Summer Reading

Pictures to follow when I figure out how to insert them.

turtle 2

This is a turtle my girlfriend made friends with on one of her walks.  I was not there to enliven their conversation because my knee blew out the Wednesday before we left for Cape Cod.


Here’s a view of the ocean from Pilgrim Heights, a half mile up Route 6 from the house we rented.


I’m on Cape Cod again after a summer’s absence.  My girlfriend and I spent two weeks here in July 2011, and it was pretty wonderful—a poetry reading by Robert Pinsky for free at the local arts center, “A Winter’s Tale,” almost for free, performed by a makeshift Truro theater company, good weather, nice house, a moving church service, and lots to think about.

This year, there’s less to think about, probably because my politics have changed so drastically, at least by my own reckoning.  These days I find more to react to, less to think through.  Bad sign, no doubt, especially at my age, when the ambiguities of every goddamn thing are supposed to be sprouting in my mature mind.  But I’m so fucking sick of explaining the post-totalitarian state Obama has perfected that the long view seems to me out of reach—I actually think this republic has reached a turning point, where the decisions we make now will determine what the long view can contain.  Yeah, yeah, I know what you’ll say: “This is what empires and superpowers do, they hunt down the dissidents, they mimic the tactics of their less-parliamentary rivals, they cultivate evil in the name of the greater good: Don’t be naïve!”

Well, fuck off, mate, this ain’t a hardboiled spy novel we’re living.  I’m not yet willing to suspend disbelief and inhabit a world in which realism means pragmatic acquiescence to the way things are.  Besides, who’s naïve when neither the legal representatives of the state nor the sovereign people can specify a limit to the surveillance powers of the state because no one—except of course a criminal seeking asylum in Russia—can tell us what the state can do, has done, and is now doing?  Who’s naïve when the two Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Acts and their attendant courts— ad hoc star chambers that have validated all but eleven “requests” from NSA et al.—mandate (they do not merely permit) the indiscriminate acquisition of data from the phone records and computer transactions of US citizens, but the corporations that provide the data can’t, according to the law, disclose the “requests” from agencies of the federal government?  Christ, even the corporations and the Republicans are “pushing back” on this issue.  They’re naïve?


But where was I?  On Cape Cod, right.  I don’t know what the middle and lower Cape is like in these summer rental weeks, down near Wellfleet, where the New York shrinks hang in August.  I’ll report on Martha’s Vineyard next week, after a visit on Saturday to my girlfriend’s twice-divorced mother’s new boyfriend’s son’s summer house.  I think I got that straight.  Right now I’m on the upper Cape, in rural Truro, just south of Provincetown.

The Saturday we arrived, we drove to Provincetown, to get the perfect lobster roll at a little arcade on Commercial Street that has a bayside deck where you can order a beer and watch the water and verify that you’re on vacation.  The place was teeming with families waiting, as we were, for the 3:00 check-in at the rental office, so it was less relaxing than I’d hoped: young parents and their small children now seem to derive from a species much louder than mine.

The decibel setting was formally balanced, however, because for every noisy family there was an odd-numbered group of big, boisterous gay men who had arrived for the start of “Bear Week” in Provincetown, a huge annual event sponsored by local clubs, hotels, restaurants, and shops.  (We were here the same week two years ago, when my girlfriend, a former student of pornography and popular culture, explained the connotations of the event to me, which involved distinctions between hard and soft body fat.)  No, they were not hunters, although the sleeveless flannel shirts and the facial hair and the bulging torsos—more bellies than pecs—made these men look like rednecks beamed down from another planet, frat boys on their way to a tailgate party, or well-fed Midwesterners from a cattle town.

“Bears” are the male homosexuals who don’t fit the physical stereotype of the gay man—slim, urban, sleekly dressed—and who aren’t necessarily interested in the fine arts or musical theater.  They look, for the most part, like fugitives from the rodeo or overweight suburban dads, large men who have cultivated the facial hair that mirrored the sexual differences they felt as they came of age.  So the blend of husbands, wives, children, and “bears” on that waterfront deck was almost heartwarming: one big happy, wholesome family, united on the civilizing prospect of gay marriage, that’s America for you.


