This Week's Show • 5/24/18

Remembering Philip Roth

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his ...

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his last big counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. My reward was the chance to record what stands up very nicely here. Meantime, he’d written the slim late novella, Everyman, about an old New Jersey athlete with a failing heart, pondering broken relationships, physical decay and coming extinction.

Philip Roth spoke – not to mention: wrote — the American language like nobody else. From Newark, New Jersey and then the University of Chicago, Philip Roth had emerged in the nineteen fifties full of scandalous humor and classical ambitions as well – part Henny Youngman, part Henry James, as he said of himself in his youth. By 2006, he was wrapping up a bounteous late burst of novels. He was also down at heart on the turn of events from 9.11 into the war in Iraq: “an orgy of national narcissism,” in his view. At the age of 73, with us, he sparkled through his grim notes on the dimming of his energy, the paring down of his own rich life, and what it would mean to die. Even then Philip Roth was rehearsing his death. And hard at work, writing every day.

If I can emerge from my studio with a page, I’m not downhearted. If I emerge with less, I’m pretty frustrated. If I emerge with nothing, then I want to slit my throat. I haven’t yet, but sometimes you can’t go any further. It’s not writer’s block, that’s not the right phrase to describe it — it’s that you are not penetrating the material in a way that will release whatever is strongest in you.

Philip Roth on Open Source

In Everyman, Roth paraphrases artist Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Part of the secret Roth offered, in an aside, may be his birth year 1933, the early depression. He’s conscious of entering the world at virtually the same moment with prolific writers he still admires: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Reynolds Price. We dropped many other names along the way: David Riesman, Sarah Vaughan, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, the several Henrys (Miller, James, Aaron, and Kissinger) and, yes, Tolstoy.

Podcast • August 25, 2015

Renata Adler on Sadness, Selfies, and Losing

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age. She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These ...

Consider Renata Adler one of the defiantly smart women of the age.

renata-2She was a star of the culture pages of the New York Times in the mid-60s then for decades at The New Yorker. These days, her tart, tweet-ready epigrams are a hit with millennials and 30-somethings hooked on language and the wide world. We link her to dauntless, independent spirits like Joan Didion, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Julia Child. She’s a match also for Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal—all of them readers, stylists, and watchers open to surprise.

David Foster Wallace was a Renata Adler fan (who spoke of her as an influence, too). So, on the occasion of our hour about DFW and the air of personal and social sadness that lingers around him, we poured Renata a scotch and sat together for a wide-ranging conversation about American life. What’s been going on, we asked, with our nation’s mood and history since the Vietnam War? In the age of the selfie, how should we be telling our country’s story?

May 7, 2015

Knausgaard: The New Novel Thing

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring. In ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.

In our conversation, James Wood of Harvard and The New Yorker finds in Knausgaard’s patient meditations, in his small-ball Fjordic stakes, nothing less than the rhythm of eternity:

There’s nothing eloquent about the phrasing, but the simplicity and pungency and innocence of the truth-telling struck me immediately. And what I mean by that seriousness and innocence is an awareness precisely of rhythms of life and death. The sort of rhythms that the psalmist knows. You know the Psalm 121: the Lord will know your going out and your coming in. In the larger sense, the form of our life is our going out and our coming in. It seemed to me that’s absolutely a rhythm that Tolstoy knew. It’s a rhythm that Proust knew.

Meghan O’Rourke, herself a poet and memoirist of personal experience, senses tension as the Norwegian works out what we want from letters as well as life:

In Knausgaard, there is a profound question about masculinity in the contemporary age and especially in the social welfare state. At times, there’s absolutely this kind of fascist-nihilist energy… He talks about his friend reading all this anti-liberal literature and philosophy. There is a real tension in this book. I’m really curious to read the last volume, which I think contains quite a lot about Hitler in it. To me, so much of this project is about this question of where do we find value today. How does literature potentially help us or not help us do that? So, to me, the news is in that. And it has something to do with masculinity and its sense of being.

The author’s own line has been that the books themselves are embarrassing, that he would burn them if he could. Yet they served as a way to open himself up and write (and write and write) a way out of some of his deep problems with fiction. Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI magazine, told us the struggle nourishes a “reality hunger” in readers and writers, too:

The fiction that I’m writing now is quite different from what I was doing before precisely because it’s less concerned with external ideas, received ideas, of what ‘literary’ means. [Knausgaard’s] work is literary because of what it does, but not because of how it’s written. He gets us all asking…where does my truth really lie? It doesn’t lie in wrought sentences. He knows that we can easily lose interest. And the strange phenomenon in Knausgaard is that we don’t.

