Saturday, May 30, 2009

When America Jumped the Shark

I just finished reading A Vast Conspiracy, another great concoction of detailed reportage, gripping narrative, and sober insight from Jeffrey Toobin. In addition to his fine book about the Supreme Court, The Nine, Toobin has written brilliant works about the signature legal controversies of our times—those involving Oliver North, O. J. Simpson, and the 2000 election. This one, of course, focuses on “the sex scandal that nearly brought down a president.” 

Toobin’s final paragraph:

At some point in the distant future, Americans will likely regard this entire fin de siecle spasm of decadence with incredulity—at the tawdriness of the president’s behavior, at the fanaticism of his pursuers, and at the shabbiness of the political, legal, and journalistic systems in which this story festered. Mostly, though, these baffled future citizens will struggle with the same question about Bill Clinton. He was impeached for what? The answer will honor neither the president nor his times.

Toobin’s apt use of the term decadence reminded me of an essay I read earlier this week, which finds that the progress of the typical TV show, “like the history of a nation or an art movement, falls into four periods—primitive, classic, baroque and decadent.”

Here the author, Robert Fulford, explains the decadent period:

The decadent era begins when writers lose interest in their themes and try to maintain audiences by concocting steadily more outlandish storylines. One of the attorneys in the law firm of McKenzie, Brackman on the program L.A. Law (1986-1994) was a divorce specialist famous for seducing his clients and all other available females. A scriptwriter had him fall through a ceiling in the office while shagging his secretary. Amusing, but it turned comedy into farce and drained reality from the character—as Happy Days did in 1977 when Fonzie rode water skis over a Seaworld shark, making "jump the shark" a term for a program reduced to terminal silliness. (In 1997, a website,,began chronicling self-destructive TV shows.) In another L. A. Law episode a man was accused of using toad venom as a narcotic, but claimed he kept toads merely as pets; he destroyed his defense when he licked one while testifying. An annoying executive partner in McKenzie, Brackman solved everyone's problems by falling down an elevator shaft. That became a famous event in TV history but the arbitrary plotting suggested decadence and foretold early cancellation. Soon L. A. Law was no more.

Perhaps our country jumped the shark with Bill and Monica and Ken Starr and Paula Jones. The storylines afterward did get pretty outlandish: the 2000 election, 9/11, the war in Iraq, torture, etc.

For some, the election of a black man as president may seem yet another outlandish storyline, a wild turn of events that foretells early cancellation for our nation. Glenn Beck, for one, certainly seems to think Armaggedon is at hand.

Yet for most of us the opposite feeling predominates: that our country has at last returned to sanity and reminded us why we tuned in in the first place. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Unforgettable Fire

This fascinating review of Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human makes me think of The Road (in which father and son, seemingly the last truly humans on earth, describe themselves as "carrying the fire"), Lord of the Flies (in which fire is the boys' only hope of rescue but also part of the violent and carnivorous impulses that distract them from keeping their signal burning), and Greg Brown's great song "Telling Stories" ("Everyone is scared, everyone’s alone/unless hand reach for hand when the trouble comes/all around the world when the dark night falls/we should be sitting around the fire telling stories").

Here the reviewer outlines Wrangham's thesis:

Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food.

“Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.”

He continues: "The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Revisiting McCarthy's Debut

Back in 1994, my freshman year of college at SLU, The Orchard Keeper was the only Cormac McCarthy novel in Pius XII library. Having read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses about a year before, I checked it out but read only the first few pages, finding it a little dull and impenetrable. I was curious to give it another try after all these years and considerably more experience with Cormac McCarthy. Looking back, I'm glad I put it down. I wouldn't have been able to make much sense of it back then.

