Have Plot, Will Unravel

Books and Literature, Culture

Although I’ve called him morally obtuse, I can’t bring myself to dislike Ezra Klein. He may be just another young hack on the make in Washington, a careerist and a faddish liberal, but unlike so many of his peers, there seems to be something accidental about his success, something less gratuitous and self-willed. But it still came too early, and it ruined him. He ought to be the most popular teacher at a middle school in Columbus, or the director of a nice Reform summer camp, underpaid but decent, one of those rare grown-ups we all remember as having steadied us through the awful middle passage of our youth. Instead, he writes for the Washington Post and makes speeches at think tanks. I can’t begrudge him his success, but I do almost pity him for it; he’ll run faster, stretch his arms father . . . . And one fine morning—

Anyway, Klein’s writing for the Post is drudgery; the interior monologue of staff-level Washington is unceasingly banal, a pseudo-economic pidgin of legalese and bad PR-firm argot so divorced from ordinary human concern or communication as to become a form of language-looking gibberish, lorem ipsum. But a friend of mine on twitter forwarded me his brief, recent musings on Gatsby, presumably occasioned by the arrival of a new, gaudy film, and if only because it occasioned a re-reading, I had to reply.

I don’t care for the phrase, great American novel, but you can’t escape it; it exists, at very least, as a genre, albeit more aspirational than actual. American literature is littered with the wreckage of titanic Summa Theologiæ, the preferred template. Fitzgerald himself attempted that sort of thing, and isn’t it interesting that his only truly remembered work is a mere 50,000 words that could nearly make Katherine Mansfield look loquacious? Even so, no one can quite agree what it is, or what it’s about; the fact that so slim a work can mean so many things to so many people, admirers and detractors alike, suggests something at once uncanny and ineffable about it, something inevitable, a word to which I’ll return

Gatsby isn’t my favorite novel, and you certainly won’t hear me, as you’ll hear some of its more hyperbolic admirers, call it perfect. There are a few perfect pieces of art in the world, but none of them is a novel. Fitzgerald’s lyricism sometimes gets the best of him, and he’s obviously burdened with some of the prejudices of his time, although we can never know which of these belong to the author and which of them to Nick Carraway. But you still won’t find a more well wrought or more finely honed book; 50,000 words seems like a trifle, but 50,000 words sustaining so singular a voice seem, to another writer, as impossible and daring as a guy walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.

So. What to make of Klein’s complaint?

I love the writing and, for that matter most of the book. What I can’t stand is the finale.

The book’s denouement is a series of ever-more insane coincidences. Gatsby and Daisy hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian proves to be Tom’s mistress. Tom persuades her husband that Gatsby was driving the car. The husband kills Gatsby then kills himself.

That’s fine for fiction. Dark Knight Rises wasn’t very believable, either. But it’s a problem for a book with Something To Say. The end of the Great Gatsby doesn’t feel inevitable. It feels unlikely. And thus its lessons don’t mean much.

This, first of all, is a misreading, and I wonder if it isn’t in part the result of a bad memory for the particular details of the story. There are some well-known problems with the internal chronology of Gatsby, but this bit of plotting builds almost from the beginning. The connection between Tom, Wilson, and Wilson’s wife (Tom’s mistress) Myrtle isn’t just happenstance; the Wilson residence is on the main route between tony Long Island and the city; and the tragic inevitability of Myrtle’s death isn’t that Gatsby and Daisy run down some pedestrian who, mirabile visu, just happens to turn out to be Myrtle, but rather that Myrtle has been waiting and watching for Gatsby’s car, which she mistakenly believes to belong to Tom Buchanan, and that she runs out into traffic to try to stop it. If the line sets are visible and the first electric peeks out from behind the black border, still, the knowledge that you’re in the theater does not a deus ex machina make.

Hey, though, opinions may differ; reasonable adults may disagree. Of all the artifices of narrative fiction, plot is the most unnatural and the most unreal. One author’s elegant resolution is another man’s overwrought coincidence, and I’m not going to ding Klein too hard for falling into the latter camp, even if I do half suspect that it’s the result of a flawed recollection from a not-recent-enough reading. What I will toss tomatoes about, however, are the “lessons.”