On the beach in Truro, at Head of the Meadow, it’s all families all the time, so we go late, around 4:00, when parents exhausted by their frenzied children are finally leaving, looking forward to a stiff drink, a leisurely dinner, and conversation with an adult, any adult.  At that late afternoon hour, I’ve done whatever work I could, whether reading or writing or fretting, but the sun is still hot, the ocean is still mysterious, the beer is still cold.  I’m ready to do nothing, able to stare at anything.

I try not to read at the beach.  Of course I bring something to read, because otherwise I’d just keep talking about whatever I’ve been thinking, and would, as a result, interfere with my girlfriend’s reading—and thinking—but what I bring amounts to sound bites, snippets of prose or even poetry, little batches of words I can sample five minutes at a time.

So mysteries, short stories, essay collections, these are ideal from my beachfront perspective.  The mysteries are easy because it doesn’t much matter where you stop reading, you’re going to forget what came before, anyway.  If the momentum of the thing doesn’t drive you forward, regardless of what you’ve forgotten about what has already happened, it’s failing at its appointed task, which is to get you through this one and on to the next.  Short stories are not so easy, because you never know what to expect unless you’re vaguely familiar with the writer—Alice Munro, George Saunders, John Updike, OK, you’re prepared, and whatever surprise happens is pure pleasure (or a reason to reach for a beer, and these sometimes represent the same euphoric state of mind).  But good stories told in unfamiliar voices make you want to think harder, and that’s a hazard at the beach.  Makes you want to write something down.

That’s why essays are the best choice for beach reading.  They shine at the level of the sentence, where both good and bad writers take their thinking to syntactical extremes, where you can stop and laugh and whoop about the verbal fish your aimless line just hooked, whether it’s a keeper or a carp.  You don’t have to get too serious about it: there are no white whales in the inland sea of essays.  You’re not even hugging the shore.

In various formats, I brought or borrowed collections by Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Jonathan Franzen.  I carried Sullivan on my girlfriend’s Kindle, which now feels like an overdue library book, mainly because I wanted to finish a minor key meditation on historical consciousness prompted—all right, overdetermined—by his flame-throwing introduction to the new Modern Library edition of Absalom, Absalom!

Sullivan is now a real “literary” figure who gets asked to write introductions to such classics.  His essay on the last, decrepit Agrarian at Vanderbilt, “Mister Lytle,” is a masterpiece of mistaken identity, where purposes, time zones, tenses, even centuries get confused by the author’s slippery movement between past and present, them and us, second and first person voices.  The opening scene of the wooden casket-making is straight out of As I Lay Dying, as if Sullivan had wandered into Faulkner’s epigrammatic novel and, having brandished the appropriate credentials—I too am a craftsman!—was given permission to commute between two death beds that commemorate the 19th-century South.  The rest of the essay is about what it means to write about this subject, the South at its most stylized and baroque, from the safe remove of two generations.

But then you could say that about any essay in the collection: no matter what the occasion, whether Axl Rose or deep blues or elephants raping rhinos, Sullivan is always writing about the writing.  There’s never a moment when you’re unaware of his painstaking efforts to get it exactly right—to nail it, make it the final word, an “accomplished thing,” as he calls the history of the South rendered in Absalom, Absalom!  And that authorial presence is finally so hectoring and intrusive that you must turn away from the world on offer and ask yourself whether you want to spend any more time with its purveyor.  Do you really want him to buy the next round?

I answered the question by realizing that Sullivan is an unreliable narrator.  That’s a usable device in fiction and talk radio, of course, and it’s a commonplace in contemporary memoir, but it doesn’t work very well in non-fiction, where, outside the pages of Rolling Stone, hyperbole either meets editorial limits or Hunter Thompson is the guest host.  Sullivan gets Faulkner dead wrong, he exaggerates Axl’s self-conscious ambition to the point of absurdity—the anxiety of influence shows here: he’s up against Greil Marcus’s justly celebrated “Presliad” from 1973—he admits that he made up most of a commissioned magazine piece on global warming and animal aggression, and he makes a close study of the blues sound like homework.  So all that’s left is the strained voice of someone desperate for your undivided attention.

Joan Didion is an essayist of a different order—more diffident than Sullivan even when performing her own syntactical pirouettes, less prone to let you know what’s on her mind except that the whole world is shit and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it.  Now that I mention it, that’s the premise and the argument and the conclusion of every essay she’s ever written, and as far as I know, I’ve read almost all of them.  If she had a sense of humor, a lightly mordant touch that would let you laugh at the pretensions of her fellow journalists and the failings of her fellow citizens, why, she’d be as interesting a writer as she thinks she is.

