Alejandro Zambra’s “The Private Lives of Trees”

•August 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cross-posted at Words Without Borders

“He has just finished a very short book; nevertheless, it took several years to write. At first he gathered materials: he accumulated almost three hundred pages; but he gradually reversed course, throwing more and more away, as if instead of adding stories he wanted to subtract or erase them. The result was paltry:  an emaciated sheaf of forty-seven pages that he insists on calling a novel.”

The Private Lives of Trees

In his first work of fiction, Alejandro Zambra introduced himself to readers with a slim novella that wears its architecture on its surface, a love story that begins by announcing its ending, and ends right back at the beginning. Bonsai opens on Emilia and Julio, a pair of college students who meet, read Proust and follar, until on page 35, their stories diverge. Per the first paragraph, Emilia dies and Julio does not, spending his days transcribing a failed novel called “Bonsai.” At 83 pages with ample margins, Bonsai is more of a prose poem than a novella, and were it not for Zambra’s habit of revealing his literary designs, it might be mistaken for one, too.

“A bonsai is an artistic replica of a tree, in miniature,” Julio learns in a manual on plant care. “It consists of two elements: the living tree and the container.” The bonsai makes its first appearance as a metaphor for love, but fittingly, it grows beyond its confines. Appearing in both of his novels, the bonsai mimics the duality of Zambra’s literary approach. It connotes love and the fictions that maintain it, the novel itself, and the act of writing. Both efforts are bound by a leap of faith, and the bonsai—in all its forms—marks this motion. “Once outside its flowerpot, a tree ceases to be a bonsai,” Julio’s manual says, and the novel’s self-consciousness sustains this balance. By calling attention to fiction—and reminding readers that his characters are just that—Zambra powerfully evokes the tension between reality and literature.

As a poet, critic, and novelist, Zambra is a young and rising star in his native Chile. Prior to Bonsai, he published two books of poetry, taught literature at a private Santiago university, and worked as a critic at a handful of newspapers. Following the novella’s 2006 release, his reputation surpassed Chile’s borders. Zambra was awarded a national Critics’ Prize for Bonsai, and ranked among the “Bogota 39”—one of the top 39 Latin American authors under that age.

In 2007’s The Private Lives of Trees, Zambra returns to the intersection of art, life and the botanical with the story of Julián, a literature professor who distracts his young stepdaughter as he worries that his wife may never come home. “Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with ‘The Private Lives of Trees,’ an ongoing story that he’s made up to tell her at bedtime,” the book begins, setting the 98-page novella over the course of an evening. The plot is a riff on the Arabian Nights, but rather than spare Julián from his agony, words accentuate it. When Daniela falls asleep, Julián tells himself his own story, merging memory and speculation in the style of a fever dream.

Between stories about trees and recollections of lovers, Julián imagines the worst for his wife. “It’s 4:00 in the morning, and Julián reconsiders a possibility that earlier he had thoroughly rejected: Veronica is not held up on a distant avenue, but rather in the house of a man who this time has convinced her not to go home.” He vacillates between anger, loss, and negotiation. “’If we get out of this,’ thinks Julián, ’we’ll save some money and go on vacation to Valdivia or Puerto Montt, or maybe its better not to hope too much: if we get out of this we will go, on Saturday, finally, to see the snow.” While Bonsai’s narrator has the smugness of omniscience, Julián does not, and the cruelty of time lies in unforeseeable futures. Eventually, urgency gives way to dreaming, and Julián becomes a secondary character in his own story.

Private Lives is more personal than Bonsai, but it lacks its predecessor’s intimacy. If Bonsai is about how the shared deceptions of love are created and broken (“the first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust”) then Private Lives deals with the necessary fictions we create for ourselves. Sadly, Zambra doesn’t execute this as well as he could, and his attempts to build an interior world seem a shade too expository. Julián never becomes more than a stranger, and for a master literary architect, Zambra’s ending feels forced.

In a review in La Vanguardia, critic J.A. Masoliver Rodenas observed that “Zambra doesn’t make metaliterature . . . but simply reproduces the textuality of life.” Coming from a tradition of loud experimentation, Zambra’s quietude is all the more striking. In Bonsai and Private Lives the fourth wall between reader and narrator is absent, and a space is left open for those who reside within books. For his characters—and I suspect many of his readers—textuality is life, and the craft of his writing is to celebrate and lament it.

