Friday, January 29, 2010

Recommended Reading upon the Death of J. D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye gets most of the chatter, but when I was in high school Franny and Zooey was the book that put me under its spell. In the graduate workshop, we just read Nabokov's essay "Good Readers and Good Writers" and he ends with the idea that a writer should enchant... that novel for me was definitely an enchantment.

And then I went to college and my beloved thesis advisor, Russell Banks recommended Nine Stories...which was one of THE books that taught me to love short stories.

So post-mortem don't try to reread Catcher in the Rye, it won't be the book you remember because you're not that person now, try the other two...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell

Let me say first, the jacket design of this novel is great. I used to love looking at jacket covers and then so many started to look alike (photos of people whose heads are out of frame or photos of cityscapes or reprints of famous pieces of art)... but while this cover art is a photo, it's clever and just right for the text. It's a twisted up guy holding on to and staring at a backwards red question mark all on a white background without author name or novel title. It's curiousity raising and thematically appropriate. Kudos to the designer (the publisher Ecco is highbrow, so they do things right).

Anyway, the novel itself runs the risk of being too clever by ten--it's all questions, nothing but questions, questions questions questions--but it totally worked for me. It's an unidentified narrator asking 160some pages of questions of an unidentified "you". It seems to take its premise and voice from Whitman's "Song of Myself"--the epigraph is from the poem: "Do you take it I would astonish? Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods? Do I astonish more than they?" And ultimately it does read like a song of the self.

From start to finish the novel is like its opening paragraph:

"Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalsms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic indentities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?"

The first effect was to make me think about me--I read it more like nonfiction, an examination of what defines the self. It made me want to write a book length series of answers: "Yes. Yes. Love the potato as long as it isn't sweet. Definitely not. Horses don't make me nervous. Depends on the child and the presence or nonpresence of a diaper. Yes. Yes. Yes, yes and no. Yes. My doorbell is broken. Always. I have no idea what Mendeleyev could or couldn't do. More than you'd expect by looking at me." In other words, it was a pretty narcissistic read for awhile, but like many narcissistic experiences, that was pleasurable.

But increasingly I found myself thinking about the choice to define this as a novel. I suppose that was partly due to the fact that Padgett Powell is known as a fiction writer and so it might not even occur to him to call this a nonfiction, but once you accept that it's a fiction, you have to wonder: are there two characters being created (the narrator and the "you") and is a relationship being implied? It's not too long before you notice the narrator has certain interests--bugs being pinned, a nostalgia for the way things were, a doubt in the way things are, a political lean to the left, a suspicion of religion...and it's interesting to notice that the posing of a question can reveal something about the beliefs of the questioner. For example: "I believe I asked you this before, but let me again if I did, because it is important to me: can you picture those old metal roller skates that had a metal shell or clamp up front under which you slid your shoe and a leather ankle strap in the rear to secure your ankle, the chief feature of which skates was that they had no flexibility or suspension and the wheels gained no traction whatsoever if you were on a surface smooth enough to pretend to skate on in the first place, and which, the wheels, since that surface was generally concrete, gradually wore down to sandblasted-looking remnants of themselves and became even more useless and treacherous than they had been new, so that the net effect of skating on these things was akin to ice skating on concrete? Weren't those old metal roller skates great?"

(as a writing exercise, you might write a conversation in which the person asking questions is actually revealing more about him(or her)self than he is learning about the other person)

Finally it starts to seem that the narrator is trying to find things out about the "you" but also to impress her (I read it as a her because she gets asked things like did your mother teach you to sew as opposed to did your father teach you to catch a football--for the record, my grad school colleague Howie Axelrod taught me how to catch a football and I immediately thereafter made a touchdown, which shows Howie's good heart because he wasn't even on my team)... Anyway in the long run it gets you thinking about how you define yourself, how you connect to other people, how you try to feel close to other people, how you judge them...

One of the interesting technical things is though the book is a series of questions that never build to any narrative (the last five pages don't read differently than the first five--which may be a flaw, I admit I started to skim at the very end). So every single question has to be good. Each question has to essentially stand alone as an interesting read, or the reader could pretty easily put the book down. But despite the lack of narrative, Powell uses paragraph and section breaks. And while there are some thematic groupings (often two or three questions in a row have to do with one thing) for the most part these paragraph and section breaks seem to operate more on the idea of the breath than anything else. You need a moment of silence not to jump in time/space (as in a traditional narrative) and not to jump in idea (as in essays) but just to rest a moment (perhaps while lying on the sidewalk). Without them the book would probably be too relentless--but I kind of wish he'd tried it just to see...

The final question is why not just do this as a short story. Why push it so far? Well, personally I would have made it 20-30 pages shorter so that it could be read in one longish sitting, but while it could have worked as a clever short story it's the very excess of it that makes it so interesting as a novel. That he could sustain it--it's pretty astonishing.