Friday, March 26, 2010

The Mark Twain Anthology ...

In 1889, a young English writer and reporter named Rudyard Kipling traveled nearly 8,000 miles from Allahabad, India to interview Mark Twain in Elmira, N.Y.

After Kipling concluded his interview with Twain, he was gleeful, writing immediately from New York to The Pioneer, the newspaper for which he worked back in Allahabad,

"You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar -- no, two cigars -- with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don't. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward. To soothe your envy and to prove that I still regard you as my equals, I will tell you all about it."

A rhapsody followed.

Kipling's piece is included in The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, published recently by the Library of America. The anthology includes dozens of authors (and a handful of illustrators) from 1869 to 2008 including William Dean Howells, G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Grant Wood, T.S. Eliot, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison and others. It includes 16 writers from Europe, Asia and Latin America, many previously untranslated.

The Book Serf asked editor Shelley Fisher Fishkin (Twain scholar, English professor and Director of American Studies at Stanford University) the following questions:

BS: In your introduction, you talk about the enduring nature of Twain's appeal. He is loved across the globe and down the years. Why do you think that is? (A short question that begs a giant answer?)

SFF: (You’re right: a short question that demands a giant answer!)
Twain has somehow managed to establish a relationship with his readers -- an intimacy, really -- like that of no other author that I know. And what is totally remarkable to me is that this intimate sense of connection that helps make his work so engaging and popular manages to make it through translations into over 70 languages. His humor is key, of course -- and again, it is amazing that it survives translation -- but he was always so much more than a humorist. “Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever,” Twain wrote. “… I have always preached ... I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same …” Twain’s humor both teaches and preaches -- but it dresses those lessons and sermons in such delicious wit that we don’t necessarily realize we’ve been preached at or taught a thing.
When he received an honorary degree from Yale in 1888, Twain reminded the world that the humorist’s trade “is a useful trade, a worthy calling; that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it -- the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”

Twain’s humor endures because it is true to its “one serious purpose” -- “the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence.” It may make us wince. But we still come back for more.

I also think that Twain’s enduring appeal is related to the fact that every generation (in a vast range of cultures, geographies, economies, etc) can find in his work material that “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say. He is amazingly contemporary, even in the 21st century. His quirky, ambitious, strikingly original fiction and nonfiction engaged some of the perennially thorny, messy, challenges we are still grappling with today -- such as the challenge of making sense of a nation founded on freedom by men who held slaves -- the great contradiction on which the idea of America was constructed -- or the puzzle of our continuing faith in technology in the face of our awareness of its destructive powers; or the problem of imperialism and the difficulties involved in getting rid of it.

Dick Gregory said that Twain “was so far ahead of his time that he shouldn't even be talked about on the same day as other people.” I think that’s exactly right!

And of course, his brilliant aphorisms have taken on a life of their own because they’re so apt and so funny and so true. Who but Twain could get away with, “It was not that Adam ate the apple for the apple’s sake, but because it was forbidden. It would have been better for us -- oh infinitely better for us -- if the serpent had been forbidden.” Or “... patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel. He is the man who talks the loudest.” Or “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

In all of these quotes, Twain conveys a truth that polite society customarily denies: that we all wish it were easier to be good, or that patriotism often covers base deeds, or that exposure to virtue can be more irritating than inspiring since it underlines our own shortcomings. Summarized in this manner, these comments fall flat with a dull moralistic thud. They don’t sound that way when Twain says them.

“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement,” Twain wrote. “To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself.” Or, as he put elsewhere, “A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain.”

Readers tend to trust Twain to be someone who can be brutally honest but never malevolent. Twain’s avuncular stance helps take the sting out of barbs that would wound more sharply from less friendly lips. As a result he can say things that from anyone else might lead to blows. He is simply allowed to be more irreverent than most people because there is a deep sense (to paraphrase his friend Bill Nye) that he’s not as bad as he sounds.

BS: Do you agree with Kenneth Lynn that after World War II critics often misread Huck as "renouncing his membership in a society that condoned slavery"?