Zambra once wrote that the great secret theme of Chilean literature is the abyss between the spoken and written. In Chile, he says, writing is viewed suspiciously, and “there are many words that we say but don’t write and without a doubt many phrases that we write but don’t say.” Zambra’s work lives in this interstitial space of language, and he grapples with the silence between them, attacking the perception of literature as tomb. “If you wrote a book,” one of his character says after hearing an unpleasant anecdote, “you wouldn’t have to tell me the story you just told me.” If Zambra continues to produce writing as canny as he has, the abyss will diminish, fiction could cease to be a place to hide.


Finance for Beginners: Michael Lewis on Wall Street

•June 14, 2010 • 1 Comment

Posted to Idiom on June 8

In 1985, a Princeton grad with a degree in art history took a job at Salomon Brothers, the white-shoe investment bank that presided over Wall Street during the bull market of the 1980s, and not for nothing, earned a mention in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Only three years out of college and armed with a masters degree in economics, Michael Lewis spent several months in the Salomon training program before being shunted off to London to pass twelve hour workdays moving millions of dollars of other people’s money. “To this day,” Lewis marveled several years later, “the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grown-ups remains a mystery to me.”

Lewis only lasted for three years, but his timing couldn’t have been better: Salomon CEO John Gutfreund (pronounced ‘good friend’) had just taken the firm public, setting off the domino effect that would soon normalize six-figure salaries—and five-figure bonuses—and play a role in the 1987 market collapse crisis. Young traders were getting in when the getting was good, and as a self-appointed embedded anthropologist, Lewis was there to watch as a profession historically regarded as tame gave way to all-expense-paid Wall Street culture. When he published his debut book Liar’s Poker the following year, the gods smiled on Lewis’ timing once again: Salomon was in the midst of its precipitous downfall, and junk bonds—a topic featured heavily in the book—were implicated in the crash.

In a 2008 essay for Portfolio magazine that would later serve as the introduction for his book on the financial crisis, Lewis laid out the central concerns motivating Liar’s Poker—the unmooring of global capital from immediate stakes; the cult of easy money growing up around deregulation, and the seemingly arbitrary individuals (such as himself) assigned as its caretakers. Picking up from earlier:

I was 24 years old with no experience of or particular interest in guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

Within months of being published, Liar’s Poker became required reading for anybody with either a passing interest in finance or the alpha male ecosystem of ‘80s bond trading. Two decades later, it’s often grouped with other rise-and-fall accounts of the period—The Bonfire of the Vanities and Barbarians at the Gate rank among its contemporaries—but as one critic observes, Liar’s Poker has long been considered “the gold standard for the genre.”

The book’s title comes from a betting game traders played on the floor, and in the opening anecdote, Gutfreund challenges a top bond trader to a $1 million bet, only to be outdone when the trader suggests raising the stakes to “ten million dollars. No tears.” This pretty much sets the mood of Lewis’ Wall Street—a high-stakes casino where the money is always somebody else’s, and fitting in means emulating a frat boy. While several critics have noted that Wall Street pay usually comes in the form of restricted stock—a policy that forces traders to have a stake in the game—it’s still tough to challenge Lewis’ free-wheeling account of ‘80s excess. In a memorable example of trading floor shenanigans, bankers steal clothes from a colleague’s suitcase before he departs on a business trip; and in another, Lewis recounts the head of the mortgage department pouring a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream into an employee’s jacket pockets and instructing him to “buy a new one” when the trader complains.

As a financial wonk and Berkeley liberal, Lewis’ books have the rare quality of appealing to two audiences at once: bankers and people who consider reading financial journalism on par with a trip to the dentist. (I fall into the latter camp). In Liar’s Poker, passages about mortgage-backed bonds and credit default swaps—boiled down to their most digestible essentials—are interspersed with accounts of the self-described “Big Swinging Dicks” that ran the show, casting doubt on any theories that statistical failures were entirely to blame for looming financial troubles.

