Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Heller’
October 3, 2014 | by Jonathan Lee
The narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s new novel, The Dog, decides to move to Dubai. Transitional places make more sense to him than those in which “everything has been built and all that remains is the business of being in buildings.” He sees his own life, in the aftermath of a recently disintegrated relationship, as somehow “posthumous” and shameful. And meanwhile his legal training, instead of arming his intellect, merely alerts him to the inadequacies of the language he’s forced to use. “Lost in a fantastic vigilance of ambiguity, obscurity, and import,” caged in by the feeling that “the very project of making sense [is] being mocked,” he drafts endless disclaimers and other corporate documents that he only slenderly understands. His new apartment tower is called The Situation. His preferred spa is called Unique. But even recreation is an exercise in compromise—“there’s more than one Unique.”
Javier Marías, paraphrasing Faulkner, once told an interviewer that “when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.” The Dog isn’t much interested in bright epiphanies. Instead it shows the extent of one man’s ignorance—his helplessness in a foreign world. The evocative sentences that helped to win O’Neill’s previous novel, Netherland, the 2009 PEN/ Faulkner Award and a wide readership, are largely absent here. With its deadpan existentialism and playful corporate-speak, The Dog is perhaps closer to a book like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. It is bleakly, unexpectedly funny.
I met O’Neill in Manhattan on an afternoon in mid-September. We talked about the fact that Netherland “very nearly didn’t get published at all,” the relationship between his work and that of Louis C.K., and why he is “deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels.”
It’s been mentioned by various reviewers that The Dog is a very different book to Netherland, at least in its tone. What sort of sentences did you find yourself looking for as you sat down to write, and what kinds of sentences did you find yourself striking out?
Generally, I want sentences that are both conscientious and surprising. For me, plot happens most of all at the level of the sentence. As I reader, I want to start a sentence and then be surprised by what happens to it, or intelligently happens. To be surprised by the conscientious movement of emotion and attention over the course of the sentence. I used to write poetry, and I think good poetry does that—captures a movement of intelligence. Still more generally, I want a verbal landscape that’s unusual—that I haven’t read a million times before, and that isn’t easily replicable in other forms. This approach animated the writing of Netherland.
In The Dog, my main character is a theorist—he is disposed toward theorizing and rationalizing, as well as to deep emotion, and is only occasionally given to recollection. To my mind, this makes him a comically urgent character—a man who is constantly caught short by this thoughts, who constantly needs to take a mental leak. That being the case, it wouldn’t have made sense to reuse the highly particular, contemplative voice of Netherland.
I’m not interested in writing stuff that’s indistinguishable from other stuff. I’m trying to avoid that deathly sense that here’s something you’ve read before, but with different characters, or with one situation replaced with another. I’m also deeply uninterested in the chattiness you get in so many contemporary novels. Read More »
July 19, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
April 11, 2013 | by Je Banach
“Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”
—Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)
When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.
On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.
How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?
Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More »
November 5, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
August 4, 2011 | by Erica Heller
When Dad started Catch-22 in 1953, it was called Catch-18. Later, he and his young editor, Robert Gottlieb, changed the title because Leon Uris’s novel had usurped the number with Mila 18. I can remember nights at the dinner table with my parents tossing out different numbers. “Catch-27?” Nah, my father shook his head. “Catch-539?” Too long, too lumbering. I had no idea what they were talking about. Thank goodness for Bob, Dad’s übereditor at Simon & Schuster; he was the one to come up with the unremarkably remarkable number 22. Along with Dad’s redoubtable agent, Candida Donadio, and Nina Bourne, who plotted the clever, quirky promotional campaign for Catch-22, these were the book’s earliest disciples. Without them, not only wouldn’t there have been a number, there wouldn’t have been a book.
To hear Bob talk about it, this modest, soft-spoken fellow who eventually ran Simon & Schuster and then Alfred A. Knopf, and succeeded William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker, one might think that Catch-22 had just tumbled from the skies one day fully formed, and that he had merely been there to catch it. In print he has said more than once that for an editor to call attention to himself and his contributions in an edited book is not only unseemly but irrelevant, but he’s not doing it here, I am. My father and Bob had real camaraderie and shared an almost mystical respect. No ego was involved, regardless of where Bob’s pencil flew or what he suggested deleting, moving, rewriting. To Dad, every word or stroke of this editor’s pencil was sacrosanct. Read More »