Not that I’ve got it all figured out now. The book doesn't hang together very well, though it has some fine passages. In this 1965 novel, you can see a lot of elements that McCarthy will return to later. There's the boy coming of age (with echoes of Telemachus)—here it's John Wesley Rattner; later it's John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses. Even their names echo each other. There's Kenneth Rattner, the shiftless and incorrigible sonofabitch—an early, more malign version of Suttree’s Gene Harrogate. There's the wandering old man, displaced from any world that makes sense; here it's Arthur (Ather) Ownby, later it's Billy Parham in the Epilogue of Cities of the Plain. In this novel, John Wesley sets animal traps, an activity that connects him to a lost tradition, much like the wolf traps Billy learns to set in The Crossing. There's inept small-town law enforcement like that in Child of God; of course, McCarthy takes a more sympathetic and nuanced look at a small-town sheriff in No Country for Old Men. McAnally Flats, the down-and-out section of Knoxville where Suttree is set, makes an appearance here, as does the detail of money being offered by local government in return for hawk carcasses. John Wesley makes a dollar in this way and later tries to give it back; Harrogate comes up with a harebrained scheme to turn the government policy into a major source of revenue.

Cats are all over Suttree, a mysterious motif that appears in this novel as well. Near the end of the novel, Uncle Ather gives his thoughts on cats, in a passage that may shed light on what McCarthy’s doing with the motif: “Cats is smart…. Smarter’n a dog or a mule. Folks think they ain’t on account of you cain’t learn em nothin, but what it is is that they won’t learn nothin. They too smart.” How many characters in Suttree does that description describe, including Sut himself?

There’s a moment here when Marion Sylder and John Wesley Rattner "moved on across the field, through vapors of fog and wisps of light, to the east, looking like the last survivors of Armaggedon," an image which inevitably calls to mind The Road. Sylder and John Wesley are an odd father-son pairing, since Sylder is a criminal who actually killed John Wesley's father (sort of in self-defense), and yet he does seem to teach the boy something about being a man: he gives him his first dog, teaches him to hunt, and warns him against seeking revenge on the sheriff who put Sylder himself in jail. He initiates him into the adult world, into disillusionment: “You want to be some kind of a goddamned hero. Well, I’ll tell ye, they ain’t no more heroes.” It’s a lesson that John Grady Cole will go to his grave rather than accept.

The Orchard Keeper is not a great book—too much goes unexplained, too many threads remain untied, even for a McCarthy novel. But it's interesting to read for these precursors to the later work, and there are certainly hints of the greatness to come.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An Artist in Action

This clip shows how artist Jorge Colombo drew the cover for this week's New Yorker on his iPhone. Pretty amazing.

“I got a phone in the beginning of February, and I immediately got the program so I could entertain myself,” says Colombo, who first published his drawings in The New Yorker in 1994. Colombo has been drawing since he was seven, but he discovered an advantage of digital drawing on a nighttime drive to Vermont. “Before, unless I had a flashlight or a miner’s hat, I could not draw in the dark.” (When the sun is up, it’s a bit harder, “because of the glare on the phone,” he says.) It also allows him to draw without being noticed; most pedestrians assume he’s checking his e-mail.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Good Ol' '55

'Closing Time' Pictures, Images and Photos

From this review of a new biography of Tom Waits comes an endorsement of Waits from no less a scholar than Simon Schama, who says that Waits's "Ol' '55" is “the single most beautiful love song since Gershwin and Cole Porter shut their piano lids.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

St. Louis Public Schools

Reading this article in the Post-Dispatch, struggling with where to send my own daughter to kindergarten next year, and talking with family members about St. Louis schools today has got me thinking about what’s happened to the St. Louis Public School system in the last 30-40 years.

Take these thoughts with a grain of salt, since in some instances I might not really know what I’m talking about.

After reading
Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s brilliant book about desegregation in the Boston public schools, I tried to find a comparable book about desegregation in St. Louis. What I came up with was Daniel J. Monti’s A Semblance of Justice, which I found fairly impenetrable and abstruse.

Monti’s main argument, however, as far as I could make out, was that school desegregation is a "ritualized rebellion," a public ceremony that purports to address deep-seated issues of injustice while actually doing very little to remediate or end them. In doing so, it allows tensions based on class and race to be vented without the disruptions that would probably accompany real social change.

The argument makes a certain amount of sense. But it occurs to me that the desegregation program has had very real negative consequences for St. Louis Public Schools. In a sense, St. Louis Public Schools have borne the brunt of the ritualized rebellion that was desegregation in St. Louis.