But there’s nothing funny about anything she’s written, not even at the level of the long, winding sentences that crowd “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” her New York Review essay on the primaries and party conventions of 1988, from the collection called After Henry (1992), or in the crisp prose of the California book, Where I was From (2003).  Didion earnestly believes that she’s writing about imperial decline and decadence on a grand scale, whether she’s reporting from L.A. or New York; she’s actually writing of, and from, the kind of hip, comforting boredom that feels like intellectual exhaustion, the state of mind where nothing, not even New York or L.A., can be interesting enough to engage on its own terms, as a place unlike any other, because everything looks the same: the whole world is shit.


So Jonathan Franzen is refreshing, maybe because there’s so much faith in literature and so much hope for its future in every essay he writes.  There’s an earned innocence in his voice (and it’s one voice: he’s no ventriloquist).  The latest collection is Farther Away, where he expends most of his energy trying not to think about David Foster Wallace.  The title essay is the best by far, worth the price of the book: it’s about grieving for Wallace, the rise of the novel, the cost of “radical individualism,” the impositions of the Internet, how every man is an island, grieving for Wallace, why Daniel Defoe still matters, how Henry Fielding matters even more, and grieving for Wallace.

The delightful quality of Franzen’s essays does not reside at the level of the sentence, however, and this may be a clue to why I haven’t been able to get through the big “social novels,” where setting, context, and mood are so important that the author indulges the kind of flat reportage and endless paragraphs of mere description you expect from hard-boiled detective fiction (Here’s my own first sentence, modeled after many predecessors: “He wore a black silk shirt under a light grey jacket, it might have looked elegant but the shoulders were askew, as if one side of him were rebelling against the other.”).  To drive home the point, I would cite Richard Ford, another writer of huge, sprawling “social novels,” whose every sentence, even in a novel as dense and massive as Independence Day (1988), is an acoustic marvel, a little piece of poetry.

No, Franzen delights me because he gladly excels at contradicting himself, as if he’s a hapless character in a short story by George Saunders.  He’s divided up in time and against himself, but he won’t treat this condition as anything except the human condition.  That’s why readers love the novels, I guess, because he clearly feels pretty much how they do about their parents, their pasts, their mistakes, their triumphs: he’s for and against.  He’s a translator: he “elevates” the moods of the dumb majority to a dictional plane that approximates lyric, and he thus gives literary meaning to everyday utterance—that is, to the emotional equilibrium we all try to express, from day to day, in words that we hope won’t rise to the level of the memorable because if they do, we’ll probably regret them.

Franzen himself doubts that anything new is happening in the format of the novel (see the appreciation of Alice Munro in this collection), a judgment borne out, in my view, by his increasingly epic attempts to make it old.  Like me at the beach, he looks to short stories and detective fiction for literary innovation and revelation.  Unlike me at the beach, he doesn’t like to think or talk about writing unless he’s issuing instructions about conjunctions or explaining why he didn’t or couldn’t write something.

Or unless he’s mourning David Foster Wallace.  The title piece takes Franzen to a desolate island off the coast of Chile, where he wants to be alone with his grief, his binoculars—there’s a rare bird he can see only here—and his waning hopes for the frail life of literature.  He brings Robinson Crusoe to mark his isolation and to test his resolve to be alone, but also, of course, to help him (and us) think about the origins of this thing we call the novel.  It’s a tour de force of personal reflection and learned discourse on prose fiction.  It’s a heartbreaking remembrance of his good friend and fellow fabulist, whose ashes he carries in a wooden box, to be scattered on the unforgiving Pacific.  It’s a critique of a world turned inside out by technology.

Franzen makes a fuss of going this far away and being this alone for obvious reasons—he wants to remind us that the radical individualism enabled and affirmed by the modern novel was first etched convincingly on the sands of a fictional island, and to show us that his friend David marooned himself on a virtual island of self-imposed isolation, where love could become a threat to self-preservation.

