Throwing Books

March 10th, 2011

My daughter, Nora, who will be four in a couple of months, has been known to throw a book–out of a desire to push the envelope behavior-wise, out of exuberance, out of (who knows?) a scientific interest in the aeronautical properties of THE AMAZING BONE or TEN FINGERS, TEN TOES. Nora’s mother and I tell her that books are not to be thrown–balls and oven mitts and, if it comes to that, cats, may be thrown, but not books–and we try to be good role models in this matter. In the evening, books may drop from our hands onto the floor while we nod off, but we do not throw them.

A college professor of mine, the late Bertrand Goldgar, who taught British literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at Lawrence University, once said that he’d thrown a certain book across the room because it had offended him. Bert was a droll man who took literature seriously, not only because it was his job to do so. I don’t remember what the book was that he threw, but it’s my guess that it was by a writer of the Romantic or anti-Augustan persuasion–maybe some revolutionary sentimentalist like Wordsworth. Bert was a literary conservative–wit and concision were his touchstones–but he was far from being a hidebound one. (In fact, he was full of surprises. To take one example: his favorite book, I recently learned from his daughter, was THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, a novel that might be described as more baggy and romantic than concise and classical.) When Bert threw a book, he didn’t do it lightly.

I like to think that I can read pretty much any piece of literary fiction without getting worked up to the point that I throw the book across the room. In the case of a badly written book, I rarely get far enough into it to do anything other than lay it aside and feel buyer’s remorse (assuming I’ve actually paid for it). Anyway, badly written books don’t lead me to do violence to them. (This brings me to the subject of e-book readers: if you’ve paid two or three hundred dollars for one of those devices, you are probably not going to consider defenestrating the thing that “contains” the book that is driving you mad.) No, the books that get under one’s skin are almost always by our talented contemporaries, writers in their prime who have gone off the rails for the moment, whose admirers may have encouraged them to take themselves too seriously, whose charms (as exemplified in their previous books) have turned into tics or shticks. It’s harder to get really pissed off at dead writers, because, well, their work is finished (more or less: there is posthumous stuff TK) and they can’t cause much more trouble. Though I can imagine that there are readers, perhaps not only undergraduates, who have flung Hemingway or Faulkner or Mailer across the room. Only good writers, as I said, are likely to arouse that sort of passion in us.

I don’t buy badly written books on purpose, nor, for that matter, do I seek out books that might incite me to do what I ask my daughter not to do. I always open a book by a writer whom I know to be good (or whom reliable informants–reviewers, in some cases–assure me is good) in the belief that I am about to have several hours or days or perhaps weeks of pleasure. (I am a slow reader and will sometimes fall asleep over a book–even a good one–at an hour when some of my contemporaries are still awake and perhaps even doing the boogaloo.)

Last summer I read a wonderful novel by David Mitchell called BLACK SWAN GREEN, as good a book about adolescence as I’d read in a long time. (The narrator of Mitchell’s novel is a thirteen-year-old British boy growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s early-eighties England, though Thatcherism is the least of his problems.) I liked BLACK SWAN GREEN so much that for Christmas I asked for (and received) Mitchell’s new novel, THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB VAN ZOET. This book (479 long pages) is set in late eighteenth-century Japan, and concerns the lives of some Dutch shipping merchants on an island off Nagasaki. The book is exquisitely written; the language is rich and surprising, and the historical details aren’t so much inserted as invisibly threaded through, like wholly organic bits in some gorgeous tapestry. But the book is tedious, too. I had the sense that what I was reading was a brilliant writer’s performance, a show that kept me at a distance; the characters lacked the emotional complexity of the characters in BLACK SWAN GREEN. I didn’t feel the impulse to throw the book, however. If the novel was a failure, it was an ambitious failure, not an irritating one; it hadn’t gotten under my skin.

So I put THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS aside and picked up Keith Richards’ LIFE–candy, good, artisan-quality candy (a dark chocolate, say, flavored with a little sea salt and a touch of pharmaceutical-grade blow), just the sort of antidote for a case of aesthetic overload. Of course, the bar is lower when it comes to memoirs by celebrity rock-and-rollers, but still. Richards wrote, or dictated to a ghostwriter, a candid, smart book, mostly free of celebrity inanity.

After inhaling Richards, I read Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY. I first read this book thirty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student. I’m not quite sure why I decided to reread it, except that lately I’ve been rereading writers who gave me so much pleasure when I was young. And I had always loved the opening of the book, with Clarissa Dalloway going out into the London morning (”fresh as if issued to children on a beach”) to buy flowers. The opening pages are still beautiful. The rest of the novel seemed uneven, brilliant at times, dull at others, depending on which of the characters Woolf chose to focus (or not focus clearly enough) on.