County districts, by and large, benefited financially from the plan, as they received significant taxpayer money for the students they accepted from the city.

Private schools benefited from the numbers of city students who decided to pay to attend them instead of going to desegregated city schools.

For city public schools, however, desegregation has been, largely, a lose-lose situation. Subjected to the highest degree of disruption, these schools also lost a good number of students, many from families (both black and white) who were probably pretty resourceful and committed to their children's education. And some of the precious spots in the city’s best schools had to be reserved for county students.

Desegregation combined with other patterns of white flight and suburban sprawl, which drained resources and residents from the city while simultaneously sticking the city with lots of responsibilities for taking care of the neediest people in our community. A plan designed to address inequality (if only ritualistically, as Monti asserts) ended up exacerbating it.

Then charter schools came around. They didn’t have to meet the same test score benchmarks or follow the same rules as the regular schools. So of course they further poached students from the city schools, despite the fact that they had little track record of better results. The idea seemed to be that anything was better than the existing system.

But the underlying social structures and patterns that had weakened the existing school system were not altered.

Now, to some degree, middle-class whites are beginning to move back into the city. At the same time, the district no longer is mandated by the court to maintain a racial balance in its magnet schools—and the magnet schools reserved for gifted and talented students are the ones most attractive to middle-class white parents.

So what happens now?

How will city schools respond? Will the goals of school desegregation be abandoned? Were they unrealistic to begin with—an attempt to use the school system to effect social change, a purpose for which it was ill-equipped? Can the city public schools bring middle-class white parents, with all of their resources and commitment, into the system? If so, what conflicts will arise? Who will benefit? Can this constituency be invited in so that the entire district benefits? Or will another segregated, unequal system arise?

If the city schools can't bring in middle-class whites and offer their children a decent education, then no doubt many of these families will move out to the county once their children attain school age.

It's certainly a conundrum. What am I missing? What do you think?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jack Kerouac, Prop.

Fans of Robert Coover's great novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. will be fascinated to read this article about how Jack Kerouac created and operated an imaginary baseball league much like Coover's protagonist's:

Almost all his life Jack Kerouac had a hobby that even close friends and fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs never knew about. He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

He collected their stats, analyzed their performances and, as a teenager, when he played most ardently, wrote about them in homemade newsletters and broadsides. He even covered financial news and imaginary contract disputes. During those same teenage years, he also ran a fantasy horse-racing circuit, complete with illustrated tout sheets and racing reports. He created imaginary owners, imaginary jockeys, imaginary track conditions.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Disney Princesses

In our house we've gotten into the habit of watching a couple YouTube videos before brushing teeth and reading books at bedtime. My two older daughters have a repertoire of favorites they like to choose from. As a consequence, and somewhat to my chagrin, my daughters have gotten into the Disney Princesses pretty intensely.

Barbara Ehrenreich rails against the princesses in this piece. Here's part of her beef:

Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but -- like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas -- she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning.

When I first read Ehrenreich's essay, I was sympathetic to it, and I still think it makes some good points. Indeed, some of the clips that have been my daughters' favorites make me uneasy. In this one from The Little Mermaid, for instance, the evil witch Ursula tutors Ariel in what she needs to do to get "Dear Old Princey" to fall in love with her: 1) Give up her identity and become a human; 2) Remain mute ("The men up there don't like a lot of blather/They think a girl who gossips is a bore...It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man").

And in this one, from Mulan, the older women in Mulan's life instruct her in the gender expectations that she must follow if she wants to "bring honor to us all." It's straight out of Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology:

Granted, the movie as a whole, I imagine, calls these gender expectations into question, but in isolation the clip does little to encourage girls to resist their mothers when they tell them that "men want girls with good taste/calm, obedient, who work fast-paced/with good breeding and a tiny waist."

On the other hand, this clip from Beauty and the Beast gives us a heroine who's ambitious and curious, a reader who resists the arrogant meathead whom less intelligent women swoon after:

Likewise, in this clip from Pocahontas we see a strong female protagonist who resists the meaning that her father tries to impose on her life, along with the husband he's selected for her. She's the pilot of her own canoe, willing to brave the rapids and the waterfalls and venture down the more treacherous path.