Lewis once claimed that his unofficial goal for writing Liar’s was to convince “some bright kid at Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer [to]… spurn the offer from Goldman Sachs, and set out to sea.” This backfired dramatically. “Six months after Liar’s Poker was published,” Lewis writes, “I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.”

If the cautionary aspects of the book were lost on readers, Lewis’ follow-up, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, takes pains to avoiding repeating the same mistake, and this time, he’s got a painful recent history to help him make his case. In The Big Short, Lewis returns to Wall Street twenty-one years later to pick through the ruins of the post-crash markets and figure out who, if anybody, foresaw the apocalypse and came out triumphant. This isn’t the story of the crisis per se, but an account of how financial norms set the stage for disaster, and how several savvy Nostradamuses capitalized on the fall.

The anti-heroes of The Big Short are Steve Eisman, an abrasive subprime analyst; Mike Burry, an autistic one-eyed value investor; and Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai, a pair of absent-minded money managers who take up residency in a Berkeley garage and never quite manage to shake their outsider status. For a variety of reasons, all these men recognize early on that the subprime mortgage market is built on sand, and despite sharing the insight with anybody that would listen—including Eisman’s dentist—they are largely ignored until the housing bubble pops. This is primarily a story of personalities, and though none of Lewis’ protagonists could be described as sympathetic, viewed against the amorphous forces of Wall Street, they come across as almost endearing, or at least only mildly distasteful.

While the rest of the financial world was busy gorging itself on the booming subprime market, the central insight of Lewis’ protagonists was unnervingly basic: a bond market that had grown to half a trillion dollars in 2005 (a figure that made the stock market look like “a zit” in comparison) was fundamentally worthless. Banks had developed sophisticated systems for extending credit to people who would never be able to pay it back, and thanks to increasing complex instruments for repackaging debt, few bankers selling bonds had any idea what they actually contained. For the benefit of non-wonky readers, Lewis explains the basic logic at work in subprime mortgages:

A giant number of individual loans got piled up into a tower. The top floors got their money back and so got the highest ratings from Moody’s and S&P and the lowest interest rate. The low floors got their money back last, suffered the first losses, and got the lowest ratings from Moody’s and S&P. Because they were taking on more risk, the investors in the bottom floor [the mezzanine] received a higher rater of interest than the investors in the top floor.

Theoretically, credit rating agencies were responsible for evaluating and policing these floors, but thanks to a loophole that allowed banks to shop around for ratings—not to mention a revolving door between Wall Street and rating agencies—the name of the game became hiding risk. Math and physics PhD were deployed to create opaque financial instruments that lumped together thousands of bonds—a process unironically called securitization—and the end products, collateralized debt obligations, ended up soliciting high ratings for risky loans and keeping naked emperors bragging about their respective wardrobes. While the internal dynamics were often poorly understood among their peddlers, the products were a runaway success, and ultimately, a main culprit in the crisis. When the SEC filed suit against Goldman Sachs last April for withholding information from investors, a key piece of evidence was an obscure CDO whose creator described his duplicitous product as the work of “intellectual masturbation.”

With varying degrees of insight about the landmines embedded in the financial system, Lewis’ protagonists set out to short the subprime mortgage market, essentially betting that one of the most profitable sectors of the economy was headed for implosion. And of course, they were right. By late 2007, only several months after the industry held a self-congratulatory conference in Vegas, the market started to melt. Banks were forced—for the first time—to accurately price subprime mortgages and come to terms with a numbers that were unthinkable only several months before. Suddenly, one of the largest crashes in financial history was on the brink of becoming reality, and only a handful of investors were left to say I told you so.

It’s worth mentioning that the people at the heart of the affair—buyers taking advantage of easy loans—are virtually absent from the narrative. Apart from the occasional reference to a Mexican strawberry picker with a $14,000 income and a $724,000 home (or the Vegas stripper with five mortgages) the crisis is mediated through hedge funders and analysts; financial insiders who happened to find themselves on the opposing side of mainstream opinion. Lewis isn’t particularly interested in getting the other side of the story, but in light of how much time he spends explaining how bankers justified risky practices to themselves, it would be helpful to know what things looked like on the other side of the financial divide.