If Knausgaard inspired a “period” in fiction writing — a version of the Raymond Carver grip on the American short story — Bill Pierce thinks it “would be a time when cleverness and literary language are always put in the service of heart truths, of our deepest sense of what is it to be human and alive at this moment.”

Does that seem like what books should be doing in this moment? If you’ve read My Struggle, tell us what you made of it — and even if you haven’t read the man we’re calling ‘the Knaus’, tell us what you think makes “fiction” fiction and “literature” literary — and share what you’ve been reading instead.

 

Sheila Heti: Smash The Fiction Section
heti-sheila-how-should-a-person-be

The problem with writing a different kind of novel is that interviewers won’t stop asking you why you did it. Even so, as part of our preparation this week, I asked Sheila Heti why she wrote How Should A Person Be?, a five-year-old book, to be found in the fiction section, that’s hard to think of as “fictional”.

https://soundcloud.com/radioopensource/sheila-heti-smash-the-fiction-section

Heti tells the story of her very real friendship with a painter named Margaux, living in Toronto, both by republishing their emails and by making things up that they did together.

In Canada the book has no subtitle. Heti’s American publisher asked her to append “a novel from life”, a name Heti likes because it doesn’t really say anything (all novels evidently coming from life).

The book is much sprightlier and less morbid than any volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which Heti reviewed in the LRB). But Heti — together in a class with Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk — did experience her own version of the feelings he describes.

She says she wrote her first book, Ticknor, with Beckett and capital-L Literature in mind. Then her head “got turned around”: she felt an aversion to artifice grow into an interest in the ‘backstage’, in the process, in the pop culture of the moment, in things thought to be unliterary: like internet porn, say. To grow up as a reader is to live in the past, she said — and that means missing a lot of what’s happening in your own moment.

In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that all fiction writers are realists in one sense. Barthelme to Breton, J. K. Rowling and Eimear McBride, they’re all trying to say something true using something false. And the same could be said of Heti and her fellow travelers. They’re still imagining things; they just imagine less or differently. Heti called it “a very grown-up thing”: the idea that novelists might use their imaginations not to go to another world, but to go deeper into this one.

—Max Larkin.

The My Struggle Soundtrack

Also, we’re rocking out this week to the music that stirred Knausgaard most during his adolescent years and beyond. Art rock, punk, and glam, mainly, from the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, and Joy Division. Our show begins with one of the My Struggle keynotes: “The Great Curve” by the Talking Heads. Here are some others we’re listening to (on repeat).

— Conor Gillies.

Podcast • March 14, 2014

Into The Woods with Helen Oyeyemi

In which Chris and Helen talk her latest novel, "Boy, Snow, Bird," improvise a fairy tale line-by-line, and go through Open Source's modified Proust questionnaire. Helen Oyeyemi is a very accomplished young author by now; this is her fifth novel, and she was named by Granta as one of the Best Young Novelists last year. She’s a global citizen, she’s terrific fun, and she has a wonderful laugh.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” That was the evil, jealous stepmother’s bloodcurdling question in the Snow White fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, and Oyeyemi has a modern retelling of the story in a Massachusetts mill-town. Oyeyemi has a way of seeing modern life as a series of fairy tales, and she likes to scatter them throughout the forest, upending monsters and undermining as many myths as she can. In Boy, Snow, Bird, she exposes notions of skin, beauty, race, worship, families, family fights and fears of all kinds. Helen Oyeyemi is a very accomplished young author by now; this is her fifth novel, and she was named by Granta as one of the Best Young Novelists last year. She’s a  global citizen, she’s terrific fun, and she has a wonderful laugh. We’re starting a new series of interviews with authors with something extra — a set of short answers to our modified Proust questionnaire, as in our series with poets “Whose Words These Are?“. Helen Oyeyemi graciously agreed to be the first respondent for fiction.

