Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

New Release: The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

New Release: The Other Language Stories by Francesca Marciano


            One of the greatest rewards of following an individual author’s career is seeing their progress evolve before your eyes - being able to see how, with the passage of time, they have become a stronger writer, a better artist, how they have developed, honed, and sharpened their craft.  In Francesca Marciano’s case, with her new book of stories, we’re talking about an author who has arrived - the apprenticeship is over.   The people, places, messages and motifs are all familiar to us from her earlier work – indeed, she takes up this very issue in the story here entitled “An Indian Soiree” – but in The Other Language she’s in full command of her themes, subject matter, and characters in a way she may not have been in, say, Rules of the Wild or The End of Manners (as good as those two novels are).  Every story here has the absolute ring of truth and the authority of wise and intelligent observation.  One, “The Presence of Men”, achieves real literary greatness and deserves to be anthologized for hundreds of years to come. 
This kind of maturity in fiction is extremely rare – I think maybe Ward Just is the best example of it I can think of.  Nothing clunks awkwardly here, nothing falls with a thud.  Even something that is usually a dagger to the heart for a fiction writer – making up lyrics to a rock song – comes off very well.
            A consistent hallmark of strong fiction is the ability to make the reader smile with little jolts of recognition; this volume made me bust out laughing with its pitch perfect rendering of the way we email and text; made me nod in grim recognition of the way we might make a date with a person, knowing full well the very minute we are doing so that we have no intention of showing up; and will make all of us who are NYC subway rats feel like we’re right back on the Q train going over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn.  The eye that is watching here catches it all, from a fourteen year old girl on the beach in the budding stages of becoming a cosmopolitan European woman to the way Indian tailors cut material to conjuring up the long lost, but instantly recognizable, theme song from “Born Free”, just to take a few examples. 

            But great writing undertakes a dual job – not only does it strive to show us the everyday world in the author’s unique and original way; it usually also pushes elements of the author’s own personal experience up against the edges of questions like “What does it all mean?” and “What’s the use of it all?”  In one of these stories a young documentary filmmaker who starts out with great promise finally arrives at wisdom and self knowledge and respect in a way that has nothing to do with film.  In two others young Italian women living in America burn with the desire to “become American” although achieving this may not be exactly what they hope it is.  And the aforementioned “An Indian Soiree” is one of the best examinations of the disintegration of a marriage I have ever seen in imaginative literature.  And it is so precisely because Marciano lets the mysteriousness of how it happens hang in the air without attempting a lot of explanation and analysis the way God only knows how many thousands of other story writers would.
            Another – admittedly minor – thing I enjoyed about the way Marciano writes in these stories is that, although she name drops, she always does so with a light touch and in a way that the story perhaps requires.  It’s a function of the character of the characters, if I may put it like that – if someone mentions Terence Malick or Fellini it’s to make certain someone else feel something.  It’s not done in such a way that we get the impression it’s just the author showing off about how many books they’ve read or films they’ve seen.

            The Jungian principle of synchronicity – which some people may prefer to categorize as blind, random chance – pops up twice, once in a small scene in the title story that leads off the book and a second time as the principle theme of  a later story, “Quantum Theory”.  This  is an example of another thing Marciano excels at here – a sort of gentle recurrence of theme and tone – of an idea popping up here and there, never over emphasized or overdone, never being used to bludgeon the reader over the head – and  in my view it’s an appealing way to write.
            We’ll close with some sparkling highlight examples of what you’ll find here:
            “We met in the bathroom at Jonathan Cole’s house.  You had on a pair of bright red sandals you had just bought in Italy.”
            She opened her mouth, feigning bewilderment.
            “Come on.  How can you remember that?”
            “We had quite a long chat in there, and I tend to notice women’s feet,” he said.


            There’s something terribly sad about a young girl sobbing on the street without restraint.  You just know she must have a broken heart.


            Only Italian men wear loafers without socks with their ankles showing this much beneath the trousers.

            Without even asking permission to do so, Mrs. D’Costa supervised meals, went shopping for supplies and took care of logistics with military precision, as one does whenever a tragedy strikes and everyone else is walking around in a daze.

            In summation: if you care about contemporary literature at all you cannot really afford to miss this collection.

Begley: UPDIKE

Random Notes on Adam Begley’s UPDIKE – Part 1

Adam Begley’s forthcoming biography UPDIKE strikes the perfect balance between specialized scholarship and general reading pleasure – both the aficionado and the casual fan can read it with great profit and enjoyment.  Below are some notes about points I found particularly interesting, with a few more to follow soon.