So I don't know. I'm still a little uneasy about feeding my daughters a steady diet of these images, but at the same time I don't think they're quite as bad as Ehrenreich makes them out to be. (And, also, their diet includes lots of non-Princess female characters.) In a certain sense, knowing the Disney Princesses is essential cultural literacy for little girls. That's what they talk about at school. My hope, though, is that my daughters can gradually be able to think about these stories in critical ways: seeing what there is to admire in them, thinking about how they respond to the expectations of their families and cultures, but also imagining beyond the limits of the Disney vision of womanhood.

Luckily, too, their family is full of women who imagine and live beyond such limits, and I think those examples are more powerful than the ones on the screen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Rest of the Story

At his website, Dan Baum compiles his complete Twittered account of his own rise and fall as a New Yorker reporter.

As a publicity stunt to generate buzz for Baum's new book on New Orleans, this was a pretty successful idea. As an insider's look into the world's best magazine, it's also fascinating. And even as a final flip of the bird (or .!.. as my brother-in-law's newly invented emoticon would have it) to David Remnick, it's remarkably evenhanded. I think Remnick comes out looking like a pretty decent guy. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Getting Hired and Fired by the New Yorker

Former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum (he used to write about the military, and also did a number of stories from New Orleans during and after Katrina) has been posting, via Twitter, an account of his time at the magazine. It's pretty interesting, though currently incomplete.

Among his observations is the following:

I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn’t had, found crucial sources I hadn’t interviewed. It’s like having a team of back-up reporters. They work like soldier ants, and are invariably cheerful.

I've noticed in the New Yorker over the years that, whenever there's a potential literary connection to be made in an article, the article will make it. (For instance, Nick Paumgarten's piece about the guy who got trapped in an elevator for 42 hours makes reference to Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, a novel about elevator inspectors.) It's one of the things I love about the magazine. 

Baum's remark makes me think that at least some of these references must come from the team of fact-checkers, many of whom are probably former English majors or, at least, avid readers, and are loath to let by a chance to make a literary connection.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Backstories, Pt. 2

Richard Brody responds to the Anthony Lane passage I quoted yesterday:

I think he’s right, that the device has become a stock-in-trade of contemporary Hollywood; but I also think that its prevalence represents progress, of a sort, over classic-era Hollywood; the prevalence of long-range backstory is, in effect, democracy at work. Backstory is the rejection of the notion that a character’s inner life can be determined in any significant way from the way she looks or presents herself, from the outer marks of identity. It is essentially a distinctive way of overcoming the assumptions that people have the habit of making on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or social status. It’s a way of making movies that is consistent with the desire for inclusiveness, with the recognition that people cannot, in fact, be typecast fairly. The prevalence of backstory in Hollywood movies is one way that Hollywood has kept pace with, and reflected, changes in American society.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Anthony Lane on the new Star Trek movie:

Here, in other words, is a long-range backstory—a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish. I lost patience with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” once we learned of Willy Wonka’s primal trauma (his father was a dentist, and forbade him candies, so guess how he reversed that deprivation?), and, likewise, with “Batman Begins,” from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What’s wrong with “Batman Is” ? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

In the comments responding to this article, I came across the following, apparently an old saw, but one that I hadn't heard before:

Philosophy gives you questions you can't answer. Religion gives you answers you can't question.

I like it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Parents as Teachers

I just finished teaching Romeo and Juliet to my freshmen. One student asked me, "So what was the moral of the story?"

I urged him not to think of literature as having a single moral or lesson, a simple take-home point like at the end of an Aesop fable. I suggested that one of the values of literature is that it presents us with characters and moments that seem lifelike, moments whose truth we recognize, and that might make us think about our own lives in new or sharper ways, ways which can change over time.

For instance, this time around, I've been thinking a lot about Friar Laurence, and how he fails as a mentor/surrogate parent to Romeo. He doesn't practice what he preaches, for one thing (he tells Romeo "Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast," yet he himself rushes and stumbles throughout the play). He acts against his own better judgment, it seems, because he can't summon up the nerve to tell his "young waverer" no, because he wants too much to be Romeo's friend.