The Proust Questionnaire

When you walk down the street, who do people see? I don’t know. I don’t tend to notice people noting me. I’m very shortsighted, so I can’t really see anything. I like it that way. Then you have more surprises in life, around every corner.
Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other enterprises? Who is doing the work of your spirit in a different way? He’s not alive anymore: Rimsky-Korsakov. I keep listening and listening to The Invisible City of Kitezh, which, I guess, is his musical retelling of a Russian folk tale, and it’s so beautiful.What’s the talent you’d most love to have that you don’t (yet)?I always wished that I could dance ballet.

Who would you be if you couldn’t be you? Tracy Chapman. I, in fact, started dreadlocks because of Tracy Chapman.

What’s your city for all time? I think I’m living in my city, Prague. But I really, really love Istanbul. It’s a little like Prague in that it’s filled with symbols that are very difficult to interpret with the top level of your mind, so you have to relax into the codes of the city.
There’s the Bosphorus, which has its own character. The food is great. The people are very nice to me.

What is the keynote of your own personality? Evasiveness.

What is the quality you most like in a man? Kindness.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? That she be an adventuress.

What is your most treasured possession? Must be a little copy of Goblin Market that a friend of mine sent me when I really, really needed it.

Who are your favorite writers? I love Marquez, Robert Walser, Daniil Kharms, Gombrowicz, Ali Smith, Jenni Fagan — I’ve only read one book of hers, but she’s tremendous. The book is called The Panopticon. She has a heroine who hallucinates and then frightens her hallucinations. So it’s this girl who is so tough and so full of life that
she sees faces coming out of the walls and says “Can I help you?” and the faces just immediately recede. That’s life force.

What is your motto? Fruits, not sports.

What are your desert-island discs? The Flamingos, “My Foolish Heart.” Boyz II Men, “The End of the Road.” And third, something by Elgar, we’ll just say.

How would you like to die? In a bathtub, when I’m very old.

 

Podcast • February 13, 2014

Dennis Lehane – Between Dorchester Ave and Sunset Boulevard

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of ...

Dennis Lehane so rules the neighborhood of Noir (“Nwaaah,” as we say in Boston) that he gets street credit for work he didn’t write, like “The Departed” and “The Town.” But does the author of “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and the new Moonlight Mile get credit enough for a body of artistic work now far beyond private-eye or “genre” of any kind — way beyond his gift for Boston-accented dialog?

Our conversation is about the murkier depths of his Gothic novel and movie “Shutter Island,” with Leonardo diCaprio as a U.S. Marshall apparently trapped in a Boston Harbor lock-up for the criminally insane in the 1950s. I think it’s Lehane’s version of the War on Terror. He says it’s more nearly his answer to the Patriot Act, his reliving of the Cold War and the repressions it licensed in America. “All past is prologue,” he remarks. “Noir is without a doubt the ultimate genre of ‘you cannot outrun the past’… That’s ‘Mystic River’: you cannot outrun your nature. You cannot escape the past.” “Shutter Island” in that sense turns out to be Dennis Lehane’s recapitulation of McCarthyism (an American Stalinism): those good old days when the CIA experimented with LSD and other psychotropic drugs on Federal prisoners and other unsuspecting guinea pigs. It was a time, he’s saying, that foreshadowed the suspension of habeas corpus and the tortures of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in the George Bush years.

Dennis Lehane with Chris Lydon at Mother Anna’s restaurant in Boston’s North End.

We are testing a favorite Open Source premise that the most observant anthropologists and historians of our own time may be novelists. In his hometown he is riveted on “how this new Gilded Age is going to fall out. People are being priced out of Charlestown… out of Southie… It’s kind of horrifying… There seem to be only a few people who are worried that we’re selling out the entire country — that everything’s gone; that the America we knew growing up is just vanishing… Isn’t anybody paying attention? There’s no unions left; they destroyed them. They went after the unions and then outsourced everything. So now there’s no jobs left, and they’ve got the people that have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost everything, believing that the reason they’ve lost it is everything but the real reasons. And everybody just seems to say: fine, as long as I can get this for three bucks a can at Walmart, I’m okay. I think we’re just watching America fiddle as it burns.”

Dennis Lehane is a writer who keeps expanding into new themes and new media, from his original cop stories to historical fiction, The Given Day (“Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser…,” Janet Maslin wrote in the Times), then long-form television in “The Wire,” and back to social realism and the adventures of PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro in Moonlight Mile. He’s been well served along the way by three tough self-inflicted rules. First, take no job that could divert him from his writing ambition; so he’s been a security guard and he’s parked cars, but was never tempted by law school or teaching. Second, sell the work to artists, never to corporations; so he finally yielded the movie rights to “Mystic River” to Clint Eastwood; and “Shutter Island” to Martin Scorsese. And third: undertake only those new projects that “on some level scare the hell out of me. It’s got to be something I’m afraid I can’t do.”