In 1951 the critic John W. Aldridge published After the Lost Generation, a survey of some writers who were, at the time, up and coming.  I’m going to quote a representative passage here, chosen at random, about Merle Miller:
But the thing which is by far Miller’s gravest limitation is his lack of seriousness,
his tone of mockery and simulation, which gives to everything he writes a touch of phoniness.  It is as if he were perpetually belittling his function as a writer while performing the act of writing, perpetually struggling to hide his scorn for his characters at the very moment of creating them.  Or perhaps it is simply that he is too completely committed to their world, to their slick-magazine values, their cocktail-lounge philosophy, and their tepid, passionless little intrigues, to be able to rise above them and give them a stature and a significance which they do not possess.

            Aldridge was a pugnacious blowhard who made a career out of nastiness.  Consult not only the above but also this passage from his 1992 book Talents and Technicians:
            The novels of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, for example, are by any serious critical measure artistically empty works that are best-sellers largely because they depict a spiritually empty world that is attractive to readers who are themselves spiritually empty and so in reading them experience a faint twinge of self-recognition.

            This type of loudmouth bravado is clearly written merely to get attention; Aldridge was a sort of literary Miley Cyrus.  It’s quite surprising, therefore, to read in Begley’s biography that Aldridge’s unforgivably malicious review of Of the Farm upset Updike.  Aldridge complained that Updike had “nothing to say”, a remark that many other critics at various times echoed – Norman Podhoretz, Gore Vidal, Harold Bloom, Dorothy Rabinowitz.  (Begley leaves out Leslie Fielder, who wrote that Updike writes “essentially nineteenth century novels” and is “irrelevant”.)  Begley writes that this review hurried Updike into expanding the subject matter of his fiction well beyond his immediate personal experience, something which he had tentatively begun to do anyway.  Aldridge pushed him.
            I have a couple of observations about this.  First, if the charge is that you have nothing to say, and you immediately, as a consequence, try to start saying things, then you’re giving validity to the criticism – you’re trying to correct the perceived fault.  But is style without substance necessarily a negative?  I would argue that, if the style is grand enough, it is not.  Beautiful writing is a sufficient and worthy end unto itself – and Updike’s writing certainly passes this test.
            Secondly – “nothing to say” about what, exactly?  The proverbial human condition?  Philosophy?  Religion?  Science?  Psychology?  Sociology?  Politics?  Love, romance, relationships?  It seems to me to be a dubious requirement - that a producer of literature should have something to say in the manner Aldridge seems to be suggesting.  The percentage of novelists, poets, dramatists, or essayists who have anything completely original to say about these subjects must be very low – everything has been said before, is just a variant of something else.  A philosopher like Wittgenstein, an artist like Duchamp, a psychologist like Freud – people like this come along once every thousand years – never mind a Shakespeare!  And so the accusation of “nothing to say” sounds a trifle disingenuous to me.
            I think Begley’s bringing this state of affairs to our attention, and the way he does so, are both excellent.

            Begley devotes one paragraph to the only major Hollywood studio release based on Updike’s fiction, The Witches of Eastwick.  What?! No juicy tale of “Updike in Hollywood”?  He mentions Updike and his wife got to see the picture by sneaking into an afternoon showing at the mall…again, what?!  What’s the story behind that?  I would have loved some reporting on how Updike felt about  what George Miller and Michael Cristofer did with his story.  The picture was produced by some real Hollywood heavyweights – being that Updike never had an agent, who pitched this story to them?  Or was it the case someone among the producers was a fan of the book, and thus  initiated the project?  Jack Nicholson would have the power to get any movie made that he wanted to – was he involved somehow?  Did Updike ever meet any of the cast and crew?  And so on and so on.  This was a singularly unique event in Updike’s life and career – I would have enjoyed a little more on this subject. 
                               The importance of this perhaps lies in the fact that most of Updike's fiction is, in the sense of classical Hollywood cinema, unfilmable.  Maybe a director such as Antonioni or Eric Rohmer could have done something with it.


            I’ve always thought Marry Me was a bizarre novel, definitely not one of Updike’s best, quite a step down from the novels and stories that preceded it.  Someone once said of Robert Gover that his second novel was “like a fumbling and amateurish first attempt, something dug out of the trunk to follow up a success”.  While I wouldn’t quite go that far in this case, when Begley’s bio revealed to me that Marry Me was actually written years before it was published, this was an epiphany that in retrospect made perfect sense.

