Bryan: July 2008 Archives

Historical Fiction

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This summer's New York novels to date -- the books, that is, I've consumed on my vacation: Richard Price's Lush Life, Don DeLillo's Falling Man, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and about half of Kevin Baker's Dreamland.

All but the last are post-9/11 novels; I'm thinking hard, in particular, about similarities and differences between DeLillo's and O'Neill's -- why the prose is more satisfying in one but the other more satisfying overall, and what they each do with 9/11.

Delillo_bronx_1207576419.jpg But reading Baker, finally, has me thinking, too, of fiction and history, one of DeLillo's favorite topics (and mine too). I'll have more to say about all of the above novels over the next while, but for now here's a bit from an essay DeLillo published in the Times Book Review back in '97, around the time Underworld came out. I'm trying to think about how well his description holds up in a new century, when poststructuralism has finally started to lose its grip on academic imagination but when DeLillo's old ruminations on terrorists and novelists are heralded as prophetic and prescient (even as his new, post-9/11 novels are panned); and I'm trying to think about how well his ideas apply to fiction -- Baker's, say -- that unabashedly takes on the generic label "historical fiction."

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer's) and of all the people and things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers) he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

. . .

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book's life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional re-creation.

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers us, paradoxically, from history's flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a novel -- E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," say -- can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past. The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is exposed as merely contingent. In "Ragtime," history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic experiment.

Find the full essay here. To be continued ... maybe when I've consumed a few more 9/11 novels, or at least when I'm ready to come back to Baker's thoughts on similar topics, as promised way back when

So I've spent the better part of the last week holed up in a cabin somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, without the Internet, about as far from Gotham as you can get. The Movie was playing in town on the local one-screener, of course, since we're still talking about planet Earth, but we skipped it in favor of fly fishing and hiking from ski lifts to waterfalls.

Until today, that is, when we caught a plane to Seattle (and a smaller one from there to central WA) and, within a couple hours of dropping off our bags, hit the theater.


There's a lot to say about this latest incarnation of Gotham, including (as Cyrus pointed out earlier) its simultaneous invocation of Chicago and NYC, though I think a well-placed reference to the Bridge and Tunnel crowd tipped the balance in the latter's favor.

The above poster, in circulation at least since last April, should have signalled that this installment had Big Things to say about the Age of Terror. It's an image, though, that strikes a certain ambivalent note: the skyscraper's gash certainly aims to invoke the North Tower on 9/11; what to make of it, then, that the apparent sign of a terrorist strike comes in the shape of our hero? Is he standing in the foreground to confront the folks responsible, or is this his own doing?

The movie delivers in spades when it comes to wartime contextual references, though the ambivalence foreshadowed in the image above carries over enough to have provoked conflicting readings. Is Batman Bush, that is? And if so, how are we to feel about it? Or does the tagline about "a world without rules" align the current administration with the Joker instead? (I should have known I could count on EOTAW to come through when it came time for Bat-blogging: a more nuanced version of the latter argument holds that "The Joker isn't a stand-in for terrorists, then, but what clenched conservatives assume terrorists to be -- without plan, without complaint, without decency, without humanity.")

353545795_e5db3074fb.jpg Students from Writing New York will recall where we stand when it comes to aligning Batman's arch-enemies with our own gang of war criminals. (Our AV for that lecture, which accompanies our reading of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, contains a more subtle rendition of the image to the left.) But they will also recall the difficulties posed to Miller's influential rendering of the Batman myth (which stands behind Nolan's films even more than it did behind Burton's) by Miller's own ambivalence toward New York, whose crime-ridden streets he fled for sunny LA in the early '80s, prior to working on his Batman graphic novel. The context for Miller's Dark Knight prominently included Bernie Goetz, who gets name-checked in the novel. In other words, the best retellings of the Batman story have to come to grips with the cowboy equation of vigilante justice with Americanism.