SFF: Yes. Huck never actually renounces his membership in a society that condones slavery. Rather, he makes the existential decision to act in a way that he knows that society condemns. (He is willing to pay the price: he thinks he will go to Hell for what he has done). Huck never actually challenges the norms that he violates. That would require his judging his society as immoral and wrong, and he never reaches that point. But the reader does, and that is part of what makes the book so profoundly compelling.

During the Cold War, critics tended to hold up Huck’s decision in Chapter 31 not to return Jim to his owner as a triumph of individual autonomy, an example of one human being rejecting the false morality of his society, an act which made the book gratifyingly “subversive.” This appealed to an avowedly democratic nation waging a Cold War against an enemy ready to subsume the individual under the collective. It also appealed to a nation that beginning to try to move beyond its Jim Crow past.

As Kenneth Lynn observed, in the decades after World War II, as critics and readers gradually reached the conclusion that “the ancient pattern of discrimination against Negroes was morally indefensible,” they often misread Huck’s actions. The book was, in fact, one that could be enlisted in the project of envisioning the U.S. as a nation that was finally grappling with its racist past. But Twain requires the reader to pass judgment on the failings of Huck’s society: Huck judges only his own actions.

BS: Twain could be very critical of the U.S. Why don't we know much about that side of his writing? (I'm thinking here of the Treaty With China piece that you discuss in your introduction. But surely there were others?)

SFF: Much of Twain’s most controversial work was bowdlerized or suppressed by his daughter (Clara) and by his publisher or his first biographer out of fear that it would damage Twain’s image (and, presumably, the financial interests enhanced by that image).

This explanation helps explain why material like Letters from the Earth was not published until four decades after Twain’s death. But I’ve only relatively recently begun to probe the impact that the Cold War had on the selection of Twain texts with which Americans were familiar for much of the 20th century.
As Maxwell Geismar put it in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, “During the Cold War era of our culture, mainly in the 1950’s although extending back into the ‘40s and forward far into the ‘60s, Mark Twain was both revived and castrated. The entire arena of Twain’s radical social criticism of the United States — its racism, imperialism, and finance capitalism — has been repressed or conveniently avoided by the so-called Twain scholars precisely because it is so bold, so brilliant, so satirical. And so prophetic.”

But while most Americans in the 20th century had been encountering a “castrated,” tame Twain, to borrow Geismar’s word, readers in China and the Soviet Union were encountering a Twain unafraid to launch salvos at the hypocrisy and failings of the country that he loved. Twain’s achievement as a writer and his role as a social and cultural critic may have been significantly distorted in the U.S. by imperatives of the Cold War. In part because Chinese and Soviet writers and critics lauded the Twain who was a searing critic of his country, American writers and critics largely dismissed that Twain as a figment of the Communist propaganda machine and valorized America’s Twain as a writer to be celebrated primarily as a humorist rather than as a satirist and social critic.

The propaganda functions to which Twain’s writing was put are obvious -- but Americans threw out the baby with the bathwater when they downplayed the validity of Twain’s criticisms of his country -- which were also criticisms of their country -- and, unfortunately, in some ways, of America today, as well. Americans’ focus on Twain as a humorist has helped make some of his most intriguing works of social and political criticism suffer neglect.

BS: Or, if you'd rather, What is the biggest, most persistent myth about Mark Twain, either as Writer or Man?

SFF: Probably the idea that a writer who was once a delightfully entertaining humorist became a bitter, pessimistic misanthrope in his old age because of the death of so many people he loved -- his wife and two daughters. This myth is flawed on several fronts. 1) The germs of the ideas most often associated with his later years can be found in his earliest writings as well. Twain was raising searching questions about humankind from early on in his career. During his later years these questions may have become more salient, but they were present all along. 2) Twain’s pessimism and bleak outlook during his later years may have been colored in part by the death of people close to him, but it was probably more a reflection of his disillusionment in the course his country was taking -- particularly seeing his country become an imperial power in the mold of the European nations whose colonialism and imperialism Twain abhorred. 3) The last decade or so of Twain’s life was far from an unrelievedly bleak period. He produced some hilarious pieces during that time. One such piece is the wild, cross-dressing farce he wrote in 1898 in Vienna, the play “Is He Dead?” which had its debut on Broadway in 2007. A zany blend of shtiks that would not be out of place in a Marx Brothers film or Tootsie or Some Like It Hot, the play makes it clear that Twain was still able to have tremendous fun during those so-called “dark” years. David Ives adapted it for today’s stage. There have been over 70 productions of it since it closed on Broadway, and it has been delighting audiences across the country and outside the US as well (its first international production -- which is up now -- is in Romania).