With regard to the question of blame, in some respects, Lewis’ books resemble the films of documentarian Alex Gibney, a director best known for Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Gibney eschews the ‘bad apple’ theory of systemic collapse, and instead hones in on how insulated cultures—financial, political, military—become perverted, continually rationalizing and disguising their own inconsistencies until the burden becomes too great to bear. While Lewis does pick his villains—John Gutfreund returns to feast on deviled eggs in the final scene of The Big Short—he also reads the subprime crash as symptomatic of deeper, culturally sanctioned flaws. Neither Gibney nor Lewis ever suggest that they see disaster coming—although sometimes the clarity of their narratives lead readers to this conclusion—but they do provide compelling accounts of how things go wrong, and more significantly, the ways in which people learn how to miss what’s right in front of them.

Since its publication, The Big Short, as with Liar’s Poker before it, has become something of a handbook for its financial age. A recent Politico article notes that the book “has been mentioned at least 15 times on the Senate floor,” and there’s been speculation that several of the SEC’s recent lawsuits have taken their cues from Lewis’ narrative. As a longtime critic of banking culture, and more recently, a politically influential one, Lewis has become a powerful voice for reform—a process that’s largely swayed between pro-business interests and populist anti-bankerism. By drawing unlikely readers into one of the most important—and abstruse—national conversations of the day, Lewis is doing his part to carve out a third path between these camps. With the long process of financial reform only beginning to get off the ground, his timing, once again, couldn’t have been better.

New Stuff

•May 4, 2010 • 1 Comment

Hey folks.

I’ve got new stuff up at The Believer and The New Republic. Don’t think it’s kosher to post them here yet, so I’ll just link for now.

Treme Has Arrived.

•April 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cross-posted to the Huffington Post

After releasing a breakthrough first novel, it’s not uncommon for writers to have a particular reaction to the challenge of producing a follow-up: they choke. Zadie Smith and Mark Haddon both fell victim to Second Novel Syndrome; and in one of the more dramatic casualties — after decades of work and hundreds of aborted pages — Ralph Ellison never quite managed to eke out his long-awaited second manuscript. With four TV shows and twelve years at the Baltimore Sun’s City Desk under his belt, David Simon is by no means an amateur writer, but still, the prospect of unveiling a new project after masterminding what’s widely considered the best show ever aired on TV has got to come with at least a little bit of pressure.

To compound the matter, when Simon first announced that he was working on a show about post-Katrina New Orleans, excitement about the news was rivaled by an equal degree of skepticism. After all, Simon knew Baltimore—he went to college in Maryland, worked the crime beat at the Sun, and spent years making the city his home. New Orleans, however, was a different story, and it wasn’t his.

But if the first episode of Treme is any indication, Simon fans and defensive New Orleanians can relax. For all the hype building up to Treme’s release—a New York Times Magazine cover, a “Fresh Air” interview, multiple Twitter countdowns—the show reflects the best of Simon’s ability, and avoids the pitfall of transplanting inner city Baltimore eleven hundred miles further south. Unlike The Wire, which Simon famously described as “a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces,” Treme strikes a distinctly more human tone. Broadly speaking, the show is about musicians rebuilding their lives in a battered city, and Simon isn’t out to impose any kind of overarching agenda. If The Wire is at least partly about the culture of crime that grew up out of institutional failure, then Treme is simply about the culture of perseverance (and the perseverance of culture) that rise up when everything else goes to hell.

Appropriately, the most striking aspect of the show is its music. The beginning of the first episode opens with a familiar face—Wendell Pierce, formerly Detective Bunk Moreland, now trombonist Antoine Batiste—running late for a jazz parade and unable to cover the taxi fare. (In a jab to musicians, Batiste’s chronic brokeness is a running gag throughout the show). The parade’s music lures Davis McAlary (a wise-ass local DJ played by Steve Zahn) out into the streets, and a later, especially entertaining scene pits McAlary’s NOLA hip-hop against his neighbors’ more classical taste. To his credit, while Simon’s soundtrack gives the city a voice—and counters the idea that jazz is the city’s only native musical son–what’s equally arresting is the show’s use of silence. It took New Orleans three years to recover two-thirds of its pre-Katrina population, and Treme is shot only three months after the storm. For as much attention as Simon pays to survivors, the city’s ghosts are never far off.