I thought of Friar Laurence just now when I read in the New Yorker this Briefly Noted review of The Parents We Mean to Be, by Richard Weissbourd:

In this ardent and persuasive inquiry, Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, warns that “happiness-besotted” parents do children a disservice by emphasizing personal fulfillment over empathy. (A high-school English teacher laments the difficulty of teaching “King Lear” to students who “can’t engage suffering in any way.”) Parents worry about their children’s confidence, but constant, preëmptive praise can turn kids into cynics; studies show that playground bullies (and, later in life, criminals) exhibit high self-esteem. Drawing on extensive field research, Weissbourd makes the case that parents, as models of behavior, must be vigilant about their own moral choices. If we’re afraid to risk our kids’ ire by criticizing them, how can we expect them to resist peer pressure? Of special concern are parents who try too hard to be their kids’ friends. Weissbourd explains, “Children have no incentive to become like us, because the message we’re giving is that they already are.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

DFW: The Mix

Over at Readerville, they're discussing a cool idea, the "short story mixtape." The idea is that you run off a collection of stories you like and give it to a friend, in the same way that you might make a mix tape (or, in latter days, a CD). 

I posted a comment, wherein I proposed a David Foster Wallace mixtape, five-sixths of which I actually did give to a friend recently:

"Good People"
"Good Old Neon"
"The Depressed Person"
"Forever Overhead"
"My Appearance"

What would your short story mixtape include?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Evolutionary Advantages of Fiction

From a review of a new book by Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd called On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction:

Boyd considers storytelling a human adaptation, in the Darwinian sense. It derives from play, which itself is an adaptation observed among intelligent animals, from gorillas to dolphins. More important, storytelling carries with it crucial advantages for human survival. It sharpens our skills in human interaction ("social cognition" is the term Boyd uses). It encourages cooperation. It fosters creativity. Had humanity been consciously looking for an intellectual device to encourage it on the way to evolutionary success, we couldn't have done better than invent that endlessly prolific form we call narrative.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chekhov, Part 2

A few more thoughts on Chekhov that I came across while reading Ward No. 6 and Other Stories:

The “point”—and, again, there is no conventional “point”—is that in just a few pages, the curtain concealing these lives has been drawn back, revealing them in all their helplessness and rage and rancor. The point is that lives go on without change, so why should fiction insist that major reverses should always, conveniently, occur?
—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer 

It seems to me that the writer should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, etc. His business is but to describe those who have been speaking or thinking about God and pessimism, how and under what circumstances. The artist should not be the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased observer.
—Chekhov, in a letter quoted by Prose

It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.
—Chekhov, in another letter quoted by Prose

The plot is the Why. Why? is asked and replied to at various depths; the fishes in the sea are bigger the deeper we go. To learn that character is a more awe-inspiring fish and (in a short story, though not, I think, in a novel) one some degrees deeper down than situation, we have only to read Chekhov. What constitutes the reality of his characters is what they reveal to us. And the possibility that they may indeed reveal everything is what makes fictional characters differ so greatly from us in real life; yet isn’t it strange that they don’t really seem to differ? This is one clue to the extraordinary magnitude of character in fiction. Characters in the plot connect us with the vastness of our secret life, which is endlessly explorable.
—Eudora Welty

Critics of Chekhov in the good old days when the mania for the civic problem flourished in Russia were incensed with his way of describing what they considered to be trivial unnecessary matters instead of thoroughly examing and solving the problems of bourgeois marriage. For as soon as Gurov [in "The Lady with the Dog"] arrives in the early hours to that town and takes the best room at the local hotel, Chekhov, instead of describing his mood or intensifying his difficult moral position, gives what is artistic in the highest sense of the word: he notes the gray carpet, made of military cloth, and the inkstand, also gray with dust, with a horseman whose hand waves a hat and whose head is gone. That is all: is nothing but it is everything in authentic literature…. The unexpected little turns and the lightness of the touches are what places Chekhov, above all Russian writers of fiction, on the level of Gogol and Tolstoy.
—Vladimir Nabokov

Also worth reading is this essay on Chekhov by James Wood, from his book The Broken Estate.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kemp on Obama

From a letter the late Jack Kemp wrote in November of last year:

Dear Kemp grandchildren -- all 17 of you, spread out from the East Coast to the West Coast, and from Wheaton College in Illinois, to Wake Forest University in North Carolina:

My first thought last week upon learning that a 47-year-old African-American Democrat had won the presidency was, "Is this a great country or not?"