This is the contradiction Franzen lives, breathes, and writes in every essay, whether Wallace makes an appearance or not.  He complains constantly about how technology reduces public space and routine civility, thus making the solitude of mere privacy—the interiority that the novel, and modern fiction in general, requires just to begin with—simply impossible.  You can’t be alone with your thoughts in these times, he says, unless you get to some kind of island, and even then you’re weighed down with a battery-powered GPS unit, and it’s a good thing too, because without this device he’d still be lost on that ridgeline in the horizontal rain, looking for a bird.

Here’s the moment, late in the essay, where Franzen summarizes the Either/Or of modern subjectivity, which he clearly experiences every waking hour, but now displaces onto his dead friend:

“Robinson is able to survive his solitude because he’s lucky; he makes peace with his condition because he’s ordinary and his island is concrete.  David, who was extraordinary, and whose island was virtual, finally had nothing but his own interesting self to survive on, and [AND?] the problem with making a virtual world of oneself is akin to the problem of projecting ourselves onto a cyberworld: there’s no end of virtual spaces in which to seek stimulation, but their very endlessness, the perpetual stimulation without satisfaction, becomes imprisoning.  To be everything and more [Wallace’s goal for his prose fiction] is the Internet’s ambition, too.”

As Franzen is at great pains to demonstrate elsewhere in this volume of essays, making a virtual world of oneself just is the act and the art of writing fiction, as against, say, History, or literary criticism.  Radical individualism is the source, the cost, and the benefit of the modern novel.  Literature can’t do without it.  Franzen knows this better than anyone alive, and yet here, in mourning for his brother, he can treat both it and its opposite—the erasure of that private, virtual space where endless meanings get made—as mortal threats to the life of the mind.  He’s trapped and motivated by the same fear: he contradicts himself.  Very well, then.


Today at the beach, Head of the Meadow in North Truro, on the ocean side, a seagull with a broken left wing and a bent right leg was limping up and down, hoping to find some scrap of food in the sand in front of us.  Another gull, this one healthy, landed nearby, and, recognizing his advantage, started crowding the wounded bird.  A little girl twenty yards south stood up and charged the intruder, waving her arms and crying “Get away, get away!  He’s hurt, leave him alone!”  The offender flew off but quickly returned because the little girl had flung some cookie crumbs in front of the disabled gull.  This required more arm waving, more piteous cries for quarter, and more explanation to the spectators, which now included me and my girlfriend.

The wounded bird stumped north along the littoral, the girl followed, and once past us, she turned to a family of five and said, apologetically, almost ironically, gesturing with her handful of crumbs, “I’m feeding him because he’s got a broken wing, you know? . . . He’s in trouble, maybe he’ll die.”  The family looked on impassively.

But the next family north wasn’t rooting for the underdog.  In a voice that could be heard a hundred yards either way, the patriarch said, “You shouldn’t be feeding the seagulls.”  The little girl repeated her apologetic explanation, only more abjectly.  He was too Malthusian for her: “If he’s going to die anyway, let him die.  You can’t feed the  seagulls, they’ll overrun the beach.”  The girl stopped following the wounded bird.

What, are we in a Dickens novel? I muttered, who the fuck is this guy, the magistrate of the fucking beach?  “Shush,” my girlfriend said, “look at the crew cuts on the kids, he’s some kind of military freak.”  He’s an asshole, I said loudly, hoping to be heard.  Look at the poor kid, she’s heartbroken.  She shuffled up the sand toward her mother’s umbrella.  “Shush,” my girlfriend said.

When the little girl reached the umbrella, I turned to her and said, in as normal a tone of voice as I could muster, You should know that you can feed anything you want.  On this beach.  Here, I mean.

“I know,” she said.  “He’ll be back.”



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4 responses to “Summer Reading

  1. Barry Shank

    Well, dammit, Jim. This is just wonderful. Finally, someone I respect who has good words to say about Franzen. And who gets the anguish that comes with accepting both sides of an opposition. I’m glad the girl already knew what you were going to tell her.

  2. Jim B.

    I’ve followed your evolving political ideas, especially as they have changed with the recent revelations of the extent of surveillance of American citizens by our “post-totalitarian state.” How have these changes in your political perspectives altered your narratives of American history?

    • Good question, Jim. But it’s like turning a ship rather than getting off the Interstate. It’ll take some time to determine my new heading. I’m at sea, and I don’t yet have a destination. For now that’s a good thing.

  3. Jim B.

    To paraphrase and alter:

    With no direction known
    Like a rolling stone …..

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