Built Out of Loneliness: Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

Skippy Dies, by Paul MurrayAbout halfway through Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, one of the schoolboy characters, Ruprecht, reconsiders the intracacies of his beloved String Theory:

Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.

The loneliness, Ruprecht believes (at least at this particular point in the novel) is a reflection of the subatomic, found in the universe’s constitutive open-ended strings.

Loneliness is this novel’s heart—even though the characters are all living in close proximity. And surely, poor Ruprecht, the candidate for the school’s Best Boy, is one of its most lonely: he does not have much going for him,“[a]part from being a genius.” This line seems, at first, ironic, but by the end of “Skippy Dies,” it ‘s evident that being a genius might not, in the end, amount to much at all.

Read more

Anxiety is Omnivorous; or, Can Reading Ever Be Bad For You?

I would recommend  this fantastic piece over at Guernica. It’s about the anxiety of the writer Daniel Smith, which prompts many questions about anxiety generally. Somehow I missed this one (it was published a little less than a month ago).

But it’s a must-read.

Smith has written about anxiety for the New York Times and has a forthcoming memoir about his experience with anxiety, Monkey Mind. He also has a great website. It’s hard to imagine someone who knows more about the topic. His writing sounds like a little more intellectual version of Nerve by Taylor Clark (a version with a bit more—or at least more severe—personal experience). Said Smith, in the article:

“If I had money, and space, and glory, would I still be anxious? I believe I would be, yes. I’m certain I would. Anxiety is omnivorous. Or at least my anxiety is. It feeds on what’s available.”

Besides this being a great piece of journalism by Katie Ryder, the story features an interesting comment Smith made in the article about what was “available” for the anxiety to feed on. In part, it seemed, it was books:

He found that James, Faulkner, O’Connor, Cheever, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Pynchon caused the icicle in his chest. Hemingway, Bellow, Updike, Doctorow, and Styron melted it away.

Do some writers tend to produce anxiety in readers while others “[melt] it away”? Or it an entirely personal? Reading this made me remember a somewhat parallel discussion in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello:

Specifically, she [Elizabeth] is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing.

The point I am considering is slightly different—slightly broader and probably dumber—than Elizabeth’s concern. Yet: What exactly is “bad” for a reader? Is there any consistency to it? Can’t we say that a book that’s “good” for someone is “bad” for another?  And if that’s true, then what are we supposed to then think of it? If TV melts people’s brains, why couldn’t certain books do something similar? Even—gasp—some literary fiction? Or is it simply a problem of venturing into certain territories (as Elizabeth seems to suggest) of the “desires”?

Obviously I certainly don’t have any answers to these questions. I like to think that constant reading is a method of self-improvement. At least, I suppose we should be careful with—as we would with what we eat—what we are putting into our bodies.

Essay on “Main-Travelled Roads” at The Millions.

My essay on the under-appreciated author Hamlin Garland is now live over at The Millions. It opens:

In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family’s farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: “The ugliness, the endless drudgery,” he later wrote, “and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot smote me with stern insistence.”

If you’ve not read Garland before, I’d recommend checking out some of the stories in Main-Travelled Roads. Many thanks to The Millions for publishing the piece. As the NY Times said, it’s truly the “indispensable” lit site.

Charles Olson and “The Art of Fielding”

Charles Olson

The scholar’s dream: the finding of a rare text that illuminates an author or a period of history, or that allows us to reconsider something we otherwise thought well-established. Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding, which I recently reviewed, contains such an event—an event, as it turns out, that was probably based on a real (and quirky) story. So far, at least in my perusal of commentary online about TAOF, this connection has seemed to escape the Internet’s notice.

Read more

Hamlin Garland

I received word today that the best lit blog on the Internet, The Millions, is going to publish my essay on the (sadly forgotten) writer Hamlin Garland. I’m thrilled. I wrote the piece after stumbling on “Under the Lion’s Paw” in an anthology, and then picking up a used copy of Garland’s debut collection of stories, Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now fairly obscure. Garland was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1922, and the stories that constitute the collection are actually pretty damn good (especially “Up the Coolly”—Garland wrote realist tales about midwestern farmers). Most of his works are in the public domain now, so you can read them for free on your iPad/Kindle/Nook/whatever.

So lots of thanks to the Millions.

Literary Boroughs: Omaha

Over at the usually-excellent Plougshares, the series Literary Boroughs makes a stop in Omaha:

It’s a terrific habitat for someone with a writerly sensibility, particularly in a recession: affordable housing, some quiet time, a culturally satisfying lifestyle, and a compassionate community willing to help you see your harebrained idea through to its fruition.

Including Jackson Street Booksellers (a must stop for me whenever I’m in town) was an obvious pick, as was the mention of one of Omaha’s best resident writers, Richard Dooling. Full disclosure: I know Rick and was a student of his during law school. White Man’s Grave is an superb novel, and if you have a Kindle/iPad, you should drop 99 cents and buy his short story “Bush Pigs.”

You Can Enjoy Almost Anything if You Give it Enough Time: Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

In Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls,” the local bartender, Bea, has become a fan of baseball despite her best efforts:

Having tended bar for forty years, Bea had watched several thousand ball games she had no interest in, only to discover at this late date that she’d picked up so damn much knowledge about baseball that she halfway enjoyed it. And she’d come to believe life was like that: you could enjoy almost anything if you gave it enough time.

Russo is surely one of the most sensible novelists, and “Empire Falls” is filled with similar such small gems. What Bea has experienced could broadly be how America views baseball, too. Although its popularity has been eclipsed by football and even basketball, America has picked up so much knowledge about baseball over the course of the nation’s history, that, well, it still halfway enjoys it. And so perhaps it should be unsurprising that Chad Harbach’s debut, The Art of Fielding, a.k.a. (as it seems to be known) “the baseball novel,” should be roughly analogous to the sport that drives its plot.

Read more

First post.

Just registered the site—and am going to get the blog up and running soon. I have been everywhere from Blogger to Tumblr, and now I’ve ventured off on my domain/site here, with some help from WordPress. This blog will focus on books and literature, my own writing and others’, with a dash of the other liberal arts thrown in. Thanks for reading.