You may have expected your grandfather to be disappointed that his friend John McCain lost (and I was), but there's a difference between disappointment over a lost election and the historical perspective of a monumental event in the life of our nation.

Let me explain. First of all, the election was free, fair and transformational, in terms of our democracy and given the history of race relations in our nation....

Kemp concludes, nobly, on a note that seems quite out of tune with the Limbaugh-led Republican rhetoric that is lately so popular among the increasingly marginalized and bitter opposition:

President-elect Obama talks of Abraham Lincoln's view of our nation as an "unfinished work." Well, isn't that equally true of all of us? Therefore let all of us strive to help him be a successful president, so as to help make America an even greater nation.


In an article in the New York Times on the occasion of J. D. Salinger’s 90th birthday, I came across the following statement about Salinger’s contributions to fiction. “Nine Stories ... made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.”

I think that’s a true description of Salinger’s stories, but Salinger was not the first to write this type of story, which turns on a change in perception or tone rather than on a big plot twist. As an astute reader of this blog
pointed out, it’s Chekhov who was the pioneer of this type of story.

I recently finished Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, a collection by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The 23 stories in this collection are arranged in chronological order, and I found that they get better over time, going from fairly short, relatively trivial sketches to longer, very moving stories, sad, funny, brutal, tender, and true. As Nabokov says, Chekhov's works are "sad books for humorous people." Here are six stories I particularly liked:

The Kiss—A shy officer, mistakenly embraced and kissed at a party, is filled with romantic dreams and excitement but later comes to recognize his own foolishness and feel that his life is meager and impoverished.

Neighbours—A man’s family is thrown into disarray when his sister moves in with a married man, so he goes to confront them, though with no clear sense of purpose; afterwards, he feels that his visit has only thrown things into greater confusion, and feels, moreover, that his entire life has been much the same: “he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle.”

The Student—A young divinity student tells the story of Peter’s betrayal of Christ to two widows around a fire and, based on their reactions, becomes filled with a sense that life is beautiful and full of meaning.

A Doctor’s Visit—To attend to the illness of the heiress, a doctor goes to a factory, where he reflects upon the inhumanity of the system of which the factory is a part, and which seems to be at the heart of the the heiress’s illness.

Gooseberries—Taking shelter from a rainstorm in an acquaintance’s home, a man tells a story about his brother, who achieved his dreams of a country life through avarice and has made the brother believe that such happiness is sinful, compared with the widespread misery of the world.

The Lady with the Dog—A philanderer has an affair in a resort town with a young woman whom he considers naïve and pathetic, but afterward neither can forget the other; they find themselves tied together by an inconvenient but real love.

Friday, May 1, 2009


I set up a Facebook account several days ago, and though I'm finding it quite addictive (what a brilliant scheme for exposing people to advertisements), I'm still working on my tone. I think I tend to come across more tersely and snarkily than I intend.

I think this essay helps get at why that is. It's about changing attitudes toward the exclamation point:

"Cut out all those exclamation marks," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes." It isn't actually. When one German starts a letter to another with "Lieber Franz!" they are merely obeying cultural norms, not laughing at their own jokes. Nor is chess notation, which teems with exclamation marks, especially funny. No matter. Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose." Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half. In the ninth book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Eric, one of the characters insists that "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." In Maskerade, the 18th in the series, another character remarks: "And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads. That's because in the internet age, the exclamation mark is having a renaissance. In a recent book, Send: The Essential guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe make a defence of exclamation marks. They write, for instance, "'I'll see you at the conference' is a simple statement of fact. 'I'll see you at the conference!' lets your fellow conferee know that you're excited and pleased about the event ... 'Thanks!!!!'", they contend, "is way friendlier than 'Thanks'."