Podcast • February 10, 2014

John Lanchester on London in the Age of Inequality

Economic inequality is still on our minds after last week’s show with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. Here’s an interview we recorded with John Lanchester in 2012 after the publication ...

Economic inequality is still on our minds after last week’s show with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. Here’s an interview we recorded with John Lanchester in 2012 after the publication of his novel Capital.

My sense of this period and of the decade or so ahead is that it’s going to be one with — if we’re not careful, and I see no signs of us being careful — the same theme dominating conversation and politics everywhere. And that will be about inequality. It’s a very striking thing that a society like China, which only had private property 10 minutes ago, had effectively — this is a very broad-brush thing to say, but — had effectively abolished inequality. You know, there was a tiny crust of elite, but in essense for ordinary people China was a complely equal state. That came at a very, very high price. They moved away from that to astonishing economic growth, growth of a sort that the world’s never seen, numerically — that number of people being raised out of poverty so fast, hundreds of millions of them. And in the process they in effect invented inequality. Talk to people in China: inequality is a huge issue for them in this coming decade, the gap between coast and the center, between cities and the country. China has on a huge scale winners and losers in a way it never did before. Same thing in India. Same thing in Latin America — lots of countries that went broke and then recovered, with a new class in charge. That’s usually what happens. Old middle classes largely got wiped out. You have a new class of economic winners. Obviously inequality is a huge issue here in the States. It’s a huge issue in Europe and in the U.K. — summed up by the Occupy movement’s thing about the “one percent.” We’re just noticing this thing — everyone’s noticing it at the same time. And yet the trends that are propelling that gap are continuing. One of the reasons I thought it was an interesting moment to write about London is that there’s a global thing taking place there. And I think the world doing the split is part of that.

John Lanchester with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 20, 2012

John Lanchester has written a sprawling neo-Dickensian novel CAPITAL about London in the age of funny money and the crash of 2008. He got the germ of it five years ago, noticing a parade of “florists, dog-walkers, pilates instructors” on his own once-modest street south of the Thames, being radically made-over for bankers and the blooming investment-services class — “manifestly symptomatic,” as he says, “of a boom that would turn into a bust.” Like Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, CAPITAL has what the Brits call a “state of the nation” feel, delivered in the voice attributed to Dickens of the “special correspondent for posterity.” But of course he’s illuminating an affliction gone global by now, describing life as lived in New York, too, or Shanghai, or Boston for that matter. One moral that Lanchester has given his tale is: “We are not in this together,” inverting the Tory slogan. In conversation he adds a touch from the Gospel of Mark: “To them that hath shall be given.” I marvel at how casino capitalism and its costs come clearer, stranger, more ridiculous, more destructive, more outrageous in fiction than in fact – how the right novels can feel truer than the news.

John Lanchester is eminent also as a non-fiction economics correspondent, a main contributor over 25 years to the London Review of Books. He’s been steadfast against the fictions of market doctrine, and strong in his underlying judgment: “The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat,” he wrote in the LRB last April. “We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism… This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.”

In conversation, John Lanchester is extending our thread on the late Tony Judt‘s parting shots in Ill Fares the Land:

Judt makes very important points, I think, about the tragic loss of belief in our ability to act collectively for the good. Let’s gang up, get together, figure out the thing we want to change for the better, and then go ahead and make that change. It seems entirely true when he says the younger generation has entirely lost that sense. I’m writing now about the Underground in London for the 150th anniversary of the Underground next year, the first underground trains. The Victorians were obviously very different from us in lots of respects, but one of the crucial things, I’ve come to think, was their morale. When they were building the Underground, they knew it would change the city forever, for generations to come, and they were certain they that that change was for the better. It was risky, and it was expensive, and it was difficult, and it was right on the edge of what was technologically possible, and they were inventing new techniqes to make the Underground as they did it. But they knew it was going to completely remake the city, and that was the whole point. And I was just thinking: what do we see around us that has that equivalent thing: that you know: we’re doing it and in a hundred years’ time they’ll be using it every day. In London, we’re using Victorian sewers, power networks, holes the Victorians dug. They actually made that world that we’re living in. And that confidence where you can make the world of the future — it’s very sad to have mislaid that, and I see no good reason why we feel we have. It’s just somehow that the frame of the debate has shifted, so that it’s all kind of managerial. You can tweak this and tweak that, but you can’t really change anything. And I wonder: who wrote that rule?