BS: Why do you find the response of Black writers to Twain significant? How would you characterize that response?
SFF: Twain is perennially under attack for the alleged racism readers find in Huckleberry Finn. Did Twain manage to transcend the racial discourse of his time in everything he wrote? Of course not. (Pudd’nhead Wilson, for example, is a highly flawed book on this front). But was he light-years ahead of most of his peers when it came to understanding the dynamics of racism and coming up with ways of getting his reader to ask profound questions about the status quo? Absolutely.

Because of the longstanding belief in American culture that Black writers are particularly entitled to evaluate the racial politics of a canonical white writer, the ways in which Black writers have responded to Twain are important to reference in these debates. Those views are often buried in recondite places, hard to find when one needs to find them. I wanted to bring these responses together in The Mark Twain Anthology, so that teachers and other readers could have easy access to the most compelling of these perspectives.

And they are not monolithic. There is a range of views that they express, whether it is Toni Morrison discussing her complex responses to Huckleberry Finn, or Ralph Ellison noting that minstrelsy shaped the presentation of Jim in the novel, but that it is from behind the minstrel mask that Jim’s humanity emerges. The Mark Twain Anthology collects in one place a series of key responses by Black writers to the issue of Twain’s treatment of race and racism that have not appeared together before -- commentaries dating from 1937 to 2000 from Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, David Bradley, Toni Morrison, Ralph Wiley, and Dick Gregory, along with briefer remarks by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Pryor.

Brown is the first to recognize the magnitude of Twain’s achievement in portraying Jim when it is judged against the backdrop of how Twain’s white contemporaries portrayed African Americans. I find David Bradley to be perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive commentator on Twain and race. Nobody has ever said anything more concise and correct, in my view, about the ending of Huckleberry Finn: In a 1995 speech he observed, “A lot of snotty academics have spent a lot of time and wasted a lot of journal ink criticizing the ending of Huckleberry Finn. But I notice none of them has been able to suggest, much less write, a better ending. Two actually tried — and failed. They all failed for the same reason that Twain wrote the ending as he did. America has never been able to write a better ending. America has never been able to write any ending at all.”

BS: What is the best thing anyone has ever said about Twain and why do you appreciate it?

SFF: Richard Wright: “Twain hid his conflict in satire and wept in private over the brutalities and the injustices of his civilization.” In this one sentence, Wright compresses the complexity of Twain’s response as a writer to what he witnessed around him and to the forces he saw operating in history. Wright recognizes the pain that lurked just under the surface. Tragedy is the ultimate source of comedy for Twain. The contradictions between people’s views of their behavior and how they actually behaved, the disconnects between their ideals and their realities, the high tolerance people have for bad faith and myopia when called upon to judge themselves or their societies -- Wright got it.

BS: How often did you find yourself "arguing" with what one of the writers averred about Twain? (I wanted to interrupt Teddy Roosevelt and tell him he was full of it!)