There is some Virginia Woolf in Lorrie Moore, whose most recent book, A GATE AT THE STAIRS, I just finished. Like Woolf, Moore writes about the everyday world (the weather, flowers, a pet goldfish, the look of a city at dusk, a toddler in a snowsuit) with a poet’s intensity, though her observations tend to be somewhat darker than Woolf’s. Moore is basically a satirist in lyrical realist clothes, and with her satirist’s needle she both punctures conventional romantic habits of seeing things and tries to get us to see those things anew. (Bert Goldgar, my old professor–who, incidentally, considered Moore to be among our best contemporary writers–once said that he preferred a good painting of a sunset to an actual sunset. Art beats nature, in other words, though it’s a fact that some of the best paintings of sunsets are by romantics, which Bert no doubt knew.) The problems in Moore’s writing arise when all that withering wit gets between us and the people on the page. Cleverness doesn’t kill this novel, but at times it undermines it.

The opening passage of A GATE AT THE STAIRS–about, among other things, the presence and then disappearance of songbirds during the winter of 2001-02 in a cosmopolitan Wisconsin university town called Troy–is exemplary Moore. Her prose is sharp, vivid, cool, no more clever than is useful. Time is effortlessly compressed, and a certain mood, a kind of ironic dolor, is established. The birds–or their survivors–will reappear three hundred pages later, when the book is up to its ears in dolor.

Moore’s narrator is a college student named Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of an eccentric Wisconsin farmer and his equally eccentric wife. Tassie’s chief role in the novel is to serve as a part-time nanny for the adopted bi-racial daughter of a white Troy couple (she owns a high-end restaurant, he’s a scientist of some sort). Tassie is an extremely bright young woman, whose frames of reference and wisdom and relentless witticisms bring to mind certain attributes of her more experienced creator. If one is willing to overlook this “believability” (or authenticity) issue most of the time, it is because Moore gets deeply enough inside Tassie to show us aspects of her that wouldn’t distinguish her from her peers.

Moore is good with many of her younger characters, perhaps because, as she sees it, they haven’t become fixed; they are still in the process of making themselves, and there may even be hope for them, though the chances are good that the world (or the idiot grown-ups who run it) will fuck these children up. Moore is less good with–less sympathetic to–the so-called grown-ups in the novel. Tassie’s parents are likable in their oddball ways–not that likability is necessarily a quality indicating depth–but they don’t become significant characters until the end of the novel, by which time the novel has, as it were, changed subjects. (It’s no longer about Mary-Emma, the adopted child Tassie cares for, but about Tassie’s brother, who joins the Army after high school, with hardly a peep of an objection from any of his very smart family members.)

The two main adults in the novel, the couple who adopt Mary-Emma, amount to the sums of clever things they say and some pieces of information about their lines of work. Whatever inner lives Sarah and Edward might have once had seem to have been buried; they seem especially unsuited (money aside) to being the parents of an adopted child. We learn virtually nothing about their pasts–Tassie doesn’t seem all that interested–until two-thirds of the way through, when Moore drops a bomb. (The only justification for withholding this rather crucial piece of information–which even a semi-diligent adoption agency would’ve dug up, surely–is that our narrator doesn’t come upon it until late in the game. But this isn’t much of a defense. After all, the novel is written in the past tense, after Tassie has had some time to absorb events.) After Moore drops the bomb, the couple and the child disappear from the novel, though the jerk husband does make one final appearance (or crank phone call) at the end.

When Moore unloaded this information, I was tempted to toss the novel, but I was in my mother’s house and she was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her even though she probably wasn’t wearing her hearing aid and wouldn’t have noticed the sound of a paperback hitting the floor. And it is also true that while the timing of the delivery of the information seems like a trick, the information itself is harrowing, and Moore makes fine melodrama out of it.

There’d been other moments when I might have thrown the novel, such as the scene when a mohawked kid (a stereotype who makes no further appearances) drives into the picture in order to use the N-word to two-year-old Mary-Emma. The problem here is not that such a thing couldn’t happen in Moore’s Troy, whose many p.c. inhabitants Moore has much fun with, but that she doesn’t convince us that this incident happens as she describes it–it seems like stock footage.

I might have thrown the novel, too, during the second of the long (and mercilessly clever) discussions of race (and related matters) conducted by Mary-Emma’s parents and other adults, which Tassie supposedly overhears while tending to Mary-Emma and a handful of other children–but I’d already made my peace with the novel.

A GATE AT THE STAIRS doesn’t have the icy hard bright winter’s day clarity of the stories in Moore’s previous book, BIRDS OF AMERICA. It loses its way more than once. Perhaps the longer form threw Moore off stride, as it has other first-rate short story writers. A GATE AT THE STAIRS is a lesser work–confused and yet compelling–by one of our most talented writers.

Reader, this novel got under my skin, but I did not throw it. Nor did it slip from my hands as I lay in bed reading it.

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