In London or the world, I’m wondering, what corresponds to the Underground, as an artistic or architectural monument of this time?

I think it’s in the rash of buildings trying to be iconic. A thing that’s very much of the moment is these buildings that are trying to be free standing, these buildings that are almost their own brand. Lorenzo Piano’s Shard. Or what’s known as the Gherkin, the Erotic Gherkin, a Norman Foster building which does look indeed like half a gherkin, half a penis, 40 stories high. It’s from the idea of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim-Bilbao, which I think is a wonderful building. But I think it started a trend for the idea that the building is a sort of picture, an icon. It’s not much to with the place; it’s not much to do with anything. It sums itself up and is its own logo, in a way. And we’re seeing an awful lot of those, so I think that’s going to be this moment — the idea of a slightly self-contained, self-reflexive, anti-humanistic building because they look worse when you put people in and around them. They’re better without the humans. And when you interact with them you feel like one of those tiny model figures in an architect’s diagram, and you’re meant to. So there is an anti-humanistic aspect to those guys’ buildings, and I think that’s the kind of thing we’ll look back on and say: oh well, that sums up that period.

Podcast • January 23, 2014

Richard Powers: A Musical Theory of Everything

Richard Powers is indulging us in a runaway riff on music, in a little room in the Boston Athenaeum, on the top of Beacon Hill, overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, after a marvelous reading and talk out of his new novel, Orfeo. Peter Els is Powers' protagonist in the book, a 71-year-old chemistry professor and lifelong amateur composer whose only wish before he dies is "to break free of time and hear the future."

Richard Powers is indulging us in a runaway riff on music, in a little room in the Boston Athenaeum, on the top of Beacon Hill, overlooking the Old Granary Burying Ground, after a marvelous reading and talk out of his new novel, OrfeoPeter Els is Powers’ protagonist in the book, a 71-year-old chemistry professor and lifelong amateur composer whose only wish before he dies is “to break free of time and hear the future.”

He wants to map “a shortcut to the sublime,” something like the DNA of music, “something in music beyond taste, built into the evolved brain.” The main thread is the eternal mystery of the music behind the music. On the way to a blazing confrontation with Homeland Security, the novel is a retrospection on Peter Els’s life and loves, and also on the old center of gravity in Western music, tonality, in the disruptive 20th century. In the tradition of the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs,” I asked Richard Powers to hang our conversation on a few favorite pieces among the scores that figure crucially in Orfeo. They turned out to be Gustav Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” 

Richard Powers is referred to as “the most ambitious novelist in America,” a writer of Melvillian scale in our midst.I couldn’t help telling him that for his mix of erudition, imagination and lyricism, I can’t think of anyone else like him. Richard Powers is a Midwesterner at the core, now living in California and teaching at Stanford. Under the spell of the Boston Athenaeum, the antique Brahmin library, he is jolted by flashbacks of his Boston period. Drawn by the mystique of Emerson and Thoreau, wanting to “walk those streets,” he arrived 30 years ago in his early 20s, a self-taught computer programmer living in the Fens and frequenting the Museum of Fine Arts where he was knocked asunder by August Sander’s stunning triple-portrait of three German farmers in 1914.

The photograph inspired Richard Powers’ first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, and changed his life. World War I changed the lives of those farmers, Powers continued, no more than digital tech and culture have changed all of our lives in three decades. With Robert Zucchi’s nudge, I’m tickled to add a bit of transcript, and that photo!

RP: It wasn’t all that long ago and yet it is very difficult to connect that world to this world. And the primary difference, of course, is the complete transformation of space and time at the hands of the digital. And we have so normalized that, it takes a deliberate effort to realize that my consciousness in 1985 is completely unreachable to me now because of everything I’ve internalized about what these incredible prosthetics have done to us, and can do for us. It’s a mixed legacy, of course. I now have access to all the music ever written, and I’ve got this in my pocket right now, and you can name whatever you’d like to hear and we could listen to it right now; and the downside of course is that we either won’t do that, or we will do so for two or three minutes before our attention is distracted and we begin to look for something else, or notification comes in telling us that something much more exciting is happening somewhere else. That’s an immense story, and I can’t do justice to it in a soundbite, but it’s important to remember that in a way comparable to any revolution in the human story or in human consciousness wrought be technology since the beginning (with the possible exception of, maybe, writing) I think we have lived through something that changed what it means to be human.