SFF: George Orwell thought that Twain settled for being his society’s “licensed jester,” a
man who “never attacks established beliefs in a way that is likely to get him into trouble.” I disagree. Orwell seems to have been unaware of the writings Twain published that did get him into trouble — such as “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” and other anti-imperialist essays. This is not surprising: During Orwell’s lifetime, Harpers, Twain’s publisher, did what it could (along with Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and daughter Clara) to downplay the subversive side of Twain. I should add, however, that Orwell’s statement is very occasionally applicable to Twain: Twain decided not to publish a book about lynchings because (as he put it in a letter to his publisher) he wouldn’t have a friend left in the South if he did. But the occasions when Twain did get into trouble condemning his country’s foreign policy, or the behavior European nations in Asia and Africa.
And for the record, I share your views on Teddy Roosevelt. And Twain had as low an opinion of Teddy Roosevelt as Roosevelt had of Twain. In the posthumously-published Mark Twain in Eruption, Twain wrote that “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.”

BS: Why is Mark Twain considered the quintessentially American writer and Huckleberry Finn the quintessentially American novel? Was William Dean Howells' accurate in his appraisal of Twain?

SFF: Jorge Luis Borges observed that in Huckleberry Finn “for the first time an American writer used the language of America without affectation.” The novel that Ernest Hemingway called the wellspring of “all modern American literature” was America’s literary Declaration of Independence, a book no Englishman could have written -- a book that expanded the democratic possibilities of what a modern novel could do and what it could be. Time and time again, Twain defied readers’ expectations of what literature was and did. As Howells once put it, “He saunters out into the trim world of letters, and lounges across its neatly kept paths, and walks about on the grass at will, in spite of all the signs that have been put up from the beginning of literature, warning people of dangers and penalties for the slightest trespass.”

From the breezy slang and deadpan humor that peppered his earliest comic sketches to the unmistakably American characters who populated his fiction, Twain’s writings introduced readers around the world to American personalities speaking in distinctively American cadences. But in Huckleberry Finn, those American voices helped usher in a new kind of novel that helped make possible so much of the literature that followed it in the 20th century. It was in Huckleberry Finn that Twain allowed the African American voices that had been so important to him all his life to play a central role in his creative process. The most memorable stories Twain heard during his childhood were those he heard in the slave quarters from specific slaves whom he recalled years later in autobiographical recollections, in “How to Tell a Story,” and elsewhere. The engaging mock-sermons of a “satirical slave” named Jerry that Twain listened to daily in his youth were his introduction to satire as a tool of social criticism, as he tells us in “Corn-Pone Opinions.” As an adult, Twain was exposed to such gifted storytellers as Mary Ann Cord (who told the story that is at the center of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”) and the young black servant he profiled in “Sociable Jimmy” (“the most artless, sociable, exhaustless talker” Twain had ever met, to whom Twain listened “as one who receives a revelation,” and who played a role in the genesis of Huckleberry Finn).

Twain became a writer at a time when characters who spoke in dialect were generally objects of ridicule and sources of comic relief. But speakers like those mentioned here taught Twain the complex, subtle, and serious uses to which dialect and vernacular speech could be put, and American literature would never be the same.

I believe that few would deny today the important role that African-American voices and speakers like these played in making Twain the writer he became. As Ralph Ellison told me in our interview, reading Twain, and seeing the ways in which he transformed vernacular speech into art helped many black -- and white -- authors in the century that followed find their “own voices” as writers. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain made a semi-literate street urchin narrator (and the central consciousness) of his book. Never before had so much authority and power been ceded to a vernacular speaker. It is this which helps make the book the wellspring of so much of the literature that followed -- in the 20th and 21st centuries. Huckleberry Finn also had remarkable universal appeal: Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe cites Huck Finn as the book that spoke to his condition so powerfully in war-torn Japan that it inspired him to write his first novel.

BS: What was the single most surprising/pleasing thing you learned during the course of assembling the anthology?

SFF: I’d probably have to say that I was surprised to find that the first book devoted to Mark Twain published anywhere was a book published in Paris in French. It’s not clear that Twain himself was ever aware of this book, titled simply Mark Twain, that was published in Paris in 1884 by a young Frenchman named Henry Gauthier-Villars. (Today Gauthier-Villars is best known as the rather infamous first husband of the woman he met five years after he published this book, a woman who later became known as the French writer, Colette.).

