Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. Go to the library looking for something specific, what it was you can't even remember anymore, but you don't find it. This is what usually happens. This is how you often find what you really need to read. What you find instead is a slim volume of short stories by an author you've heard about but never read. She's the kind of writer you've eschewed since graduate school, because she's been published by The New Yorker and publications like it, the epitome of establishment culture and middle-of-the-road liberalism. The kinds of magazines people like to leave on their coffee tables next to the Architectural Digest to show they're still hip even though they drive a Lexus, or wish they did. You have nothing in common with such people and that must mean you have nothing in common with the writers who appear in the magazines they put on their coffee tables. What's next? Will you be reading John Updike?
You shudder at the thought.
Pull the book out from where its tightly packed on the shelf between larger, bulkier books. Turn it over, look at the author photo: an attractive white woman with long dark hair, skin pulled tight, an intensity in the eyes that makes you think she'd probably be hard to get along with, always taking offense at something or other. She looks like she must come from Connecticut or some upscale upstate New York enclave, probably went to one of those elite all-girl's school, took horseback riding lessons, with the little velvet cap and everything. Maybe you're being unfair, judging a book by its back cover author photo, but something about her screams p-r-i-v-l-e-g-e. No wonder you couldn't bear to read her. She burns you up with envy.
You take a look at the copyright page. The book is nearly thirty years old. Yikes! Well, it's about time you got over it, dontcha think? Time you buried the hatchet with the establishment, its well-established for a reason, after all; it's not going anywhere, not anytime soon. If nothing else, know thy enemy, right?
You read the first story: "How to be an Other Woman." It's a mock guide to having an affair, written in the second person, like this review is written, as if directly to a hypothetical reader. This is a device, gimmick, style, take your pick, that Moore uses repeatedly throughout this collection, notably—and humorously—in her story "How to Become a Writer," which starts off with the best advice of all, "first, try to be something, anything else." You find this manner of writing effective, cool, hip, or it was twenty-something years ago. Still it draws you in; you wish you'd thought of it.
There's a story where a mother warns her adult daughter never to make the mistake she did by marrying an emotionally frigid man. Another narrated by a terminally ill children's book author—a wife and mother who decides to commit rational suicide rather than allow cancer to pick apart her life one pincer at a time. Another story moves backward in time from 1982 to 1939 outlining the trajectory of a woman's experience of her mother all the way back to birth. You read a story about a woman who is a kleptomaniac and compulsive eater; her problems compounded by a husband who is having an affair. Then there is a story about a woman who suspects her husband is leaving her for another woman only to find that he must leave her for reasons far more nebulous than mere adultery, compared to which overcoming sexual betrayal would be a piece of cake.
You think, well, so what? What's so new and different about these stories? Haven't there been a thousand like them? Yes, probably, which is probably why they resonate with so many readers. But to tell the truth, you really don't have a ton in common with Lorrie Moore's characters; your life has been a lot more fucked up, a lot less mainstream, even though Lorrie Moore is known for writing about offbeat, quirky, fucked-up characters.
It's not the stories, really, but the writing that engages you. Lorrie Moore is funny, incisive, and, when it comes to turning a phrase, has a scalpel-like precision. There's a death-bed scene so viscerally particular you can't imagine it was completely imagined. A wife losing her mind stabs her unfaithful husband in the gut and compares it to trying to shove a knife into a radiator. The book is full of memorable images like this one, the kind of images that suddenly illuminate a mood or a moment, that stay with you long after the particulars and plot of a story have faded.
You see how these stories could have spoken to you, even for you, but only if you—or someone like you—rewrote them. If you wrote them, for instance, you would write about having affairs with married men, but just for the sex, the more sordid and abusive the better. If you wrote about your parent's marriage, you'd write how it was your mother who was the cold one and your father who had to beg in vain for intimacy and how that turned him violent and crazy. In other words, Lorrie Moore writes about characters who have dysfunctional lives, but they are dysfunctional in all the familiar, typical, and therefore politically correct "safe" ways the majority of people expect; your, however, life is atypically dysfunctional, as if you came from a shadow planet outside the solar system. You never lived in a New Yorker universe. You never will. You might as well be writing in asemics. Sometimes you do.
You were right to feel that Lorrie Moore was part of a bourgeoisie literary establishment whose canon reflects a life that bears little resemblance to yours. But wrong not to read her anyway, because she has tools you could have co-opted to your own use. It's still not too late. What time is it, anyway?