The idea that Gatsby is a sort of sociological survey of the gilded age, with the characters as archetypes playing out changing ideas about wealth, status, and morality is an easy one, and wrong. I’m sorry, but you’ve mistaken this novel’s setting for its theme, the scenery for the schema. Fitzgerald was undoubtedly interested in money, class, and the passing away of the old guard in the face of something new, but all this is the background against which something more human moves. Gatsby is sometimes criticized for a lack of psychological depth, but this, like the desire for a less coincidental plot, is a kind of prudishness and a just-so belief about what a novel ought to be; it sounds like a nice old lady looking at a piece of great modern art and sighing, But what’s it a picture of? If Gatsby lacks some of the more ostentatious experimentation with perspective and consciousness that characterized high modernism, Fitzgerald did dare to challenge the convention that every character in a book must act in Cartesian accord with his own internal machinery. Talk about coincidence! Part of the magic in Gatsby is that its characters can’t be easily explained or psychoanalyzed. Like I said: human.

Klein says:

As Nick Gillespie writes, most of the Great Gatsby perceptively sketches a moment in which new money, new immigrants, a new economy, and new social mores were overwhelming the old order. The old order triumphs in the book, but only with the help of authorial providence. Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one. And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, we know who really won, and it isn’t Tom. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right, at least up until the end.

We can leave aside for a moment the cheap teleology of social progress at the end, there, and the Nick Gillespie piece he cites is really just about Nick Gillespie, but right in the center of the paragraph is that same odd complaint, repeated. The story, absent “authorial providence,” a happy one? Once more, I’ve got to wonder when he last read the book. Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair ends that day in the city, when she admits that she also loved her husband. She will stay with him. She won’t say that she never loved him; she can’t. When Tom tells the room that he and Daisy have been through things that none of them will understand, it’s devastating because it’s true. When, later, after the accident, we see Tom and Daisy through the window at the table together, his hand on hers, talking quietly, conspirators to the end, we are meant to realize that this was the only possible outcome with or without the accident. (As for the idea that Tom “wins,” that the book “old order triumphs,” well; Tom and Daisy flee, and Nick goes home as well. An odd victory, no?)

Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan, the Wilsons, Wolfshiem—the title and Fitzgerald’s skillful deflection throughout obscure the fact that this is a book about Nick Carraway, who gives his voice and consciousness to the novel. Nick is an extraordinary character; poetic, ironic, sexually ambiguous, a liar—and Gatsby is a Bildungsroman of disappointment. He goes East to seek a fortune independent of his past, and it ends in failure and regret. The beatific image of the new world and the boundless future beckons only as a false promise; the present only ever becomes the past, and the future eternally recedes from us. It’s a terribly sad and pessimistic vision, although one with the ring of truth, and in a time when “a guy named Baz Lurhman” cranks out entertainments whose thin veneer of contemporaneity masks a devastating nostalgia for a vanished past and “a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama” likewise bubbles in the gloriously false promise of its own lost preeminence, I’d say a poet of disappointment is very much what we need.

Quest Into the Unknown

Books and Literature, Culture



The best advice that I ever got In Re: The Matter of Finishing a Novel came five years before I actually sat down and finished the fucker. I was at an Oberlin College reunion, and I ran into my old friend, Neil. Neil and I had an odd history. We’d actually met before college at a young writer’s thingamajig at the University of Virginia. He was friends with another boy from Pittsburgh who would, later that year, become my first boyfriend. They were both aspiring playwrights and wrote dark psychodramas about sex and incest and heroin and stuff. I was still wearing an oversize Jethro Tull concert tee (Roots to Branches, babe), and both boys seemed alarmingly sophisticated.

A couple years later I ran into Neil on the stairs in Rice Hall. We were looking for the creative writing department, I think. I had to remind him of my name. We chatted briefly, and we went about bumping into each other here and there for the next year or so. I’m not sure how or to what end, really, but by the beginning of sophomore year, I’d developed an inexorable and unreciprocated crush. He was small; he had very fine features, but he had this ineradicable five-o’clock shadow that made him alluring and masculine. I was living in French House that year, and we occasionally hung out. On the last night of our first semester, he kissed me. Like, tongues and everything. Then he said something incredibly embarrassing. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Something like that. Of course, it wasn’t embarrassing at the time. It was devastating. The next semester I went to Strasbourg. I wrote him one exceedingly overwrought love letter, which he claimed never to have received.

