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.

Revolting Youth

Books and Literature, Culture, Media

When I was a teenager growing up in Uniontown, PA, a half-sinister, half-beautiful wreck of a mining town, the seat of Fayette County, which everyone called Fayette Nam, which ought to give you some idea, I had an English teacher named Ed Cupp. Mr. Cupp was a big slab of a man who kept his desk at the back of the room, something I can recall no other teacher ever doing. I always assumed it had something to do with his nocturnal activities, which we all assumed to be the cause of his frequent headaches and his occasional habit of resting his head on his crossed arms, or of keeping the lights off during class. He once wrote a poem about another teacher at our high school who’d been a great beauty when she still had her maiden name—I’m not quoting, but he put it very much like that. What I remember about the poem is that it rhymed “chimpanzees” with “phalanges.” He taught 11th-grade Honors English, which was where I read Moby Dick for the first time. The class was supposed to be difficult or whatever, but Mr. Cupp didn’t give a shit about grades, and he used to give us these hysterical fill-in-the-blanks tests. After Moby Dick the first question on the quiz was, “Call me ______.” This one kid answered “crazy,” and Mr. Cupp thought it was so funny that he shared it with the whole class the next day. He probably gave the kid an A. He loved books, and he loved literature, and even though he used to make mooing noises at us when we said something wrong or just dull and predictable, I think he loved teaching, but he also recognized the fundamental absurdity of trying to teach an art that manages to be both essential and frivolous to a bunch of egotists—because all teenagers are fundamentally egotists—who had other obsessions and preoccupations.

I’m not a teacher, but I do like to moo. In the second paragraph of his review of The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner, James Wood, who has other obsessions and preoccupations, says:

The novel’s narrator, an artist in her early twenties nicknamed Reno (it’s where she’s from), is obsessed with speed, machines, and land-speed records. (Art seems to be a subsidiary concern.)

Call me crazy. Late in the novel, Reno is at a party for an artist who appeared earlier as a pushy self-promoter trying to wrangle a show out of a prominent gallerist. Reno says:

John Dogg was not a complete idiot. He had merely seemed like one. It was wanting something a great deal that made people embarrassing—which was why I’d hidden my wants around Sandro and his friends, and Giddle, too, pretended I didn’t want an art career when I did. Pretended I wasn’t jealous of Gloria, of Helen Hellenberger, of Talia, when I was.

Kushner is a distressingly great writer. I’m jealous. And this passage makes explicit what she makes clear in every moment of the book; that Reno’s affectless affect is, duh, a put-on; that she isn’t  “wide-eyed and even dangerously porous,” a Woody description that’s supposed to be incisive but comes across as snide and a little condescending; she’s afraid. Reno does like speed, and she does like motorcycles, but they’re not her obsession. Her participation in the speed trials out on the Bonneville flats are part of a vaguely conceived art project; after she wrecks, she makes the team that’s taken her in drive her hobbled body back out to the course so she can photograph the tracks she’s made. That isn’t subsidiary. She really wants to be an artist. Even her descriptions of terrible motorcycle and automobile wrecks, in particular the crash of a driver named Flip Farmer (which Wood excerpts in his review), reveal a mind attuned to the visual, the abstract, and the geometric.

Reno considers this quality of her own character as well, later in the book, having been marooned in Italy, where she’s ostensibly gone to film (and be filmed by) the very Italian team that she encountered at Bonneville. It doesn’t work out—heartbreak, revolution, etc., and when she tries to talk to the team over the phone, they seem almost to have forgotten about her. She has a realization: that they are actually interested in speed records, whereas she is interested in the aesthetics of speed records. She isn’t a driver. Well, she is. But it’s a subsidiary concern.

It’s such a fundamental error of reading that I honestly wondered at first if Wood had just stopped reading halfway through. He wouldn’t be the first book reviewer to quit midway, and I think I’d have held it against him less. No. He definitely read the whole thing. He knows the mechanics of the plot right up to the end. Well then, what would explain it? I remembered something Edmond Caldwell wrote about Wood’s equally weird treatment of Bolaño:

We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature.  It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.  Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel.  Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.”  In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things.

Coincidentally (or no?), The Flamethrowers has a lot in common with The Savage Detectives, and Wood’s approving note on just how acutely Kushner satirizes the New York art scene in the 1970s likewise has a lot in common with his belief that Bolaño was making fun of the naïve and youthful radicalism of his “visceral realist” poets. Yes, Bolaño is making fun, but, you know, like, we kid because we love. What Wood doesn’t see, because I think he really considers artists and writers fundamentally ridiculous, however much he might try to convince us, and himself, otherwise, is the deep and true and beautiful affection and sympathy that these writers feel for their characters. Just look at what he offers as praise:

She is funny not at the expense of contemporary art but at the expense of the people who make that art, seeing with clear eyes their bluster and pantomime. She scours her chosen period for its extravagance and histrionics; the parallel with today’s ambition market is obvious. Small worlds resemble each other first.