Something else (that I should have known, perhaps, but hadn’t) was the wonderful intensity of Twain’s friendship with Helen Keller, the remarkable rapport the two of them had, and the impact Twain had on her life: it was Twain who introduced her to Henry Huddleston Rogers and his wife with the express goal of getting them to pay for her education. They ended up paying her way through Radcliffe, and she became the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. (It was also Twain who dubbed her teacher, Annie Sullivan, “the miracle worker.”)

BS: I have to ask, since you bring it up in your introduction, what piece hurt you the most to leave out and why?

SFF: I was really sad to lose Willie Morris’s essay on Life on the Mississippi, an essay by Judith Martin (Miss Manners) on The Prince and the Pauper, and Anne Bernays’ essay dealing with “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” But all of these pieces introduce volumes of The Oxford Mark Twain (that I edited in 1996), and the fact that the set has just come out in paperback means that readers will still have ready access to these excellent writer-to-writer encounters with Twain. I also regret that an eloquent essay from Jim Zwick’s book, Confronting Imperialism, dealing with Twain’s involvement with the Anti-Imperialist league ended up being cut. Jim Zwick passed away at a very young age a few years ago, just after that book came out, and at least in part as a result of his untimely death his work has not gotten the attention that it deserves.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Can you break up with someone you've never met?

Can a book be both existential and light?

Is the phrase "an existential romp" an oxymoron?
Readers of Martin Page's The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection may be inclined to answer those questions in the affirmative.

Who knew existential ennui could be such riotous good fun?

The premise of Discreet Pleasures is simple and outlandish: Virgil returns home one day from his unfulfilling work at the Svengali Advertising Agency to a message on his answering machine:

Virgil, it's Clara. I'm sorry, but I'd rather stop here. I'm leaving you, Virgil. I'm leaving you.

Etiquette experts argue that one must respect one's partner by breaking up in person, but the method of Clara's breakup is of only minor importance. Because Virgil doesn't know or can't remember who Clara is. In essence, he's been dumped by an apparition.

The incident sets Virgil on a journey of self-discovery (as the blurbists like to put it) in which, at least initially, he does indeed experience the "pleasures" of "rejection." He tells all his friends (exclusively women) that he's yet again been dumped and suddenly he's the center of attention. They dote on him, feed him, pat his back, encourage him, compliment him. This is fun for awhile.

But eventually Virgil begins to ask another question: Why do all my relationships, even the ones I've never got to enjoy, end in sorrow?

Book Serf caught up with Martin Page (via the wonders of the internets) and asked the Parisian satirist (his How I Became Stupid was described as a "modern day Candide") the following questions:

BS: What is the secret, do you think, in getting readers to buy into such a fantasical premise?

MP: The secret? Hmm. Difficult for me to think that there’s a secret.

BS: How does one make believable a character who does things none of us would do?

MP: Well, that’s the kind of thing I do. It's a normal, regular way of thinking for me. So what’s unrealistic for most people is in fact a daily thing for me.

But you are right: there's a challenge in making a bizarre idea realistic. My point was not to write a surrealistic novel, but to write a novel about love. The bizarre beginning is a catch. It's a way to amaze the main character, Virgil, and to create excitement. And the reader of course. And to let me follow my ideas.
BS: Can you talk a little bit about pitch? It seems to me that you -- ie, the narrator -- has to strike just the right tone, a certain dead-pan delivery that makes the farce come alive.

MP: Yes, it's very important for me, that deadpan sense of humor. The more you play it seriously, the more profound and intelligent it is. It's always more intersting when amazing and crazy things are underplayed. Because then we see the farce (and the uncanny) as a part of our lives. It shows the strange unreality of reality.

BS: If you met Virgil in real life, do you think you would like him?

MP: That’s a difficult question, because Virgil is pretty much a self-portrait of me. So if I met myself in real life, there's a chance I would be a little upset, because I would see all my defects.

BS: Your narrator and Virgil both have wide-ranging interests, from the history of advertising in the Western world to the invention of the CAT scan machine and catafalques! Can you talk about the structure of your book and its inclusive, digressive, polymathic (is that even a word?) nature?