As he likes to do, Simon tackles the big themes of the Big Easy though a carefully chosen ensemble cast. There’s a musician, a DJ, a chef and a civil-rights attorney, not to mention an irascible John Goodman unable to stop dropping f-bombs while granting interviews about Katrina. (He’s an English professor). Clarke Peters, last seen as Lester Freamon, returns as Albert Lambreaux, a repatriated Mardi Gras chief who produces the show’s most visually memorable moment while dancing down the street in his best parade gear. Many of the show’s characters take their inspiration from real life (Goodman and Zahn are based off of a local blogger and jazz DJ, respectively) and in honor of the premiere, the Times-Picayune is running a series on the New Orleanians behind Treme characters.

We’re only one episode in, but the show is clearly running on Simon’s narrative metabolism—there aren’t any cliffhangers to lure viewers back the following week, and Treme betrays few of the tics that viewers have come to expect from TV writing. This takes a while to get used to, but it seems well suited to the city at hand. Additionally, it lets Simon play to his strength: taking his time to develop complexity. It’s been said that this kind of narrative leisure is a luxury only afforded at HBO, but in terms of how well it works, it’s not HBO, it’s David Simon.

In what threatens to become an unfortunate sound byte, Simon described New Orleans to the Times as a city that produces moments. “Detroit used to make cars,” Simon told Wyatt Mason. “Baltimore used to make steel and ships. New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments.” This is undoubtedly cheesy (which Simon acknowledges) but when taken seriously, it’s also how Treme avoids feeling like cultural tourism. It’s the show’s moments that stand out, and they do so with striking vividness. It’s too early, and generally pointless, to speculate whether Treme will be better than The Wire, but for the time being, it’s off to a great start.

Q&A With Etgar Keret

•April 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Cross-posted to Idiom

Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s short film What About Me? opens on an Israeli border guard lazing about a checkpoint in the middle of the desert. When a salesman and his donkey approach, the guard informs the man that his papers aren’t in order—it’s a purple day—and that he’ll have to come back the next morning. “What about me?” the donkey asks. His papers are purple, and he’s allowed through. “Don’t worry, Nasser, by ten tomorrow I’ll be back,” the donkey remarks as he crosses the border. The man disappears, and as camera pans out, and the audience sees that the checkpoint is just that—a gate without walls, and a young soldier monitoring the vast expanses of nothingness on either side.

As a nod to Kafka’s parable Before the Law, the four-minute film—like much of Keret’s work— bears more than a little resemblance to its literary predecessor, give or take a talking donkey and chatty dog. Like Kafka, Keret is less interested in characters than in situations, and his protagonists usually find themselves accepting surreal and unexplained events (crazy-glued apartments, dead babies) with a sense of casual resignation. In Hat Trick, a story from Keret’s 2008 collection Girl on the Fridge, a bumbling magician is delighted and horrified when gruesome new items begin materializing in his hat, and in Knockoff Venus, an office worker develops a crush on the Roman goddess Venus, who’s taken a day job as a low-level copyist. The emotions undergirding Keret’s stories are familiar ones—loneliness, love, fear—but rather than addressing them outright, Keret literalizes them elsewhere, creating worlds in which the unspoken punctures reality with a bizarre and disturbing force.

Keret is widely known in Israel as one of the country’s leading writers, and six years after first being translated into English, he’s been gaining momentum on this side of the Atlantic as well. In addition to Girl, Keret’s published five other books (including two comics) and produced a handful of scripts for TV and film, several of which—including What About Me— were co-written with his wife, Shira Geffen. In lit-fanboy circles, Keret is best known as a leading practitioner of flash fiction—quick, tightly-managed stories often executed like jokes—and in cinephile crowds, he’s recognized for his abstract and darkly funny meditations on serendipity and death. Unlike other Israeli writers of his generation, Keret’s writing tends to avoid religion or politics, allowing him sidestep the country’s historical hang-ups while investigating the kinds of weird subjective experiences that tend to push people towards God or government in the first place.

