The Mysteries of Michael Chabon’s First Novel…

Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been lavished with praise – the mystery is…Why…?

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (image courtesy Goodreads)

As anyone familiar with the literary scene (at least any literary scene not composed solely of adults who read nothing but YA literature or some other highly siloed genre/subgenre) knows, Michael Chabon has been a darling of the litfic scene for about 25 years now. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and several other awards and been touted as a literary great.  His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was called “astonishing” by the New York Times; “remarkable” by the Los Angeles Times; “extraordinary” by the Village Voice.

My own experience with Chabon’s work before reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was watching the film version of Wonder Boys. I found it a quirky, charming, somewhat slick little film and thought about getting the book. I supposed the book would be that, too: quirky, charming, a tad slick. Still, I thought to give it a go. Something else shiny beckoned, evidently, because I never got around to it. So when I ran across this book at my favorite used book store a while back, I picked it up expecting to read the early work of a talented and celebrated writer. Given that this was his first book, I expected some flaws. I expected some rough edges… Continue reading

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Love, Art, Mystery: Lawrence Durrell’s Justine…

Durrell raises a question we are most afraid to answer: whether, as his character Clea asserts, “Lovers are never equally matched….” Is that, he asks, the source of the pain so many experience in love…?

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (image courtesy Goodreads)

We come now to another novelist who, like Paul Bowles, skirts the edge of wide acceptance as a major literary figure. Lawrence Durrell’s reputation rests on a group of novels called The Alexandria Quartet. The first of these is called Justine after the main character, a reluctant siren whose mystique pervades the work. It’s the latest from my 2014 reading list, and it’s a work that offers one the challenge of deciding whether to focus one’s discussion on the quality of the writing, the themes the novel explores, or the complexity of the  story.

To treat Justine fairly, it’s probably best to talk at least a bit about each. This is a novel in which writing, story, and themes are intricately woven. Durrell came under consideration for (and close to winning in 1962) the Nobel Prize on at least two occasions based on this work (and the others in the tetralogy). Justine offers a good example of why. Continue reading

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The Elvis “Coverup”: Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

If the excerpt from the new Elvis biography is an indication of the entire work, readers will learn exactly –  nothing new…

Elvis doing that Jailhouse Rock (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I had a professor who once described sound academic writing as learning to “articulate the obvious.” This in itself isn’t bad advice, and I occasionally pass it along to writing students who seem convinced that scholarly writing of any worth must follow “the three C’s” of turgid writing: it should be convoluted, confusing, and contradictory.

Joel Williamson’s new biography of the King, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, avoids turgidity and, if the excerpt recently published by Salon is any indication, it follows my old professor’s dictum to a degree that readers knowledgeable about the music legend (or about the history of rock and its significant figures) may find downright frustrating. Continue reading

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Pride and Prejudice: The Romance Novel as Literature…

Amid current discussions of how genre fiction and literature are merging in the 21st century, Pride and Prejudice is a reminder that the genre of romance merged with literature a long, long time ago…

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I have noted before, my custom of re-reading Austen’s works systematically has shifted from reading all six of the completed novels each year (as I did for more than two decades) to a rotation through the oeuvre of that allows me to read two novels each year. My own background as an Austen scholar has given me cause to give each of the novels “close reading” (the scholarly term for close analytic reading of a text to ferret out meaning) numbers of times. Still, each time I return to any of Jane Austen’s novels, I find myself surprised by what I learn.

Such was the case during this reading of what the general public consider Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It is certainly her most widely read work, partly because there seems to have long been a belief among educators that it is her most accessible novel (I’d argue for Emma) and partly, I suppose, because it has enjoyed the most attention over the last century or so as the basis for classic Hollywood bowdlerizations, faithful and thoughtful BBC renderings, and hipster revisionist treatments. It says something for the greatness of the book that it has borne all these cinematic renditions without losing any of its charm as entertainment or any of its impressiveness as a literary performance. Continue reading

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Murdering Culture, One Hipster Delusion at a Time…

Hipsters being savaged by a former hipster seems – oh, I don’t know, about right…?

Author Will Self (image courtesy Wikimedia)

No one who is a thinking person doubts that our culture is in trouble. Whatever forces have taken us down a road where knowledge of reality television shows is considered social capital are, I think we can all agree, malevolent.

In a recent essay in The New Statesman (and republished in The New Republic), British novelist and intellectual Will Self savages his generation’s acquiescence in failing to overcome being what he calls “the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditization of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action…of capitalism’s blitzkrieg.” His critique (written in a classic snarky style) continues with an indictment of what he sees as a completely delusional group of “artists” – : Continue reading

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Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust…Life is – How We Write It…?

While some authors have chosen to follow a literary path called transrealism, Knausgaard has chosen a path one might call hyperrealism. The question always rises rises, however: is there nothing new under the sun…?

Karl Ove Knausgaard (image courtesy Wikimedia)

A little more than a week ago I examined yet another attempt to claim that a new literary movement has arisen. That new movement, called transrealism, has its promoters, but it also has its doubters (including this guy). In this essay we take a look at what may/may not be a new 21st century literary movement – one I’m denominating hyperrealism. The best way to look at such a movement is, of course, by examining the work of the author who is probably its leading proponent, Norwegian literary star Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard’s massive six volume documentation of his own life in excruciating detail is called, in English My Struggle. In Norwegian that title reads Min Kamp – and yep, you’re right that his title echoes a book that gives most sensible people the creeps. Knausgaard’s book has pretty much nothing to do with Der Fuhrer’s opus magnum but a lot to do with some other, weightier, literary figures. Whether he chose the title simply to spark some controversy – well, why would any author want to do that in a culture that is so distracted it can’t pay attention to any damned thing for longer than the time it takes to scroll down a Facebook feed? Hmm? Continue reading

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Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine: Il se souvient

Like other classics of of what might be called pioneer literature, Louis Hémon’s classic of Quebecois literature Maria Chapdelaine conveys the love of a people for the land in a way that is beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon (image courtesy Goodreads)

Maria Chapdelaine belongs to a noble tradition of what we can call pioneer literature. (It might also be called agrarian literature, but that term has come to be associated with the Fugitive Movement in Southern literature that began at Vanderbilt University in the 1920’s.)  Most readers have some experience with such books, especially in young adult literature – many have read at least one of the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley series.

More mature – and sophisticated – readers may be familiar with works such as Sergei Aksakov’s The Family Chronicle or any of several novels by Willa Cather, particularly O Pioneers! or My Antonia. These are works that celebrate the difficult but rewarding lives of settlers, lives that are quietly heroic and which are tied to the rhythms of the land whether that land is on the Russian steppes or the American plains.

Maria Chapdelaine stands slightly apart from these other examples of pioneer literature for a couple of reasons. Continue reading

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