MP: I try to write novels that are polysemic. You can read them on different levels. If you want to read this one as a simple bizarre comedy, you can. If you want to read it as a reflection on love, you can. If you want to read that as a reflection on memory, you can.

I like digression. That's why I adore books like Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Montaigne's essays. Something that seems to be a detour is in fact telling us something about the main subject. A digression is not unbounded, it's not without purpose. It's connected to the subject, it gives it some ornaments (which are great and beautiful things) that mean something (even if you don't notice that at first).

BS: What are the things that you most enjoy about Oscar Wilde? What could contemporary writers learn from him?

MP: Wilde is an underestimated writer. People talk about him mostly as the king of paradox (and of course Chesterton is the prince of paradox). They say he’s very witty, but that he wrote quotes more than works of art. But he's a complex writer. There's a journey between The Picture of Dorian Gray and De Profundis. And I like that journey, the diversity, the variety of work. Most of all, I like him because he's light and profound, sad and full of joy, tragic and comic. It's more than a philosophy of litterature, it's an ethic: to live and to write.

BS: Do you share Virgil's complicated views of Paris ?

MP: Totally. It's my own words. Paris is not an easy city to understand.

BS: My favorite line from Raymond Chandler is from Farewell, My Lovely, where the narrator says, "She was so cold spumoni wouldn't have melted on her." I read an interview in which you identified similarities between The Long Goodbye and your latest novel. Can you elaborate on that? And, what's your favorite Chandler line?

MP: Farewell, My Lovely is a great novel. I like the idea that a novel is an investigation. At the end the hero is not exactly the same — now life may begin. I think noirs and dectective novels give us a very interesting structure on which to build "literary" or "classic" novels. There's a lot to be learned from them. The Long Good-Bye is that kind of quest. And it's a beautiful book about Los Angeles.

BS: What are you working on now?

MP: A graphic novel, a comic book (comic strips in the tradition of Schultz's Peanuts), a novel for teenagers, and an essay about my father.

Monday, March 8, 2010

L'Enfant Sauvage ... T.C. Boyle returns ...

Wild Child by T.C. Boyle (Viking, $25.95)
By Erik Harden for Book Serf

The ‘80s punk band the Minutemen, in its succinct and abstract style, once pondered a world unspoiled by humankind in its song Nature Without Man. T.C. Boyle takes the opposite approach to the matter in his latest collection of short stories, Wild Child.

These previously published short stories offer several tales based on the uneasy relationship between man and nature. Boyle takes an array of approaches – from mundane and humorous to horrifying and heartbreaking. And he packs an emotional wallop using a style that manages to be straightforward yet complex.

In “La Conchita,” he brings the horror and panic of being trapped in a natural disaster to life. Coincidentally, I was reading this story the week the earthquake struck Haiti. Although Boyle’s story is about a mudslide in Southern California, it was easy to imagine the shell-shocked survivors of the quake thinking something like the following:

By the time we reached the top of the street, a long block and a half in, all of it uphill, I was out of breath – heaving, actually – but whether my lungs burned or my shoes were ruined beyond salvage or repair or the finish on the car was damaged to the tune of five hundred bucks or more didn’t matter, because the whole thing suddenly came clear to me. This was the real deal. This was affliction and loss, horror unfolding, the houses crushed like eggshells, cars swallowed up, sections of roof flung out across the street and nothing visible beneath but tons of wet mud and a scatter of splintered beams. I was staggered. I was in awe.

And the story actually becomes more harrowing as the central character – a courier who delivers donated organs to hospitals – finds himself frantically digging through the mud to save the lives of people he has never met. Let’s just say the results are riveting.

“Admiral,” one of the funnier stories in the collection, also tackles the clash between man and nature, but with sharp sarcasm and wit. It’s the story of a recent college graduate who returns to her hometown and takes a job as a dogsitter for a $250,000 cloned Afghan hound.