Last week, BAM paid homage to Keret’s eclectic body of work with its own kind of flash retrospective, opening with his 2007 film Jellyfish (winner of the 2007 Camera d’Or at Cannes) and closing two days later with Wristcutters a film set in a post-suicidal purgatory mysteriously populated by the likes of Will Arnett and Tom Waits. As an author whose writing relies heavily on images, Keret’s stories are well suited for translation onto the big screen, and the series didn’t disappoint. In Jellyfish, visions of children emerging from the ocean and newlyweds trapped in claustrophobic hotel rooms are paired with quieter, more haunting details—a shirt twitches almost imperceptibly in a photograph, and a new bride’s lingerie reappears in storefront window. While these touches often go unnoticed on the page, they leave a subtle impression on the viewer, overlaying films that are already cryptic with an uncanny sense of visual déjà vu.

Keret is more of an atmospheric filmmaker than a narrative one, and his films downplay linearity in favor of carefully orchestrated ambiance. In $9.99, a film that sometimes feels like the claymation version of Happiness, characters drift around a Sydney apartment building like ghosts, silently craving a greater sense of purpose. More often than not, their searches take them in the wrong direction: a boy falls in his love with his piggy bank, a man removes his spine to please his girlfriend, and another character resorts to the discount self-help books referenced in the film’s title. Like much of Keret’s work, $9.99 tows the line between creepy and comic, but ultimately ends on a note of understated optimism, leaving viewers baffled but free of the post-Solondz urge to spend the evening in a closet with a bottle of whiskey.

To call Keret a postmodern writer isn’t wrong, but it’s not fully accurate, either. As he’s said in interviews, Keret is the product of Israel’s schizophrenic culture and a family that’s already the stuff of fiction (his brother is a militant anarchist and his sister an ultra-Orthodox Jew). A sensitivity to nuance, in short, is embedded in his personal DNA, and one gets the impression that it didn’t take a literary movement to get him there. “Our subjective experience is not a realistic one,” Keret told Ira Glass at BAM last week, and if his writing is based on any kind of realism, it’s true stories that are nearly unbelievable, the kinds of rare and singular moments that elude the one-to-one relationship of reality and language. In chasing these moments, Keret creates his own symbolic vocabulary, letting the reader (or viewer) know what he’s getting at without the baggage of context or explanation. After all, sometimes it just takes is a talking donkey to convey how arbitrary things really are. Before he came to BAM, I caught up with Keret to talk about fiction, cinema, and one very unusual laptop bag.


Jessica Loudis: First things first. How did you get into writing?

Etgar Keret: I started writing when I was nineteen. It was during the three years of my compulsory army service. I had forty-eight hours shifts in a computer unit and during one of those shifts I wrote my first story, called Pipes.

JL: What was the story about?

EK: It was about a guy who builds those curled up pipes and rolls marbles through them. One day he builds a pipe that when he rolls marbles in they don’t come out the other end. He believes the marbles are disappearing and decides to build a big pipe in the same shape and crawl into it until he disappears.

I guess I really wanted to disappear those days.

JL: Your short stories tend to begin with these surreal, yet weirdly logical premises. How do you usually come up with the ideas behind them?

: I don’t do it on purpose; it’s just the way I think. When I begin a story it usually comes from a character, a situation, a visual image or even a sentence—it is never from what I’d define as a premise.

JL: So what would be an example of something just popping into your head and you turning it into a story?

EK: I was once in a bar and a drunk guy waved an empty bottle and threatened to break the bottle on my head. It was really noisy there and I misheard him saying that he was going to put me inside that bottle. A friend of mine with better hearing and stronger survival instincts said we should run out of there. While we were running this image of me being shrunk and kept inside a bottle stayed in my mind and I found myself writing a story. It wasn’t about the trapped in the bottle bit, more about loneliness and unfulfilled love (guess that was what I’ve experienced during that time) but that image of a guy inside a bottle appeared in it.

JL: What made you decide to start making films?

EK: Loneliness. Writing fiction is a pretty lonely business and I wanted to meet people and collaborate with them.

JL: Is for writing for film different from the way you usually work? Have there been any unexpected challenges?

EK: Writing short fiction is a completely internal process—there’s no interaction with the world around you. Working on film is completely the opposite, for good and for bad. What you learn as a filmmaker is that the friction with reality can lead your film away from the original plan, but that isn’t always a bad thing.