My emphasis. This is supposed to be a compliment! Which seems extraordinary until you consider the source. He mentions, too, that she’s an art critic. Don’t worry, she’s one of us! In fact, what makes The Flamethrowers so good, what makes Kushner so impressive, is that even the most venal, grasping, ambitious, and pretentious of her imagined avant-gardists are rendered with sympathy and love. She is making fun of the scene and of the art—and yes, of the people—but not at the expense of the people. Actually, she likes her artists and revolutionaries very much, which is why we feel their failures so movingly and so viscerally when they inevitably occur.

What do you say about this kind of criticism? That it praises by mistake? That it turns everything it reads into a whetstone on which it sharpens its ideological axe? Wood would probably say he doesn’t like ideology, that it’s as juvenile and fake as art and poetry, but look at how he begins his review:

Put aside, for the moment, the long postwar argument between the rival claims of realistic and anti-realistic fiction—the seasoned triumphs of the traditional American novel on one side, and the necessary innovations of postmodern fiction on the other. It was never very edifying anyway, each camp busily caricaturing the other. And don’t bother with the newest “debate,” about the properly desirable amount of “reality” that American fiction should currently possess. (Twenty grams, twenty-five grams?) Some novelists, neither obviously traditional nor obviously experimental, neither flagrantly autobiographical nor airily fantastical, blast through such phantom barricades. Often, this is because they have a natural, vivacious talent for telling stories; and these stories—the paradox is important—seem fictively real, cunningly alive. Novelistic vivacity, the great unteachable, the unschooled enigma, has a way of making questions of form appear scholastic.

If your response is a moo, or a huh?, then have a seat, and can I offer you a drink? Who had this argument? What is “anti-realistic fiction”? What is the “traditional American novel”, and what are the “necessary innovations of postmodern fiction”? Is the former Moby Dick? Or Hawthorne? Or is he talking about Philip Roth? Is Pynchon postmodern? Personally, I can’t figure out what postmodernism added to fiction that you won’t find in Tristram Shandy. Shit, I guess Sterne and Melville just had natural, vivacious talent for telling stories. And I would like to believe that I’m cunningly alive myself, although, I don’t know . . . wouldn’t that imply that I prenatally pulled one over on my mom?

Again, this paragraph precedes a glowing review that really wants to make the case that Kushner is just some delightful raconteur spouting stories about absurd people, their stupid art and their dumb, failed revolutions. Just a storyteller! Oh, and a vivacious one, which also comes across as snide and condescending, as faint praise. The Flamethrowers is audacious not in its humor, although it’s funny, but in its seriousness. Its revolutions are doomed, but not because the revolutionaries are children or fools. Both her frauds and her real radicals are suffused with a terrible human want, and they crash against the unwillingness of the world to accommodate their desires. I suppose Wood would have them grow up and find desires that are more aligned with the will of the world. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the book ends in a question.

I don’t want to overtax the comparison of The Flamethrowers to The Savage Detectives, which was, as Caldwell put it, “nothing less than the life-cycle of a generation.” The Flamethrowers is in some ways broader than The Savage Detectives (and it actually takes place over at least three generations), but it is decidedly not epic. Of course, it isn’t “a contemporary rewriting of Flaubert’s novel of 1869, Sentimental Education” either, which is what Wood calls it before nailing (I use the term advisedly) the narrator as “like Frédéric Moreau […] a frustratingly malleable figure a hero almost vacuous except for the exactitude of her noticing.” It doesn’t help that Flaubert’s correspondence makes an appearance in the novel, which makes the comparison seem even more overdetermined—or overloaded, to use the Woodier term. If Reno has a fictional counterpart, it’s Christopher Isherwood, the guy who said that he was a camera, whom Wood would probably also call “wide-eyed and dangerously porous.” (By the way, would you call Isherwood traditional? Postmodern? Well, he wasn’t American, so whatever.) They have different locutions, but a similar eye, and they are both foreign interlopers in a world at once alluring and frightening, full of strivers, liars, men on the make, and opportunistic love affairs. Maybe that blurry margin is what makes Wood so uncomfortable that he’s got to start off with a disquisition apropos nothing else at all.