To me, it feels like a cautionary tale of man becoming too godlike, but that’s not to say Boyle is up on a soapbox. He just lets the absurdity of two self-absorbed professionals insanely doting over a genetic copy of an earlier spoiled pooch unfold. At one point, Nisha – the dogsitter – asks herself:

Four years of college for this? Wars were being fought, people were starving, there were diseases to conquer, children to educate, good to do in the world, and here she was reliving her adolescence in the company of inbred, semi-retarded clown of a cloned Afghan hound because two childless rich people decreed it should be so.

Boyle brings the moral center of the story into sharp focus when Erhard, an animal rights activist who befriends Nisha, contends the two people she is working for are "arrogant exemplars of bourgeois excess, even to the point of violating the laws of nature – and God, God too – simply to satisfy their own solipsistic desires."

While this story is based on man’s best friend, I couldn’t help but notice Boyle’s fascination with creatures of the avian variety throughout the anthology. In “Balto,” the first story in the book, a man looks at a gull and notices "the way the breeze touched its feathers and the sun whitened its breast until there was nothing brighter and more perfect in the world – this creature, his fellow creature."

In another story he describes a widower like a bird stripped of its feathers in some aerial catastrophe. In the book’s title story, a parrot has a fatal run-in with the story’s central character. And finally, in another story a major league baseball player’s mother is kidnapped in Venezuela. The player, as it turns out, is a pitcher for the Orioles.

“Wild Child,” the longest story in the anthology, is Boyle’s take on the classic story of L’Enfant Sauvage – a feral boy found living in the French countryside at the turn of the 19th century.
Boyle breathes new life into the legendary tale that is based on the memoirs of the French physician Jean Itard.
Boyle, maybe more than any previous telling of this story, often tries to see things the way the boy – eventually named Victor – would interpret his surroundings and the attempts to assimilate him into the civilized world. When he is first being hunted by villagers in the countryside, this is his description:

A fire was built beneath the tree, the boy all the while watching these three bipeds, these shagged and violent and strangely habited and gibbering animals, out of the deep retreat of his eyes.
Boyle expresses man’s fear of the wild in the way the French country citizens view the child and his growing legend: "He wasn’t a child. He was a spirit, a demon outcast like the rebel angels, mute and staring and mad."

When the boy is brought to Paris to be studied and, for lack of a better word, domesticated, he fails to see the city’s storied beauty. Ironically, the child-beast views the City of Lights in very unflattering terms.

All he knew was what he heard and smelled. He saw confusion , heard chaos, and what he smelled was ranker than anything he’d come across in all his years of wandering the fields and forests of Aveyron, concentrated pungent, the reek of civilization.

Itard, in studying the child, hopes to unlock the mysteries of the question that has been asked by famous philosophers through the years:
Itard was prepared to carry out to put to the test the thesis propounded by Locke and Condillac: Was man born a tabula rasa, unformed and without ideas, ready to be written upon by society, educable and perfectible? Or was society a corrupting influence, as Rousseau supposed, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?

This is the question Boyle grapples with throughout Wild Child.

Friday, March 5, 2010

More of my interview with Julia Keller/Chicago Tribune

The great thing about the internets, as our last president liked to call them, is that nothing need be left on the cutting room floor. To wit: I recently had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Pulitzer Prize journalist Julia Keller (author of Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel) for a column she was writing for her newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, about "when to give up on a book."

JK: Is there a novel you've started but not finished, but that still haunts you? (Your web site talks about White Noise. Any others?)

BS: Sure. There are great novels that I've been unable to defeat. Ulysses is one of them. A friend of mine used to call his attempts to finish Ulysses "assaults" on the novel. And you really do have to gird your loins and prepare for a battle with that particular book. I've enjoyed trying to read Ulysses and would never consider my time spent with it in the least bit wasted. And of course I'm sympathetic to the arguments of the folks who have finished it and loved it. But I am, sorry to say, not among those lucky few. Maybe someday?

I'm sure there's a Faulkner in there that I never finished. I read a lot of him in graduate school! It's not a novel, but I have one more chapter to read in Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. I'm not sure why I stopped reading it and I'm fairly certain I'll return to it, god willing and if the creek don't rise, as Hank Sr. used to say.