JL: Are there any specific authors or filmmakers who have influenced your writing?

EK: Many. The biggest influence was Kafka. It was really comforting to discover someone who is even more scared of life than I am.

JL: What are you currently reading/watching/listening to?

EK: I just discovered “The Wire” a few months ago. I’ve just finished watching the fourth season. This series is a master class in storytelling.

JL: You seem to have traveled a lot over the past few years to promote your books and films—what’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you while you’ve been on a book tour?

: When I landed in Perth I took somebody else’s laptop bag by mistake. He found me and after giving me my laptop back showed me he had $40,000 in cash in the bag.

JL: Wow. Did he say what the money was for?

EK: He was very polite but said that he would rather not tell why he was carrying all that money in the bag.

JL: What Are you working on at the moment?

EK: I’ve just finished the editing process of a collection of short stories that will be published in Israel in a month’s time.

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On the passing of J.D. Salinger

•February 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

An Idiom roundtable, so it seems.


Alice Gregory: By this point, thanks to his own mythologizing, Salinger seems more like a celebrity than an author to me, and like the death of so many celebrities, his seems anti-climactic, not only because of his age and reclusiveness, but also because being that famous amounts to not really being alive in the minds of others.

I’m certainly not one to mourn Salinger’s death. His work never really resonated with me all that much – 9 Stories more than Catcher and Franny, but still, I was never able to locate his “genius.” There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how Catcher should be read as a grief narrative, which I think may be correct. I never found Holden’s (now proverbial) angst at all enlightening or nuanced. I much prefer A Separate Peace, for instance. Despite what many people lament, I actually think that the cultural products disseminated from Salinger’s work are excellent, perhaps to the point of magnifying his greatness in retrospect (all those prep school movies: Igby Goes Down, The Graduate even).

I will admit to appreciating his ability to perfectly capture a now-long-gone East Coast world (toggle coats, mid-century hotels, The Museum of Natural History). Coming from California, it always seems exotic, platonic, and totally worth striving to find or recreate (cue Vampire Weekend comparison?). But Cheever (Goodbye, My Brother and The Swimmer, eg) and Updike (A&P, eg) do this too, and much better. By writing from the perspective of an adolescent, he gives voice to readers who are in their most formative stage. It’s not a trick, but I think it lends his writing a gravitas that should be attributed more to the 14-year-old reader than to Salinger himself.

Stephen Squibb: I absolutely agree about the adolescent source of Salinger’s gravitas.

I remember hearing about the book long before reading it. There was this girl on the playground in elementary school that was always breaking news bulletins about the adult world. A sort of town crier for the future. These were mostly inappropriate things she seemed to have picked up from her hippie father after or during her parent’s divorce. One of them, however, was the profound significance of The Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember what she said about it, exactly, only that it was conveyed with that peculiar combination of energy and ignorance proper to a certain species of know-it-all fifth grader. In any case, I sought the thing out and read it with a mixture of disappointment and confusion.

I still feel that way, to a certain extent, even after multiple revisits. Reading Catcher is like wearing someone else’s glasses, curious at first and not entirely pleasant; a strong prescription. That said, there are several moments in the text that I remember vividly. Ackley, the disgusting pimple pincher from the beginning. The sad prostitute. The fact that its very clearly a look back at a moment of pointed madness, rather than a portrait of adolescence itself: “this madman stuff that happened to me around last christmas.” It always seemed strange to me that people wanted to hold it up as representative of something so much larger than that.

My favorite moment though, and one I think about more than I’d care to admit, is when our man meets up with this female friend, whose looks I’m pretty sure he disparages from the outset. They spend the afternoon together and then Holden says this:

I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.

Which I still think might be the best rendering of male desire, adolescent or otherwise, I’ve ever encountered. Far from being superficial, or sex-obsessed, or deceitful, its just viciously inconsistent. Capricious to the point of unintelligibility. Disorienting. Holden’s incredible anger at his own feelings is still the best thing about him.

I never got into the rest of Salinger’s work so much. Except for Bannanafish, which I will pass over in silence because overanalyzed.

