As an update to my previous post, my second poetry book is now generally available. I checked and found it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and stopped there. Henceforth and until it no longer matters, if you live in the United States I would be happy to send you a signed copy for $17, including S/H, provided you are open to delayed gratification. If you live elsewhere I’m also happy to do it but need to research the shipping costs first. If you are interested and aren’t certain how to contact me, you can click on that plus sign (or the link called ‘Contact’) that should be near the header of this site, and contact me via e-mail, and we will make the arrangements.
In terms of new business, I recently finished reading this year’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and have begun reading it again. This time I’m taking notes so that when I’m done I can write something intelligent about it. As I make my way more carefully through the text, I am discovering the extent to which it is brimming with insights. It is also brimming with moments that make me laugh, which has made the deeper dive every bit as enjoyable as the first encounter. As an example of Beatty’s humor, consider the moment in which our narrator, who begrudgingly agrees to keep his friend Hominy Jenkins as a slave, at Hominy’s request, bemoans how little work you can actually get out of a slave these days. Particularly one that likes being punished. It’s insane of course, which makes it all the more hilarious.
In Beatty’s writing, humor comes from looking directly at what is and ignoring the most ignominious parts of what you see. Then you realize what you are laughing at and scratch your head. Hominy wants to be beaten because things have changed in his life and he has lost his relevance—what little relevance he once had. Hominy says, “Beat me to within an inch of my worthless black life. Beat me, but don’t kill me, massa. Beat me just enough so I can feel what I’m missing.”
“Isn’t there another way? Isn’t there something else that would make you happy?”
“Bring back Dickens.”
Dickens is the community in which the narrator was raised, and which has basically been forgotten. It has been stricken from the map, the road signs along the highway removed. The narrator can’t commit to bringing back the city, but feels obliged, having asked the question, to take Hominy on as his slave. There’s so much to unearth in this one exchange: the way little absurd loyalties cause us to miss the big picture, the way we manufacture drama to feel alive, the way our desires become distorted and turned inside-out by our desperation, and the way we feel when we are forgotten. I think it takes incredible skill to put so much in play in one construct, and I’ve really enjoyed discovering Paul Beatty’s writing. I look forward to trying to tease out some of the biggest themes of this book in a more thorough review.
Looking back, I’ve read many more authors who are new to me this year than previous years. I think it was because I increased my investment in reading commensurate with my investment into writing. Around this time last year I read White Noise by Don DeLillo, which I loved. I also read Underworld and End Zone, two of DeLillo’s other novels. DeLillo’s writing pushes me along like a blown and giddy leaf, flinging me here and there with the joyful intensity of his sentences. My stepson, who knows far more about these things than I do, once told me that DeLillo writes one paragraph per sheet of paper so that he can really focus on the perfection of the paragraph. His writing has the potent feel you might expect from such a process.
Here is the opening paragraph of End Zone, which is but two sentences in length: “Taft Robinson was the first black student to be enrolled at Logos College in West Texas. They got him for his speed.” Maybe you do not, but I still experience a flicker of euphoria when I read those two simple lines. How does he do that!? End Zone explores intersections and parallels between nuclear war and American football, and there is one chapter of utterly delicious play-by-play of a high stakes college football game.
DeLillo describes his own writing pretty well in this quote I found on Perival.com, “For me, well behaved books with neat plots and worked-out endings seem somewhat quaint in the face of the largely incoherent reality of modern life; and then again fiction, at least as I write it and think of it, is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment, and it is language, in its beauty, its ambiguity and its shifting textures, that drives my work.”
In reflecting on my own enjoyment of reading, I think the beauty inherent in well-crafted prose is indeed something of a revelation, for the words are not the thing, but neither is the thing the thing, really. The thing is this nebulous light, this gossamer thread we see here and there, stitching together the elements of our lives into something beautiful. When we read fiction we are once-removed from its contingencies, freed of the consequences we assign to our own daily affairs, and thus able to see this light as it emerges naturally in the story. Of course what we are seeing is the way our own lives are each more than they seem: currents of narrative and grace that are revealed in the unexpected…