Thumbnail image for miller batman.jpg

To the degree the recent movie succeeds (and I think it might be the best Batman film yet), it does so because it doesn't let its hero off the hook, though I'm willing to concede that bad readers (that is, the nation that somehow elected both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for two terms -- well, not so much "elected" as acquiesced to the fiat in the second case) might miss even the less subtle points of the film's anti-war agenda.

UPDATE: A former WNY student emails us with a link to an article looking back at Batman's gay past ... which ties to another section of our lecture quite nicely. Thanks!

I've spent the better part of the last few months finishing a chapter on the early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel (not to be confused with the Cambridge History of American Literature, the multivolume project Cyrus had a hand in producing).

brown_charles_brockden.jpgWorking on this piece reminded me again of something I was struck by while writing my dissertation (later revised as Republic of Intellect): that most critics and biographers have treated Brown as a Philadelphia writer, even though the majority of his best-known works -- his gothic novels Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Arthur Mervyn -- as well as his first magazine venture, The Monthly Magazine and American Review, were produced (if not always published) in New York. Brown may have come from a Philly Quaker background, that is, but he stands as an early example of an American writer who came to New York to launch his career. (Warning: the prior sentence risks anachronism, since New York was by no means established as the center of American publishing in the 1790s.)

Brown's first book, the philosophical dialogue  Alcuin, or the Rights of Women, recounts a series of conversations in a New York parlor, where the title character, an impoverished schoolmaster, carries on an exchange with the metropolitan salonierre Mrs. Carter on topics ranging from women's education to politics and the rules of polite conversation between the sexes. Here's a taste of the scene-setting, which reveals some of the narrator's insecurities as he anticipates the "scene" of conversation. Although the conversation itself is rather high-minded, think of these anxieties as an early version of Lou Reed's "New York Telephone Conversation." Alcuin narrates:

I looked at my unpowdered locks, my worsted stockings, and my pewter buckles. I bethought me of my embarrassed air, and my uncouth gait. I pondered the superciliousness of wealth and talents, the awfulness of flowing muslin, the mighty task of hitting on a right movement at entrance, and a right posture in sitting, and on the perplexing mysteries of tea-table decorum.

An early Woody Allen? Certainly there's room here for a comedy of manners. If you want to see how it unfolds, you can nab a used copy of the dialogue here, or find the Bicentennial Edition of Brown's works in your local library. That or shell out for volume one of the forthcoming Wadsworth Anthology of American Literaure, eds. Jay Parini and Ralph Bauer, which includes the dialogue in full with a headnote by yours truly. For more on Brown, visit the site of the Charles Brockden Brown Society.

Bowery Boys

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No, not the B'hoys, and not the early 20c stage and film crew variously known as Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids, and Bowery Boys (pictured above).

I'm talking about the fantastic NYC history blog featuring weekly podcasts on neighborhood history. The most recent one features the Meatpacking District.

Who are these guys, and how do they have so much time for quality blogging like this? I'm green with envy; in any case, we've added them to the "Keys to the City" links at right.

What is it that drives so many tourists, once they've paid the exorbitant costs to get to New York and house themselves, to go to dinner at the Olive Garden? It's something I'll never understand.

pioneer.JPGI had a similar thought the other day as we were waiting to board the Pioneer, the South Street Seaport Museum's 1885 steel-hull schooner. I've blogged about the Pioneer elsewhere and even wrote about it for my first post here last fall; I won't go into  too many details again.

But let me just say that on our sunny afternoon public sail we had only 6 passengers on the boat. (It holds  only 40 passengers max.) Meanwhile, a group of day campers in screaming loud tie-dye swarmed on board the obnoxious Shark one pier over, and right next to us hundreds of European tourists (and the few midwesterners who are braving the city this summer) waddled on board the Zephyr as if it were Noah's Ark. I don't know how many passengers the Shark holds, but the Zephyr can take up to 600!

zephyr.circleline.JPGWhy would anyone choose to restrict themselves to a narrow seat, crammed in with a million other people, only to float around so removed from the water that you feel like you're merely watching this all pass by on TV? Is this part of reality culture, that we want our real experiences to feel as if they're on screen?

