the sort of bus station that this sort of town would have, the sort of coffee that they’d serve there, and the sort of person who would rather meet you at a bus station for coffee than pour you a cup in her own home. And it’s just two sentences. I can only imagine that Mr. Eugenides pared and pared and pared and pared some more, until the bare minimum number of words were left to convey the laughably dismal world he wanted. And then he moved on to paint another scene — as briefly as possible, but no more briefly.
Even the sex scenes are out of some parallel-universe science-fiction/fantasy dystopia:
He felt himself grasped by his long lapels, pulled forward and pushed back, as a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn’t have known who it was if it hadn’t been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. … It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation.
Everything about this passage is off-balance. He ends up chewing her gum? Otter insulation? This isn’t a sex scene, and it’s not the least bit sexy. Maybe it initially promises to be, in that you start out thinking that this she-beast is a Hall and Oates-style man-eater. But then you get to otter insulation. There is nothing sexy about otter insulation. Also: “insulation”? Any word that legitimately fit there — in an ordinary world — would have been minimally sexy. Consider ‘pelt’ or ‘fur’ or even ‘quills’. ‘Insulation’, by contrast, is the least sexy word that bears any relation to physical reality there. It turns this young woman’s body into construction equipment.
Everything, just everything about this novel is intended to leave you a few degrees off plumb. Like Eugenides’ other novel, above, I’ve never read anything like it, but what’s remarkable is that The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, both masterpieces, have so little in common. It would be churlish to demand a similarly masterful, similarly sui generis third act; if Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides are all Eugenides ever gives us, we should count ourselves blessed.
Joan Didion, Democracy: A Novel
If you’ve read Didion’s nonfiction political works from the 80s, this is exactly the novel you should expect. And, to be clear, you really really need to read Didion’s nonfiction political works from the 80s. Particularly After Henry. She’s just icily cynical about the world.
Imagine a menacing episode of a soap opera, where the characters say virtually nothing to each other because nothing is left to say, and where virtually all of the soap opera’s menace comes from chilly atmospherics. That’s Democracy in a nutshell. There’s a U.S. senator and his wife; there’s a military attaché who spends most of his time in the air making deals about unspeakably deadly military hardware. There’s the politician’s daughter, overdosing in a miserable flophouse. And all throughout, as backdrop, there’s the evacuation of Saigon, spreading nameless fear over everyone.
It turns out that Didion is just as keen an observer of fictional political characters as she is of real-life ones.
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up
I got two big messages from Born Standing Up. First, Steve Martin worked very, very hard, for 18 years, to go from nothing (well, to go from working at a Knott’s Berry Farm) to the level he eventually attained, where there are few people more widely beloved. I’ve come to think over the years that working very, very hard is the only answer to most questions of how to be successful. Reading Martin’s autobiography — since that’s what this is; or at least it’s the first volume of one — made me feel incredibly lazy.
The second thing it taught me is that you can take major risks like he did if you have no one depending on you. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of the world’s risky accomplishments came from single people, like Martin, in their twenties. I’d love to ask the man whether he thinks he could have achieved what he did had he been married with children.
The book only reinforces my love of his standup work from the 70s, which is the era this book focuses on; it ends with his writing for the Smothers Brothers and starting on the production of The Jerk. (The book, by the way, confirms my suspicion that his stand-up bit about how he was “born a poor black child,” and how he really found himself when he heard his first Mantovani record, pre-dates the movie based around that premise.) It’s the record of a man starting out not knowing what he’s doing, and slowly accumulating fame by playing the game and refining his act endlessly. Perform in several thousand nightclubs and you maybe — again, with a lot of hard work — will eventually meet the guy who will open the door that eventually opens another door for you. But of course Martin wasn’t just doing the same thing over and over; he documents tinkering with his jokes night after night, adapting them to the subtlest changes in his audience’s mood. Then he’d return to his lonely hotel room and agonize over how to make his act better until sleep overtook him.
This and the Poehler book make me feel both inspired and depressed. They feel like people who’ve worked exceptionally hard, taken exceptional chances, and ended up doing exactly what they love every day of their lives. Perhaps they’ve downplayed (deliberately or otherwise) the drudgery involved in doing any job, even the dream jobs they ended up in; or perhaps not. In either case, I’d like to take the Martin and Poehler books and use them to build a life that’s worth living.