The Transcendentalists and Their World

The Transcendentalists and Their World
Robert A. Gross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Emphasis on “their world,” meaning Concord, Massachusetts in the first half of the nineteenth century. You will learn tons about manufacturing “the common pencil,” the family business that bored the shit out of Henry David Thoreau. Agricultural and educational reform. Industrialization and railroads. Internecine church discord. The unconscionably slow awakening of the abolitionist movement. Rich in granular census data, court records, diaries, letters. This approach to history—dubbed “new social history” when author Robert A. Gross began championing it in the 1970s—pays bountiful dividends. Transcendentalism’s nonconformity and romantic idealism go nowhere without a receptive “rising generation” seeking countercultural “newness.” Emersonian self-reliance is about bestowing wonderment and dignity upon human consciousness. Gross shows us what was happening on the ground—literally—in Concord (e.g., the cultivation of the Concord grape, and Thoreau’s storied bean-field). The book’s nearly 200 pages of endnotes comprise citation upon citation, and, in the best David Foster Wallace tradition, often include entertaining nested mini-narratives. All of which is to say: Transcendentalism rightfully deserves context, and by God, Gross’s 864-page career-capping masterpiece supplies it.

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog
Thomas Savage
Afterword by Annie Proulx
Back Bay Books 2021 [2001]

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Back Bay Books’ 2001 reprint of Thomas Savage’s 1967 Western novel, The Power of the Dog, with a laudatory afterword by Annie Proulx, brought serious reconsideration to Savage’s largely forgotten book. (Not unlike the rediscovery of John Williams’ Stoner from 1965, recognized only in the last ten years as a classic American novel.) New Zealand director/screenwriter Jane Campion’s adaptation of The Power of the Dog, and its twelve Oscar nominations, should further burnish the book’s reputation. As Proulx writes, “Savage created one of the most compelling and vicious characters in American literature.” That would be Phil Burbank, played with menacing brio by Benedict Cumberbatch. Montana ranch owner, bully, and sexually repressed homophobe. “He is, in fact, a vicious bitch,” says Proulx. Ahead of its time? Possibly. But as a revisionist Western, even an anti-Western, Savage’s novel precedes Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) by a mere four years. Campion gets it. Kodi Smit-McPhee, in one of the best fakeout performances in recent years, seems to consciously echo Keith Carradine’s brief but unforgettable role in Altman’s film as a bumpkin out of his depth. What really seals the homage is Carradine’s cameo as the governor in Campion’s film.

Sustainable Living

Sustainable Living
Elsa Nekola
Willow Springs Books 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Wisconsin writer Elsa Nekola’s debut collection of short stories, Sustainable Living, is so deeply knowing of the Upper Midwest that it functions as a kind of wisdom literature. Granted, the wisdom may not always be welcome. Disillusionment is a recurring theme, as is the fictional town of White Birch, where old habits die hard. A retired supper club owner (“Winter Flame”) can’t quit his mealtime routine of “folding his cloth napkin into a swan.” The betrayal of a fragile summer friendship (“River Through a Half-Burnt Woods”) replays itself in a woman’s memory like a wound that refuses to heal.

Fifteen-year-old Coral, the protagonist of “Oktoberfest,” feels preternaturally at home in the Northwoods, but less so in an adult world of struggling families and economic hardship. Addiction. Unwanted sexual attention. “She’s beginning to think,” we’re told, “that being a woman means staying where you’re needed, not where you want to go.”

Coral, by story’s end, may not know where she wants to go, or where she fits in. But readers will recognize in the achingly fine-tuned descriptions of landscape and wildlife that Coral has a near-mystical connection to her surroundings:

Today, there’s frost on the grass, and a chill that won’t leave the air until April. The mallards and black ducks have begun to court, and in midwinter the hairy woodpeckers will drum on hollow trees.

Nekola is especially good on the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, whether a grown daughter in “Meat Raffle” returning from Chicago to visit her eccentric literary mom in southeastern Wisconsin (“She thinks she’s the first sixty-year-old widow to discover Shakespeare,” fumes the daughter), or the title story’s resourceful fourteen-year-old Myra Pavelka, abandoned to relatives and afternoon barrooms when her mother hastily takes flight under possible criminal circumstances.

Sustainable Living won the 2020 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction from Willow Springs Books, whose top-notch book design compliments the jeweled precision of these stories. Elsa Nekola’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals, from Ploughshares and Passages North, to Rosebud Magazine and Midwestern Gothic.

