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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’

The Long March

December 12, 2011 | by

On a recent Sunday evening, in a lounge at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan, the writers Kurt Andersen and Anne Kreamer enacted before an audience the final pages of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, a 1971 work of literary pastiche by the author Frederic Tuten. Andersen played the role of Chairman Mao, sitting for a fictitious interview. “Have you seen Godard’s La Chinoise?” asked Kreamer, playing his interlocutor. “Have you seen Dali’s Mao/Marilyn?” “Chairman Mao, perhaps I might ask your opinion on birth control.” Tuten himself, a septuagenarian in a black blazer, sat at the front of the room, beaming with happiness at the event held in his honor.

If you have not heard of The Adventures of Mao, you would not have been out of place at its marathon reading. Indeed, some of those who gathered to participate in the reading—a roster including Lydia Davis, Wallace Shawn, Walter Mosley, John Guare, and Edmund White—admitted to having had only a glancing familiarity with the novel or its author. Yet The Adventures of Mao, about, as the title suggests, the Chinese dictator’s rise to power, has always had its advocates; Susan Sontag called it “soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.” In 1972, the book achieved that pinnacle of literary attention, the John Updike New Yorker review. Analyzing the novel’s five distinct modes—textbooklike history of the Long March; ample direct quotation from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; passages of literary parody of authors such as Kerouac and Malamud; “normal novelistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations”; and, finally, that extended interview with Chairman Mao—Updike declared the resulting sum “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.”

Despite Mao’s champions over the decades—New Directions embalmed it as one of its classics in 2005—the event at the Jane Hotel was in some ways an unlikely one. It had all begun in the Strand Bookstore, where three men in their twenties stumbled upon the book and brought it to their book club. Read More »

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Staff Picks: “Hadji Murat,” A Version of the Afterlife

November 11, 2011 | by

Leo Tolstoy.

“There are two basic motives living within all readers. They want to spend time in the presence of a great mind. And they want their hearts awakened.” That’s Steve Almond in Ecotone on the early novels of Don DeLillo. Two other pieces kept me up late with the new issue: Jonathan Lethem on the perils of self-regard, plus a swinging little poem by Jaswinder Bolina, “In Another Version of the Afterlife,” which begins, “I regret some of the aftermath but none of the choices I made / during my tenure among the living, which must be / what the villain feels after being villainous.” Two lines later we’re lying beside matadors and pornographers “groggy and unsleeping in ornate haciendas.” I don’t know if my heart was awakened, but Bolina did keep me awake. —Lorin Stein

The Hare with Amber Eyes is a family saga, a study in art history, and an overview of the European Jewish experience all in one. Edmund de Waal uses an inherited collection of netsuke carvings to explore the legacy of the Ephrussis, once one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish families. The family stuff is great, but what I’m enjoying particularly is the way the author, a prominent ceramicist, conveys the tactile. (And, incidentally, how skillfully he describes all these tiny things with a minimum of diminutives—a skill in itself!) —Sadie Stein

In an interesting juxtaposition of writing styles, I began reading Bertrand Russell’s amazing Autobiography only to stop partway when I picked up Atlanta-based rapper T. I.’s debut novel, Power & Beauty. I can’t read either of them quickly enough, and, needless to say, my heart is divided. —Natalie Jacoby

Though I’m not writing a novel, I’ve been vaguely following The Guardian’s How to Write Fiction series. But were I writing a novel, I’d surely tack Geoff Dyer’s sublimely simple lesson—that limitations, yours and everyone else’s, can prove as enriching as your strengths—above my work desk. —Nicole Rudick

In the Presence of Absence, by Mahmoud Darwish, is a moving reflection—part autobiography, part lyrical elegy—on the question that has always been at the center of his work: “What does it mean for a Palestinian to be a poet and what does it mean for a poet to be a Palestinian?” This is one of Darwish’s last writings, and it bears the hallmarks of his late style: uncompromising difficulty, surprise, and summation. —Robyn Creswell

Here are the sentences I can’t get out of my head from “Hadji Murat.” This is about ten pages from the end. Three quarters through. Just at a moment when you believe that Hadji Murat is about to do an heroic thing, he’s about to wake up his men, before dawn, to prepare them for an escape by horseback. He’s living among the Russians, to whom he has lately sworn loyalty. He has even fallen in love with one of their women. He doesn’t actually want to betray them, he just can’t let the fucking Shamil hold his family captive any longer. He has to rescue them or die trying. It’s his only way to keep his whole idea of himself and the honor of his people from shattering. Politics are irrelevant. And everything that’s happened so far in the story leads you to suspect that he’ll do it, that he knows how to do it. But in fact within hours he’ll be shot down like a dog. And this is what Tolstoy does, to signal the pivot. Two sentences. Nightingales are singing.

Hadji Murat was so deep in thought that he did not notice he had
tipped the jug and water was spilling from it. He shook his head at
himself and went into his room.

[Gasp!]

It’s so perfect, you hear it only stethoscopically, but you do hear it. He walks away from the water jug to his death.—John Jeremiah Sullivan

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L.A. Advice: Writers Dating, Fear of the Blank Page

October 7, 2011 | by

Last night, seventy-five or so Angelenos gathered at the Standard, Hollywood to listen to Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, and Michael Tolkin answer audience questions on life, love, and books. Subjects ranged from The Onion (everyone’s favorite contemporary humor publication) to Dickens (in whom “the archetypes for all modern fiction can be found”) to the possibility of making a living as a poet (consensus: other sources of income help). What follows are a few of the questions the panel addressed.

Should writers date each other?