It is, like much of Updike’s fiction, a thinly disguised account of actual events – in this case, his affair with Joyce Harrington.  To me, Begley’s account of this situation alone would make his book worth reading, but it leads into another area – one that I’m sure  future biographers of Updike will dive into with much gusto:  Begley’s decision to let Updike’s many lovers remain anonymous, with two exceptions – the aforementioned Harrington and Martha Bernhard, who eventually became his second wife.  He also  chooses to let the Ipswich, Mass. couples who were the models for the Tarbox couples in Couples remain anonymous.  Begley writes that he let the lovers remain unnamed in order to protect their privacy and, also, in order to encourage them to tell him about their encounters with Updike.  However, there isn’t very much in the book in the way of these encounters at all, a curious turn of events.  In any case, I’m willing to bet that future generations of Updike fans and researchers will want to puncture all this anonymity, whether justifiably or not.  It just seems like too broad an avenue of potentially important research.

A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Phillip Sendker

New Release: A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Other Press; Paper; $15.95

            Deciding to meet a novel on its own terms is a double edged sword – the reader elects to accept some of the author’s propensities and predilections without question, something he or she might not normally do in the role of critic. You agree to play by rules the novelist has established. This, of course, is very hard to do – if the critic does manage to do it, however, then assessing the novel’s success or failure is relatively easy.  John Updike’s first rule of criticism – “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for failing to achieve what he did not attempt” is very helpful in cases such as these.
 Jan-Philipp Sendker’s followup to his hit of ten years ago, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, requires this approach from its readers.  Indeed, if you come at it any other way the sense of loving possibility, optimism and joy that is its central message is likely to get clouded out.
Julia Win returns to narrate the tale of her second trip to Burma in a story that uses the same techniques – the intermingling of Julia’s first person account, long tales of the past related to her by other characters, and letters – employed in the earlier book. There, the puzzle from the past that  we strove to uncover concerned the question: what was the reason for her father’s sudden abandoning of his family in New York to return to his native Burma after fifty years? Here in this second work we’re trying to solve the mystery: who is the woman behind the voice Julia is mysteriously hearing in her mind, asking her questions like Who are you? and Why are you alone? among others. 
A psychiatrist that Julia’s referred to tries to solve her problem via a prescription.  Julia, doubtful that this is a problem that Western medicine can handle, instead goes to a Buddhist meditation center with her friend Amy.(Amy, by the way, is, from a literary perspective, by far the strongest, most three dimensional character in the book.)  There, an elderly Buddhist monk informs her that the root cause of her problem is that two souls are living in her body -  her own and someone else’s - and that the only way to exorcise the second (the one asking the annoying questions) is to find out who the lady was and how she died.  Desperate for answers, Julia decides to go back to Burma to try and find some. Once back, she meets up with her half brother U Ba, who played such an important part in the earlier novel, and seeks his help. In short order the odyssey of a Burmese woman, Nu Nu, and her sons, and war, takes over and gradually intertwines with Julia’s own life and eventually teaches her the meaning of true love and other important lessons.
One of the central and constant themes of both this novel and its predecessor are the differences between Eastern and Western culture, temperament, and metaphysical ideas. The entire mood, tone, and philosophy of the novel are gotten to very quickly - in the very first chapter, in fact. A brief glance at this opening scene will illustrate.
 Julia is seated in an important business meeting (she’s an intellectual property lawyer). Minutes before, she’d opened an unexpected letter from her half brother in Burma, and this immediately causes her mind to wander back in memory, recalling her first visit to that country, her discovery of the existence of U Ba, and his earnest disquisitions about the power of love.  (The all conquering power of love is the ultimate theme of this story, as it was in the earlier one.)  As she sits in the meeting daydreaming, her boss Mulligan is addressing the group of lawyers; he’s described as “droning on” and a moment later as “rattling on”.  Again recalling U Ba’s eloquence about love, Julia thinks “Would I be able to convince a single person in this company that a person can triumph over selfishness?  They would die laughing.”  She thinks of her lawyerly existence as “this world of charges and countercharges”. 
This is a gloomy, dismal picture of life as a lawyer in New York; Julia is clearly not happy.  Evidently she practically lives in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a war of all against all where life is nasty, brutish and short. Throughout the book Westerners and their ways are made fun of relentlessly, to the point where, around page three hundred, it starts to become a little tiresome and heavy handed, but, in any case, after Chapter One a reader understands immediately that the rest of the book to follow is going to be a tale about how Julia gets away from this existence that she loathes.
As I say, this novel is best accessed on its own turf, and in that regard it’s a deep success.  Sendker bets everything on the power of emotional impact, which, here, is considerable. It’s hard not to be moved by the love story of Julia and Thar Thar.  Their parable contains real and lasting truths about true love. For an appreciative reader, this can overrule things like a plot point blatantly borrowed from an extremely well known novel (and movie) and characters that are more like abstract philosophical principles than actual human beings.   

The next time you see a couple at a party who seem to be soul mates, to use a worn out term, you’ll immediately think back to A Well-Tempered Heart.  There’s a lot to be said for fiction that helps us relate to real life in such a  happy way.