Sex and the American Male Novelist

Katie Roiphe has an interesting article at the New York Times suggesting that if American Male novelists like Updike, Roth and Mailer wrote about in sex in graphic, yet sexist terms, newer writers such as David Foster Wallace and Michael Chabon have only gotten rid of the graphic element, but are implicitly navel gazing authors who make their women characters at best flat. Not having read any of these authors (perhaps I should one day) I can only go with the quotes she mentions, but she does have a point.

In this same essay, Wallace goes on to attack Updike and, in passing, Roth and Mailer for being narcissists. But does this mean that the new generation of novelists is not narcissistic? I would suspect, narcissism being about as common among male novelists as brown eyes in the general public, that it does not. It means that we are simply witnessing the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of “I was warm and wanted her to be warm,” or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.

After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in “Sexual Politics” for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women. These days the revolutionary attitude may be to stop dwelling on the drearier aspects of our more explicit literature. In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.

Kate Millett might prefer that Norman Mailer have a different taste in sexual position, or that Bellow’s fragrant ladies bear slightly less resemblance to one another, or that Rabbit not sleep with his daughter-in-law the day he comes home from heart surgery, but there is in these old paperbacks an abiding interest in the sexual connection.

Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating al­fresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time. Why, then, should we be bothered by our literary lions’ continuing obsession with sex? Why should it threaten our insistent modern cynicism, our stern belief that sex is no cure for what David Foster Wallace called “ontological despair”? Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?

Vindication: The NY Times Doesn’t Like Season of Ash Either

Perhaps I’m being a little snarky, but when you write a negative review and NPR and the like says it is one of the best translated books of the year, you might feel a little annoyed. But now Scott at the Quarterly Conversation points out that the NY Times has given it a bad review, too.  It is a harsh review, harsher than I thought needed, but funny. One cannot not get any harsher than this, “Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”

John Updike once opened a review with this cruel gallantry: “I wanted very much to like this book, and the fact that I wound up hating it amounts to a painful personal failure.” The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi’s latest novel, “Season of Ash,” is also a book one very much wants to like. It is thoughtful, has epic sweep and contains many notionally appealing characters. What it is not: surprising, involving or at all interesting. What it lacks: any occasions of arresting language or appreciable drama.

“Season of Ash” is about nearly everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Chernobyl, the collapse of Communism, the rise of biogenetics and environmental terrorism. Other, equally significant events make their way into the narrative as well. Hello, Challenger explosion. Greetings, AIDS. Salaam, Soviet war in Afghanistan. Wassup, W.T.O. riots. Volpi is a leading member of the so-called Crack group, an upstart literary movement of Mexican writers understandably bored by the devices and expectations of magical realism. Until one actually reads it, “Season of Ash” looks poised to become a foundational repudiation of everything one has come to expect from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Americas. From his novel’s first sentence (“Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov”), Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”

I will say I think Tom Bissell missed the Homeric references in the book. Although, Bissell rightly points out they don’t add much to the story.

Volpi additionally insists on saddling cities and walk-on historical personages with weird, mock comic agnomens: Moscow is not Moscow but “Moscow, that city of wide avenues.” Berlin is not Berlin but “Berlin, the island surrounded by cannibals.” Mikhail Gorbachev is “Gorbachev, shepherd of men.” Andrei Sakharov is “Sakharov, maker of light.” Ronald Reagan is “Reagan, sovereign of heaven.” Why Volpi does this for the novel’s entirety is as impossible to fathom as so many of his other decisions. “Season of Ash” may well mean to challenge fiction’s conventions. Instead, in its failures, it grimly confirms them.

The Unknown Soldier from DC Comics

I used to read DC war comics when I was younger, finding even then the superhero comics less than interesting. Which is not to say that if drug my copies of those comics out of the closet I might not find them insipid. Yet there was a reality to them that was more than real, less trapped in the generic conventions of super heroes which despite the fans of the genre who see a larger world reflected in them are still a let down when reading. I can still remember when one of the crew from the haunted tank in G.I. Combat was killed by a strafing airplane.

I mention this because the New York Times has an article about the reworking of the Unknown Soldier series from Vertigo and DC. In this reworking the Unknown Soldier takes place in Uganda and explores the civil war and its atrocities. It looks like tough stuff:

Unknown Soldier is unflinching in its depiction of violence, and that comes across even more strongly in the collected edition, without the monthly break between issues. One particularly horrific scene deals with the disfigurement of the title character: an inner voice navigates him through the violence, but when he reaches his breaking point, he hacks at himself to try to silence it. That gruesome episode came from Mr. Dysart’s imagination; some details he learned from his trip, he said, were too awful for the comic.

The art, too, communicates the violence in a stylized fashion and expands the work of comics as journalism that authors like Joe Sacco have created.

Mexican Novelest Mario Bellatin Profiled in the New York Times

The New York times has a moderately sized profile of Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin. It is a little hard to say if I want to read his work, but it looks like he may becoming a little more known.

In one index of his growing international reputation, Mr. Bellatin recently signed a multibook deal with Gallimard, the prestigious French publisher, that calls for his next several works to be issued in France before they appear in Spanish in Latin America. As usual he has seized on that opportunity to make mischief: rather than publish his original manuscript here, he intends to have someone else render the French translation back into Spanish.

I will be curios to see if he creates his own language. As the quote below notes, so many writers are said to have created their own language and I find they very rarely do.

“I am enamored of and very much struck by his way of managing to condense narrative down to a very minimal form of expression, so that at his best, every word is sealed with more weight, suggestiveness, meaning and poetry,” Mr. Goldman said. “Everyone talks about inventing your own language, but he really does it. Every Mario Bellatin book is like a toy, dark, radiant and bristling, like a Marcel Duchamp construction in words.”

Some older critics in Mexico have little use for Mr. Bellatin’s transgressive style and seem flummoxed by his blurring of fiction and reality. “I try not to be involved in any literary group,” Mr. Bellatin said, noting that “my books are most warmly received not here in Mexico but abroad, in Argentina and France.”