Posted by mcw at 7:13 PM
Friday, April 11, 2014
I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down by Jon Foster. There have been entire books that I haven't enjoyed as much as the two-sentence title of this 'zine (and you can tell how much I love the title by how many times I'm going to repeat it throughout the course of this review). In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. The flat, declarative announcement that is this 'zines title is an exact reflection of what you'll find on the 30-odd pages inside. And it's all written in the same offhand, deadpan style that just dares you to ask, "so what? Why should the minutiae of a visiting teacher in Beijing be of any interest to anyone? Why should anyone read this?"
Simple answer: "Because I fucking wrote it down, that's why."
This tautological raison d'etre informs Foster's utterly random and meandering musings that begin with his observation, just after takeoff, of "a man who has already gone to the toilet three times" who is "reading a Chinese newspaper with a picture of a plane crash on the front. Allowing a passenger to read something like this should be illegal."
Foster went to China to teach for a few weeks in the summer of 2011 and this little 'zine is an adaptation of the journal he kept of the experience. The long and the short of it: nothing happened. So much for the "plot" of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down". As for the wisdom he culled from his trip to this ancient and culturally rich land, here is a summary of some of the highlights:
The Chinese think I'm fat. I've been called fat a lot; their codeword is "strong."
There's no toilet paper in the bathrooms nor is there any paper towels.
Only ramen noodles come with forks, otherwise it's chopsticks and tiny spoons.
Chinese rice wine tastes like gasoline and may or may not be made in bathtubs.
In the late 70s a Chinese official went to see John Denver live and brought back one of his records to China...creating a lot of Chinese John Denver fans. Many of the songs sung in the singing competitions are John Denver ones.
Buicks seem to be the most popular American car.
The Chinese do not wear sunglasses.
The Chinese eat bread with chopsticks and watermelon with a spoon.
Look, if I want a learned book about Chinese history, art, politics, and culture I'm sure the Brooklyn Public Library has a wall or two of shelves loaded to the rafters with them, all penned by noted Sinologists with many high falutin' accreditations to their name. But where else am I going to learn that toddlers have small slits in the back of their pants which allow them to shit directly on the street while held by their parents? This is the kind of information that only Jon Foster can provide. This is why you're reading "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down"!
Dammit, Jon Foster is practically like the Marco Polo of the 21st century!
Okay, not exactly; he didn't bring back anything as valuable as macaroni. But the sort of anecdotal barstool view of cultural history that he offers certainly has a contribution to make.I really do feel like I understand a bit more about the "real" China than I did before reading this text. For instance, Foster draws a verbal portrait of the "typical" Chinese student that is actually a brilliant compact piece of journalistic sociology. He could have been writing for the CIA.
Come to think of it, maybe he was. He'd make the perfect spy. I doubt anyone would suspect him of nefarious purpose.
As it is, he doesn't entirely ignore the delicate matter of politics. For instance, did you know that the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square are officially called "traffic incidents"? Foster's visit happens to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China. It's an event to which the Chinese exhibit a surprising indifference. "At some point," Foster opines, "I imagine the people will forget they're a communist country and one day they won't be." On several levels, this strikes me as a brilliant political and social observation and the more I consider it, the more I'll bet he's right.
But Foster doesn't dwell on stuff like that for long and rightly so. Instead he returns to the quotidian observations that make "I Went To China. I Wrote Stuff Down" so unique, and therefore, so necessary. He talks about the novelty of feeling exotic, which, as a regular guy back in North Carolina, he finds something of a hoot. He talks a lot about beer and drinks even more of it. He talks about food. Hot pot meals that leave his face feeling scalded as if with radiation burns. A lamb cooked tabletop on a spit from which he and his friends tear off by the hunkful like a gang of Mongolian barbarians. Chicken feet skins that "looked like little socks." Strips of roasted duck bill. And some sort of delicious mystery meat (Damn, Jon eats an awful lot of meat!!) that may or may not have been donkey. Perhaps, it was better that Foster inquired no further. As Confucius say, What you don't know won't make you vomit. At least none of Foster's party went "missing" and no one found an earring in their bowl.
And, of course, Foster touches on the teaching that he did, his ostensible reason for visiting China and what led to his writing this 'zine in the first place; but he doesn't touch it much and I can't resist thinking that in itself is ultimately both the point and the genius of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down." It's the stuff you do while doing the stuff you do that is often the real stuff, the stuff that makes for a story worth telling. And "I Went to China. I Wrote Things Down." most certainly is a story worth telling—and reading.
You can get your very own copy of "I Went To China. I Wrote Things Down." It'll go perfect with your Moo Goo Gai Pan the next time you order take-out. Apparently, you can write to Jon himself to request a copy at:
Posted by mcw at 4:22 PM