Tolkin: No.
Bardach: Sure, but not in the same genre. That’s the important thing.
A guest: A writer and a reader?
Bardach: Well, yes, every writer should have one.

How does one get over the fear of the blank page?

Tolkin: First of all, it’s more a blank screen now. Don’t leave it blank. Put something on it, anything. If it’s bad, you can improve it, tear it apart. If it’s good, even better. The important thing is getting something down, taking that step.

How does it feel when your book is adapted [into a movie] but you’re not asked to be involved? Is it hard?

Tolkin: I take the money and run.
Lethem: I’d actually prefer not to be involved. I mean, I wrote the book: I’ve spent all that time with it already. And it’s a very different medium. Better to work on someone else’s story.
Lutz: Screw up someone else’s book, you mean.
Kipen: Thus far, no one has tried to adapt any of my book reviews. But I’m open to it.

What are your goals for a new novel? What’s your hope for it?

Tolkin: Kill every other book on the shelf.
Lethem: It’s a great line, but I actually feel the opposite: it’s those other books on the shelf that inspire me, and I want to join their company, add to that conversation. And, you know, looking around this room—I’m going to get very sincere, here—it’s affirming. This is not what we are made for, what I am made for. We sit and we write words, and for whatever reason, you’re all out here to listen, and see us. We’re in this strange, solitary profession, hoping to connect with a few people and, look—we packed a room.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

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Ask the Paris Review! (West Coast Edition)

October 3, 2011 | by

This week, The Paris Review heads west: specifically, to the Standard, Hollywood, in L.A., where we’ll be joined by West Coast friends including Ann Louise Bardach, David Kipen, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Lutz, Mona Simpson, and Michael Tolkin. Got a question on books, life, love, or anything else? Pose them below, and our panel will tackle them! We’ll reproduce the best answers on the Daily.

And if you’re in Los Angeles, do stop by!

When: Thursday, October 6
7:30–10 P.M.

Where: Cactus Lounge
The Standard, Hollywood
8300 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

And thanks to our friends at PEN USA, our partners for the event.

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Self-Help Books; Writerly Watering Holes

September 30, 2011 | by

I know that I am not alone in sometimes craving nothing more than a nice, long browse through the self-help section of the bookstore. But I know that I’m alone in admitting it to The Paris Review! My question is, do you know of any authors writing in the self-help genre who have elevated the form and who you would qualify as literary?
Appreciatively,
Stan Hope

Let your self-help freak flag fly! I’ve already had occasion to recommend Love and Limerence, by the late Dorothy Tennov. It’s a book about what to do if you find yourself in love. This is my favorite self-help book, and I think about it often. An informal poll of The Paris Review office reveals that everyone has been telling us to read The Artist’s Way (“you can skip the spiritual parts”) but that none of us has read it.

I used to frequent Chumley’s and the Cedar Tavern. (I even went to the Algonquin once, thinking that it would be a glamorous throwback, but it turned out to be a tourist trap.) Lately even the White Horse Tavern is overrun with investment bankers. It’s awful. What is the ideal place to spend a few hours drinking—and still feel a hint of New York’s rich literary past—this fall?

It may be a little low on mystique, but if you’re in the Village and want to drink in the company of writers, you can’t go wrong with Cafe Loup. It’s crawling with them—and there’s always plenty of extra martini in the shaker. If you’re hungry, order the fries. In Boerum Hill, writers—those who can still make the rent—tend to congregate at the Brooklyn Inn (a bar that features in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn). I’ve never been to Scratcher, in the East Village, except when some writer was having a party there—but I’m told it’s hard to tell the difference. If you’re headed uptown, there is always the Carlyle, a perennial tourist trap that happens also to have a wonderful bar, one celebrated in several poems by Frederick Seidel, including For Holly Anderson.” Read More »

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Singing Cowgirl; Cigarette Boy

August 15, 2011 | by

Detail from 'Peasant Spreading Manure,' Jean-Fracois Millet, 1855, oil.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Jessica Anthony: I was a singing-telegram cowgirl in upstate New York in the early nineties. I wore the dress, boots, hat, and fringe. I went to various places of business and sang, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” from Oklahoma! to human beings who desperately had no interest in it.

Jonathan Lethem: I once had a job as the assistant of a family friend, a very talented artist and theatrical designer who had, in the parlance of the time, “gone mad.” My tasks included helping him move a discarded chrome car bumper from the street to his tiny Upper West Side studio-apartment bedroom; helping him weld the bumper to a sculpture that also included sardine tins still covered in oil and shreds of fish; and walking his poodle to the liquor store to buy him bottles of gin. But there were problems: the unfortunate, confused dog had a giant clot of bright red paint covering approximately a third of its white curls, so that it appeared to have been attacked by an ax murderer. Also, I was only thirteen. Even in 1977, a liquor store on the Upper West Side wouldn’t sell a tall bottle of gin to a teenager leashed to a zombie poodle.

Adam Levin: I used to hand out Winston cigarettes at bars for a Chicago “guerrilla marketing” firm. I was required to carry around a duffel full of cigarette cartons. We had some discretion over how many packs to give out to each person—usually between one and four. I also carried a box in which an old digital camera was mounted. If you wanted free cigarettes, you had to let me photograph your driver’s license, and you’d nearly always let me, because you were drunk, which is why I picked you to begin with. So maybe it was more like I used to collect personal information at bars in Chicago for a “guerrilla marketing” firm employed by Winston.

Peter Carey: Never, in all my life, have I been employed in a job as absurd and peculiar as the one I have right now. Commuting between 1854 and 2011 is killing me.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.

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