When I came back, he was dating a lovely girl—Rebecca, I think, was her name. He may have been doing a lot of speed; he’d always been a more committed druggie than me; I was just a dabbler, a dilettante. He looked hollowed out. We still saw each other and hung out from time to time. Once, we almost had sex. Junior year, third floor of Johnson house, in my big, vaulted dormer room, but I happened to glance out the window and see my friend Alex coming up the driveway. By then I had an inexorable and unreciprocated crush on Alex, so I made some hasty excuse and packed Neil out down the back stairs.

Anyway, we ran into each other at some barbeque at some off-campus house five years after we graduated. Some people were playing softball. Neil and I sat on a picnic bench. He looked fit, and he told me he’d seriously taken up boxing. Boxing? He and another classmate of ours were running some kind of web something or other in Brooklyn. We talked about other old acquaintances, and we talked about books, and I said, a little sheepishly, that I was reading a lot of science fiction. He laughed at me and told me that he loved science fiction. I mostly read scifi and fantasy anymore, he said. “I mean, I’ve read The Man Without Qualities. I’m supposed to be embarrassed that someone sees me with a Tor paperback on the train?” That’s the advice, by the way.

We talked about China Miéville, and I told him about Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, which he’d never read. Then, I don’t know. I went to some dinner or some party; he went somewhere. The reunion ended. We did become Facebook friends. Not too long after, just a year or two, he went to Thailand to study Muay Thai. Then he came back to New York, and not long after that, I got an email from my friend Alex. Did I know that Neil Chamberlain had been hit by a car? He had, in Brooklyn, late one night or early one morning. He died in the hospital about a week later. By the way, this is realism. There isn’t any point, really. Some shit happened, in no particular order.


Coincidentally, within an hour of reading Helen Rittelmeyer’s skeptical essay on “rhapsodies to the power of reading,” my old friend Arthur Silber sent me a link to Ian McEwan’s latest in The New Republic:When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Coming on the Louis-XIV-style heels of Papa Roth’s, ahem, retirement from the game, you’d be forgiven for reading the title in the tone and spirit of valediction. McEwan is only in his sixties, but he’s been a great critical and commercial success. Disillusionment, especially the public kind, is very often the affectation of guys who’ve already gotten pretty rich.

Has McEwan stopped believing in fiction? Reader, he hasn’t. Actually, he’s recounting something even more banal. After working very hard to write a novel, it often takes a few months of kicking around before he’s ready to start another one. The air in the cathedral is heavy with the scent of incense and the organ’s lower octaves, but beyond these barricades mysterieuses of the writer-priest lays every project everywhere ever. After I spent a week repointing that brick wall, it took a week to get motivated to sand the floors. After I cleaned out the basement, I took a nap. After a rough couple weeks at work, I took a personal day and went for a long bike ride.

It’s not, in other words, a matter of faith or belief, but a matter of interest. You train, you run the marathon, and then you take a week off and eat ice cream. Recovered, you start running again. There’s no mystical hocus-pocus, no “icy waters of skepticism.” Our hearts do not “fail” when we gaze at our cycling shoes or the box of contractor bags or the stack of over-wintered tomato cages in the unplanted spring garden. We might sigh to ourselves, and we might procrastinate, but we don’t go in for the Deus Deus Meus shit. At least, I don’t.

Are you surprised to learn that McEwan doesn’t perish on the cross, but rather clambers down, quotes an apocryphal Nabokov, and writes a book?

As one of his former Cornell students recalled in TriQuarterly, Nabokov would utter, “ ‘Caress the details,’ rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!’ ” I’m happy to take that advice. I make no great claim for either sentence above, except to say they each marked the beginning of a thaw in my indifference. They are prompts, not revelations. What they share is their illustration of fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity. Both are third-person accounts that contain a pearl of first-person experience—the fault-finding light of spring, the shoes no longer alive and biting. Appreciating the lines, you are not only at one with the writer, but with everyone who likes them, too. In the act of recognition, the tight boundaries of selfhood give way a little. This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does.

Is that what fiction does? It “annotat[es] the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness.” How do you annotate a lattice-work? What are the “tight boundaries of selfhood”? Um, have you ever heard Nabokov’s voice? What about it reminds you of a cat’s tongue? Why do you have to drag the poor Higgs boson into it?