I'll take a splash of the water over the side and help hoist my own sails anytime.

To find out more about sailing on the Pioneer click here.

p.s. Eliasson's waterfalls? Completely underwhelming. How can they not be stacked up against the Brooklyn Bridge or the skyline itself?

Or, if anyone wants to take this back to '94, maybe that should be the Wackness of the Whale?

Caleb Crain had the great idea to cut and paste the entire text of Moby-Dick into the online  tag-cloud widget Worldle, which he asked to search for the top 365 words. Here's what resulted:


And yes, by popular demand he set up a Cafe Press page so you can order it as a T-shirt. What about the mugs?

I thought about this image yesterday when my kids and I climbed on board the schooner Pioneer and, following the safety speech, the captain said out loud, to no one and everyone, in spite of the beautiful July skies: "Whenever it is a damp, drizzly, November in my soul ..." And then we went sailing.

In other NYC literary reference matters ...

Readers familiar with my left shoulder will know I wear my Whitmania on my sleeve, as it were. So I'm always tickled to find new Walt goodies on the Web. Until recently I'd never stumbled across the page Whitman's Brooklyn, which I highly recommend, especially to those who feel like the fellow sold out when he designated himself a son of Manhattan. Seriously, though, can you imagine it if the line went: "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Brooklyn the son"?

Finally, I should note that I found Whitman's Brooklyn via a comment on Edge of the American West, one of our favorite blogs. On a few occasions we've shamelessly borrowed the format for their regular "This Day in History" feature, and I'm sure we'll do so again. It's too good an idea not to steal. (Though I think Cyrus beat them to finding a relevant date for memorializing a Stones album.) On the 5th of July their newest contributor, SEK, a PhD candidate out on that side of the continent, put up some of Whitman's anonymous self-promotional meta-poetry to honor the anniversary of shamelessly promoting Leaves. (The anniversary for Leaves itself was, of course, on the 4th.) It's worth checking out if you've never seen it, but don't let it stand for returning to the original.

Today's Times article anatomizing the passengers of a random Q train car is a fitting follow-up to Cyrus's post yesterday. Reporters interviewed 99 out of 128 passengers for information about national and ethnic origin, age, employment and such; the piece suggests -- as pieces about subway riders are wont to do -- that the subway serves as a microcosm for New York's "tapestry." In the parlance of another era, we'd call it a "democratic conveyance," a mode of travel that  forces people from difference walks of life literally to rub shoulders. To use one of Cyrus's pet phrases, we could consider the subway an engine of cosmopolitanism.

I was reminded by the piece of a late-eighteenth-century account of travel by stage from New York to New Haven. It comes from the diary of a 25-year-old NYC physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, a central figure in my book Republic of Intellect. Here's his take on his fellow passengers, 29 November 1795, just following New York's yellow fever epidemic that year:

We were six, beside the driver: an old, greasy, gouty, lecherous Jew; a huge Irish manufacturer of Fleecy Hosiery; a South Carolina merchant; a middle-aged, decent Frenchman; a young mercantile Hamburger who spoke French & English; & myself. The Israelite was for fun and singing; but no one sung. He & the Irishman discust politics & The Fever. The Frenchman & the German, first fell on the French Emigrants, next on the Fever--& lastly upon this country. All these topics they handled, with prodigious volubility, in French. The Carolina growled a little, & muttered something on merchandise: I was silent. . . . A rambling talk, on religion, at Supper, gave opportunity to all the guests to discover their infidelity; & the Hebrew, in particular, disclaimed Moses & the prophets; & emphatically pronounced this sentence, that--'from Genesis to Revelations, all is trumpery.'

The Times article makes a point that 8 passengers with iPods refused to be interviewed, raising the well-worn specter that headphones are going to cause us all to be bowling alone someday. Nevertheless, the point remains that most subway riders wouldn't be as engaged with their fellow commuters in quite the way Smith was with his -- even though he clearly positions himself above them as an observer. And that doesn't even get to the issue of New Yorkers then and now who, by virtue of class, never condescend to ride with the rest of humanity.

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