Crossroads

Crossroads
Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

At nearly 600 pages, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads reads like a binge-worthy premium cable series, complete with melodramatic cliffhangers between episodes. Chapters are composed in third-person intimate narration with POV alternating between members of the Hildebrandt family, parents Russ and Marion, and their four children, ranging in ages from nine to twenty. Russ is an associate minister at a church with a thriving youth group culture. It’s 1971 in the Chicago suburbs. The commingling of religion and politics is as vigorous on the antiwar left (liberation theology) as it is on the right. Crossroads is most assuredly a secular novel about religious faith and guilt, no less so than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (a novel winkingly alluded to in Crossroads, which isn’t without Franzen’s occasional metafictional side glances, up to and including Reverend Hildebrandt driving a Plymouth Fury wagon).

The teenagers are well-drawn, if reminiscent, perhaps unavoidably, of influential television series like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. The failed HBO project that Franzen and filmmaker Noah Baumbach undertook ten years ago in trying to adapt Franzen’s more challenging novel, The Corrections, may have pushed the author in the direction of ruthless narrative momentum at the expense of literary experimentation. Crossroads is Jonathan Franzen’s most conventional novel to date, but his psychological realism remains as always acute. This is engaging storytelling that bodes well for further installments of what promises to be a trilogy of novels following one American family through the years. (Nine-year-old Judson’s “unhealthy absorption” with an eight-millimeter movie camera, for example, suggests there might be a grown filmmaker inhabiting a future volume.)

Harrow

Harrow
Joy Williams
Knopf 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

A worthy addition to the genre of apocalyptic literary fiction. Joy Williams’s Harrow is no less nihilistic than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but much, much funnier. A train ride crowded with pompous sociologists on holiday is as zany as Preston Sturges. A chaotic bowling alley birthday party evokes the Coen Brothers. Like Pynchon or Tokarczuk, Joy Williams depicts alienation as a kind of absurd phantasmagorical quest. Add eco-terrorism and an epigrammatic flavor similar to the Kafkaesque fables in her collection, Ninety-nine Stories of God. (It’s no surprise that Kafka is name-checked and glossed at some length in Harrow.) An idiosyncratic near-masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel
Quentin Tarantino
Harper Perennial 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Dwight Garner’s cautiously laudatory New York Times review of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s epic 400-page novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gets it right: “If it were written better, it’d be written worse.” Tarantino’s novel is pulp fiction best appreciated as a companion text, or better yet, a skeleton key to the movie. Lots of riotous untold backstory of how Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt in the movie) comes by his casual proficiency with ultraviolence. There’s a deeper dive into Manson Family dynamics, perhaps not as nuanced as Emma Cline’s The Girls, but no less chilling. The novel even has its own surprise ending that cleverly subverts the movie’s surprise ending. There are seedy detours into Hollywood lore, including a poignant depiction of alcoholic actor Aldo Ray’s decline. Most enjoyable is the book’s torrent of geeky motor-mouthing film criticism, similar in tone to the engaging program notes that the director has been penning in recent years since purchasing the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.

The Recognitions

The Recognitions
William Gaddis
NYRB Classics 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

I’m not ashamed to say I leaned heavily on Steven Moore’s indispensable online reader’s guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I consulted it often for navigational assistance and, frankly, comprehension. This will never not be a difficult novel. A daunting 956 pages, it was initially published to bafflement and poor sales in 1955, when Gaddis was thirty years old. The book is experimental in structure, scale, and execution. Its themes of greed, fraud, and spiritual exhaustion are set amidst a rapacious postwar consumer culture. The narrative encompasses madness, drug addiction, and sexual violence, as well as recurring parodies of cheerful radio commercials pushing pharmaceutical uppers (“Zap”), downers (“Necrostyle”), and contraception (“Cuff”). Gaddis briefly hung with the Beats in Greenwich Village. While The Recognitions isn’t a Beat novel, it shares the nascent counterculture’s mockery of authority and institutions. It’s also exhaustively allusive, like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, piled high with references to classical art and literature, arcane myths, and religious rituals. There’s layer upon layer of erudition. 

There’s slapstick. A buffoonish grifter disguising himself beneath an uncooperative toupee is pure Three Stooges. Or pure Thomas Pynchon, whom Gaddis would influence. The antihero of The Recognitions, a hapless art forger named Wyatt Gwyon, vanishes periodically from the kaleidoscopic narrative like Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, subsumed by historical forces greater than himself. (“A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme,” is a playfully metafictional remark from another character in The Recognitions.) Jonathan Franzen famously dubbed Gaddis “Mr. Difficult” in a 2002 New Yorker essay. Franzen courageously tackled The Recognitions on his own. (“The most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety.”) And while he ended up loving Gaddis’s novel—and even echoing it in The Corrections—he clearly struggled with it. “I read The Recognitions as a kind of penance, back in the early nineties,” he confesses. Given that Steven Moore’s Reader’s Guide first appeared in a print edition in 1982, it’s surprising that Franzen wasn’t familiar with it, or chose not to seek it out. Moore’s scholarly annotations are a masterful achievement in their own right.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
George Saunders
Random House 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