JK: How long do you go before giving up? Is there a rule of thumb?

BS: In all four of these questions, Julia, I would divide the books into two categories: those books we feel that will benefit and enrich us and are worth finishing no matter the degree of difficulty (books such as Buddenbrooks or Lord Jim or Moby-Dick); and all the other, lesser books we're just taking a flyer on.

It's easier to walk away from the latter than from the former. I don't think we should ever walk away from a book merely because it's challenging. That's the wrong reason. On the other hand, certain books simply don't command our respect. Recently I went looking for books that might satisfy a couple of urges I have as a reader: for epic fantasy and for novels of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I'd read Tolkien in the first genre and Patrick O'Brian in the second and considered them the gold standard. I settled on Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson for my epic fantasy and, to be honest with you, I'm not sure I'm going to make it through the trilogy. The lead character, Thomas Covenant, keeps saying, Hellfire!, which I find bizarre and distracting. Donaldson's writing is often atrocious. So many anachronisms, so many poorly chosen words, so much silliness like Hellfire! The story has my attention through 200 pages, so maybe I'll finish this novel and reconsider the final two in the series? In the seafaring genre, I picked up the first novel in the "Ramage" series by Dudley Pope. I walked away from that at about 100 pages because I simply couldn't get excited to pick the book back up again after I'd set it aside. That was three months ago, so I think I'm done with it.

One question I find fascinating is, Why don't we finish a book? There have been times when I wasn't in the mood for a book that I would months or even years later return to and love. So our moods can determine the outcome. At other times, an author will break (in our mind) the compact that exists between all authors and their readers. Perhaps we will have said once too often, Are you kidding me? And we'll decide we no longer want to suspend our disbelief. Or perhaps the author abuses the English language in ways we find intolerable. Or perhaps a tic (say, cuteness) that is at first bearable becomes a reason to set a book aside.

An old friend of mine once rolled down the passenger-side window of my car and threw one of Nabokov's novels out at 70 mph on the interstate! "Sometimes," he said, "deciding not to finish a book calls for a grand gesture." We still laugh about that today!

Perhaps I should have prefaced these responses by saying that I finished every book I ever started, good, bad or indifferent, until I was 26 years old. In my old age, I find it so much easier to let a book go than in my youth. (Not sure this has anything to do with our discussion, but in my dotage I have begun for the first time in my life to reread my favorite books, something I thought I'd never do but find I enjoy it immensely.)

JK: What's the earliest you've ever quit on a book? (e.g., first page? first paragraph?) What's the furtherest you've gone, and then quit?

BS: The earliest I ever quit on a book was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which I stopped reading on Page 3. I could tell then, despite all the hype, that it was the work of a consumate hack. Reading those first few pages reminded me of a line Dorothy Parker wrote in a review from the 1920s: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
I wish I'd written that line myself! I've certainly read enough books over the years to which it could be applied! Let's just say The Da Vinci Code was a better book than a movie and leave it at that!

As for the book I read most deeply into before giving up, I guess it's Don DeLillo's Underworld, somewhere in the 600s of an 827 page novel! So close, and yet I was so overwhelmed reading it by ennui that to go on was insupportable. I really don't have any regrets for leaving Underworld behind and no intention of going back to it.

JK: Must one finish a book to derive all the meat from it?
BS: I don't think so. At least, not if it's a good book. The best novelists aren't going to give us the answers to life in the final chapter or in the Epilogue, I don't think. My favorite novelists ask the best questions; they don't give the best answers. So I think you can accumulate meat as you move through a book even if you never make it to the end. But what, you ask, about a detective novel? Well, then, yes, one must read on til the end to find out whodunnit. The key in the case of crime fiction or novels with O. Henry-style endings, etc., is to not allow yourself to be sucked in in the first place.

My interview with Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune!

Thanks to Julia Keller for the shout out in her Chicago Tribune column about "When to give up on a book."

Julia is the author of the fine book Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, a history of the Gatling gun and, perhaps more so, of the U.S. Patent Office.

You can check out our interview here:,0,76939.column