Like Rittelmeyer, I tend to frown in the direction of the rhapsodic mode when it comes to reading and writing. It suggests a dire lack of confidence, a need to hide the gaudy fantasy cover art behind an old issue of TriQuarterly, though in this case the woman in the fur bikini riding the dragon is the whole enterprise of writing fiction. If you feel the need to drape your chosen profession, or your art, in this sort of mumbo jumbo, then maybe this art is not for you, despite all your success at it. Well, here I am, taking shots at someone who’s sold a lot more books than I likely ever will, but I’ll say this much about my, uh, my process: it doesn’t keep me up at night, pacing the creaking attic, wondering what does it all mean?

Most people who write books do it because there’s a story they want to tell, or a character they want to create, or because there’s a great punch line that needs a long setup. Some people write for money. Some people are interested in consciousness, or conscience, or sex, or vampires, or sexy vampires. Some people just want to lord their book deal over the peers at the next Oberlin reunion. Most of us, however, do not get paid to realize that “things that never happened can tangle with things that did,” or that our libraries yet have room for both encyclopedias and poems. We haven’t got time for crises of faith. We have contracts. We have deadlines.

Literature has been in crisis pretty much forever, and there’s a neat racket in making outsized claims about its civilizing influence or social value or spiritual necessity, as if dressing the whole thing up in Anglican drag—“Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse”—will endow it with some kind of imperial inevitability. Listen, we should pray that literature doesn’t get any more like religion, another theater bleeding subscribers faster than it can acquire new ones. And if the purpose of good books is to colonize the souls of the not-yet-reading public, then fuck it, I’m’a find me a TV.

Lightning Is Striking Again

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Things that Actually Happen


So as some of you know and some of you don’t, I’ve written a book, about which I will engage in some shameless promotion later on. But in this book, there is a guy named Winston Pringle, who believes that the Point in Pittsburgh is a nexus of intense magical energy, an axis mundi, where the three phenomenal rivers and the fourth esoteric underground river join in mystical convergence. Anyway, my good friend John Allen and his friend Dave were in town, and in honor of the end of the Mayan long count calendar, we walked through a wild snow squall to the Point, whereupon we encountered that very–I thought, since I made him up–fictional conspiracy theorist. Actually, he claimed that he was Philip R. Ford, director of the semi-legendary Vegas in Space.

Well, he was just down there to soak up the energy and collect a little river water. We had a great talk. He also claimed to be the brother-in-law of Lou Christie, one of Pittsburgh’s great early pop stars, whom you probably know by his one big hit, “Lighting Strikes”, here performed by Klaus Nomi, because that’s what Phil would’ve wanted:

“I asked the park ranger back there if there were any events or celebrations planned today,” he said. He was resting on a park bench. He used a cane. He was wearing a sort of cowboy-cum-Homburg, a pin with the outline of a scorpion and a ring embossed with a black ankh. “But he said there was nothing.” We nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’ve got the energy all to ourselves, just the four of us.” Then he told us the roasting pans in his grocery bag were for a Christmas goose.

“I know times are dark,” he said, “But I happen to think we’re coming into a better age. Our collective consciousness is making the change. It’s going to be a more matriarchal period. I’m pretty sure about that.”

You could barely see the stadium on the other side of the river because of the snow. A construction worker down by the fountain kept trying to light a cigarette in the wind.

The loveliest sentiments are what the rest of us call mad.

The Confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in December, 2012


We thought the world would end, and so we made
a quiche, potato salad, lemonade,
and went down to the Point to watch the earth
open like a Titan giving birth
to a god, the rivers torn toward empty space
as if the edge of a medieval map, grace-
enshrouded, monster-guarded, void and deep
as an old mind entering death from sleep.
Well, shortly after noon it clouded up.
There was a little snow. A single boat
moved slowly toward the West End Bridge. I drank
some decent wine out of a plastic cup.
A distant siren sang a quavering note.
Someone tossed a stone, which skipped, then sank.

The Holocene

Culture, Poetry

Don Quixote accidentally killed
the only extant wild giant left
in the world; we called the proximate cause of death
acute misapprehension, then we chilled
some DNA for future generations
who with gods-offending hubris will
regrow the race for gate receipts, though still
remain afraid of their immense creations.
But the clonal giants will not breed,
and will not eat, nor lift the sagging sky,
nor much at all but mope and slowly die,
allergic to the atmosphere, badly in need
of supplementary dietary myth
and oceans of fresh water to take it with.