An unexpected delight. Sure to become a classic on the craft of short story writing. George Saunders’s discussions of the mechanics of seven Russian short stories (three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Gogol and Turgenev, all included in the book) are so clear-eyed and openhearted as to be breathtaking. Additionally filled with revealing insights into his own idiosyncratic stories and his development as a writer. Jonathan Franzen attempted something similar in 2013 with The Kraus Project, his heavily annotated collection of essays by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. While Franzen’s autobiographical asides were disarming, the Kraus texts themselves were nearly impenetrable to modern readers. Not so with the Russian short stories collected here, which remain touchstones of high literary art, Shakespearean in their universality and timelessness.

Fake Accounts

Fake Accounts
Lauren Oyler
Catapult 2021

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The engine for Lauren Oyler’s razor-sharp debut novel is revealed in the opening pages when the unnamed narrator makes an unexpected discovery: “My boyfriend was a conspiracy theorist.” Like the McCarthy era dissected in Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, Oyler’s narrative is a deep dive into another equally destabilizing period in American history: the beginnings of the Donald Trump presidency in 2017. Addiction to social media is a central theme, for sure, but Oyler’s already notorious career as a take-no-prisoners literary and cultural critic ensures that every essayistic detour and aside in Fake Accounts is freighted with brilliance and wit. Lorrie Moore seems a clear influence here, especially Moore’s darkly funny post-9/11 novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Both novels feature a politically suspicious boyfriend and part-time jobs for their respective protagonists as nannies for a harried mother.

The Outlook for Earthlings

The Outlook for Earthlings
Joan Frank
Regal House Publishing 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Melanie Taper and Scarlet Rand are Northern California-raised, self-searching, not always in sync, but supportive of one another since they were teenagers talking about boys and books at the school bus stop. Joan Frank’s ambitious new novel, The Outlook for Earthlings, is a puzzle-perfect narrative of interlocking flashbacks and flash-forwards, chapters qualifying and revising one another, circling elusive truths, charting the vicissitudes of Melanie and Scarlet’s decades-long friendship. Our perceptions and sympathies are jerked and jolted. Perspectives multiply. Consider a character’s anxiety when she ends a college affair with a married professor: “She felt like a cubist painting, pieces of her broken off and floating about the room. Mouth here, hand there, eyeball there.” The cubist dysmorphia foreshadows a medical illness.

Friendship cannot function without a measure of confoundedness. Melanie might privately think of Scarlet, “Heavens, the woman wore her emotions like a sandwich board.” Scarlet, in an unkind moment, casts Melanie as a “docile homemaker” to Scarlet’s “globetrotting roustabout.” (Just as quickly, Scarlet retracts the labels as “vain, reductive.”) As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Scarlet lives her dream. Both women will eventually hold down unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. Melanie Taper, one of the most enigmatic characters in recent fiction, becomes a prodigious autodidact:

Mel knew all of Shakespeare, much of it by heart. She was reading Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Musil, Unamuno. She listened to postgraduate lectures on cassette while she drove to work: Philosophy of Religion, Foundations of Western Civ. She had lately told Scarlet, in perfect seriousness, she thought she should learn Italian so that she could read Montale and Morante in the original. 

Melanie writes stories and novels and never seeks their publication. She’s preternaturally selfless in marriage and love. (“Subjugating oneself like some wretched servant” is Scarlet’s interpretation.) Melanie’s endlessly expanding and long-delayed graduate school thesis on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is conceived as a kind of emotional rescue of the epileptic Prince Myshkin. (“She felt this way about others, literary or real: poor Raskolnikov; poor Van Gogh. Somebody needed to make them some soup.”)

Joan Frank has a painter’s eye for the natural world. (“The early sun struggled through the fog, a light of dirty wet coins.”) And a keen appreciation for the way our senses are assaulted by institutional spaces, such as academic administration offices. (“Smells of cleaning fluid, aging paper, bookbinding, overcooked coffee.”) The Outlook for Earthlings doesn’t discount the possibility of spectral visitations within the naturalistic confines of our world, but neither does it comfortably decipher them for us when they perhaps appear. The author’s tough-minded body of work, which includes numerous award-winning novels, short story and essay collections, has long refused to do the reader’s necessary work. Our task is clear. Each of us must answer for ourselves when this forceful and singular novel, arguably Joan Frank’s finest work to date, asks of us, “Did any ending ever befit the life it capped?”


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