Getting back to your celebrity point though, I don’t ever remember hearing about Salinger or Catcher without also hearing that he was a recluse. The two pieces of knowledge came hand in hand. His was the writing of a recluse, so it was always already touched by that mysticism our culture reserves for those sad, mad or glad enough to leave it. And I’ve never figured out if it was fair to blame him for its obvious shortcomings by that standard.

AG: I meant to ask about the male-ness of it all. I wonder if part of my own estrangement from Catcher stems from being a girl. I didn’t remember the passage you quoted until just now, which is surprising, because that’s exactly how, especially in high school, I always suspected/hoped/feared (in equal measure) boys felt. This exact suspicion/hope/fear explains so much adolescent girl-affect, which might be the most embarrassing thing in the world to witness in others only a few years later.

I suspect you’re right in calling it out as a specific story that readers then telescope out from in order to make it more general than it really is. In high school classes, it’s used as an example – not only of objective correlatives (remember that hat?) – but also of a “universal voice,” one that everyone can relate to. I don’t think that’s true, which is fine, many great books don’t succeed in this.

Jessica Loudis: While I’m certainly not the best person to defend Salinger (I’ve included a list of recommend reading below to compensate for my shortcomings), I have to say, I don’t think you two are giving J.D. a fair shake.

I read Catcher In the Rye around the time when postwar coming-of-age novels were required elementary school reading (possibly 6th grade?) and I remember being struck by Caulfield’s off-kilter slang and vaguely psychopathic tendencies—as well as being shocked by the fact he could simply run away without fear of parental reproach. But even as I admired the novel, it never really resonated, and until college I dismissed many of its advocates as teenage fanboys happy to find a justification for hating their daddies in one of literature’s most overexposed rebels.

Years later, while recovering from jetlag at a friend’s place in London, I came upon a copy of Nine Stories and decided to give Salinger another shot. Stephen, you sidestep getting into Bananafish because you say it’s been picked clean, but for my money, it’s one of the best and most haunting short stories ever written. (Not a particularly original statement, I know, but the last line always gives me chills). Alice, as for his claim to genius, I’d argue that it lies in his ability to capture the fragility of individual worlds with humor and razor-edged detail, and in his kid-centered stories, to speak to the moment in our lives when we first recognize the fallibility of authority. This may seem gimmicky now, but Salinger literally forged the language that made his successors possible.

Regarding Salinger’s talent at “captur[ing] a now-long-gone East Coast world,” I’d say that the world itself is less interesting as a study of Upper West Side parlor rooms and three-martini lunches than as an enactment of already-cloistered characters shrinking farther into their own psychological insularities. From Franny and Zooey to Hapworth 16, 1924, Salinger’s characters increasingly distance themselves from the world Holden Caulfield famously characterized as “full of phonies”; falling into eating disorders, depression, and in Seymour’s case, suicide. To note the obvious, it’s not exactly a leap to consider how the Glasses’ hermetic tendencies developed alongside those of our anti-hero author. I also want to add that although Salinger rejected the label of Jewish-American writer, it’s not insignificant that he believed he was fully Jewish (his mother had converted at marriage) until the age of nineteen, and his vision of New York seems somehow tinted by this extra layer of outsiderness.

Finally, Salinger’s reclusiveness always struck me as the least interesting part of his authorial persona, except in that it suggests exactly how deeply his relationship to the public was intertwined with his writing. Despite his Garbo-esque demands to be left alone, Salinger was never entirely disconnected from the world he struggled with. There have been periodic signs of life: last year, he emerged from his cocoon to file suit against a would-be copycat trying to release an unauthorized sequel to Catcher, and in 1974, he granted his last interview to a New York Times. But if the Big Question is whether Salinger spent the last fifty years writing, I’d add another one: to what extent did he actually cut himself off from society? Did he know his neighbors? Own a TV or computer? If Salinger did adopt the full-fledged Unabomber lifestyle, I doubt he could continue to tap into the anxieties and insight that made his early fiction so brilliant.

But for the sake of readers like you two, I certainly hope that he did.

Recommended Salinger criticism:

Adam Gopnik and A.M. Holmes in the New Yorker
Nathan Heller and Troy Patterson in Slate
Janet Malcolm in The New York Review of Books

Herzog Reads Curious George.

•January 17, 2010 • 1 Comment