CL: And we wonder if E. M. Forster would say, ‘Only disconnect.’

RP: It’s funny ’cause Forster has that great story in the early 20th Century, around the time Mahler was writing the “Kindertotenlieder,” called “The Machine Stops.” Look it up. It has something to do with, you know, we’re all living in cubicles and we’re all being mediated. He’s got a vision of the online world already, and the guy wants to see his mother. He wants to meet the woman out of whose loins he sprang, and this is considered the most unnatural thing a person could want. I hope I’m paraphrasing it right, but just this idea that at this moment of modernism somebody is already seeing just where the ability to manipulate time and space and to mediate our experience through machines could possibly lead us: we would read the story and laugh, but in fact we have to some extent become that thing that Forster most feared.

Richard Powers with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athenaeum, January 22, 2014
August Sander's most reproduced photo, a John Berger favorite, "Young Farmers, 1914," in Westerwald.

August Sander‘s most reproduced photo, a John Berger favorite, “Young Farmers, 1914,” in Westerwald.

Podcast • January 22, 2014

D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace’s Boston

It was David Foster Wallace’s fine biographer D. T. Max who remarked to me months ago that the Boston dimensions of Wallace and his masterpiece Infinite Jest had not been taken in. Spot on, I ...

It was David Foster Wallace’s fine biographer D. T. Max who remarked to me months ago that the Boston dimensions of Wallace and his masterpiece Infinite Jest had not been taken in. Spot on, I realized. The Wallace I met and interviewed (fumblingly, I’m afraid) in 1996 when Infinite Jest appeared seemed lost somewhere between his midwestern beginnings and the oceanic anxieties, addictions, hunger and general weirdness of our times. But Max prompted me to read Infinite Jest all over again, and of course he’s right: the book is a map of the hospital hilltop in Brighton; of Prospect Street in Cambridge between Inman and Central Squares; of Harvard Square and McLean Hospital; of the fashionably seedy precincts, then and now, of Somerville on the edge of East Cambridge. So I asked D. T. Max — the New Yorker staff writer who contributed that memorable obituary profile — who Wallace was after all, and what persuaded Max himself to undertake a serious biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

David is the author of his time who has the fairest chance to be read 50 years from now… I really feel the way David touched the themes of the 1990s – themes of addiction and excessive entertainment in American culture have become even more outstanding and  more relevant to most of us, and when you reread Infinite Jest today – it’s really a novel that’s fundamentally about television and video, but you read it today and you think you’re reading a novel about the Internet.

D. T. Max with Chris Lydon at M.I.T., Spring 2013

 

This Week's Show • June 26, 2014

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into.
Sven Birkerts: Present at the Creation of "Infinite Jest"
The Infinite Boston Tour
D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace's Boston

Here’s how to read David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page door stop and masterpiece Infinite Jest: it’s a Boston novel the way Ulysses is a Dublin novel, as Les Miserables is a Paris novel. Infinite Jest is a novel about Wallace’s alcohol addiction and recovery on a route through Boston we all walk and drive and manage not to see into: the “clot and snarl of Prospect St in Cambridge,” that “Fresh Killed” poultry sign in Inman Square, the clang and squeak of the B-Line trolleys along Comm. Ave., Brighton past the halfway houses on the hill for catatonics and drunks where Wallace’s life turned around. Maybe it helps to read Infinite Jest as a tour of one man’s battlefield, with re-enactments every day.

We got 200-and-some contributions for this conversation posted on Reddit so far.  IJ, as they say, is about addiction, entertainment, compulsive consumption, emotional isolation, TV, the Internet, anxiety, panic attacks,  — and loneliness throughout.  One of the Reddit writers said: “Infinite Jest, it’s still where I go to understand the queer sadnesses of 21st-century life.”

Thanks also to Nick Maniatis, founder of Howling Fantods, who sent us an eloquent audio love letter to DFW (mp3), and Christopher Boucher, the writer and editor teaching his students to walk Infinite Jest at B.C.
Image credit: Janette Beckman/Redferns

Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the ...

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.