David Lipsky – Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog-front for the last couple of weeks. You probably assumed I succumbed to an addiction to Westworld or the latest Scando Noir series. Nope. Well, actually yes to the Westworld addiction, but I generally try not to let my tv habit supplant my reading one.

The problem has been that my recent reading has all been work-related. Freelance writing work comes in all shapes and sizes. My latest assignments have been assessing a Master’s thesis and reviewing a book of poetry. Both involved significant reading of the works themselves and related research material. Both jobs also supplied the materials, so my commitment to not buying books remains unbroken. (However, I did attend a book launch last week for Lucy Durneen’s short story collection Wild Gestures and had two glasses of wine, therefore satisfying the exemption criteria. I bought the book. SO satisfying. I haven’t finished reading it yet, so that post is still to come.)

img_3569-1A book I did recently finish reading (for pleasure) was Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky’s account of spending five days on the road with the author at the end of his book tour promoting Infinite Jest back in 1996.

I must admit to reading this as a result of loving the James Ponsoldt film The End of the Tour, which was based on Lipsky’s book. My fascination with both the book and the film is an expression of a character trait of which I’m not especially proud.  I happen to be enthralled by books about the writers’ lives. Biographies, diaries, autobiographies: I’ll read them all. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, it gets worse. When it comes to the lives of writer’s whom I really admire, I kick it up a notch. Addictive personality. You get the picture. Then, there’s the final level. If the writer I love happens to have had issues with mental health and taken their own life, then I will obsessively hunt down every word they wrote in their lifetime and every book, article or film made about them. I’m not proud of it. Clearly, I’m besotted with the archetype of the writer as “tormented artistic genius.”

David Foster Wallace definitely falls into this final category. Infinite Jest is a modern masterpiece. To say the man was brilliant is a glaring understatement. I even went a little weak at the knees reading his teaching and syllabus notes in The David Foster Wallace Reader. If you weren’t already aware, Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46 after unsuccessfully trying to wean himself off anti-depressants. So it should not surprise you to learn that I had a minor (ok, major) tantrum last year when I discovered that “limited release” meant that The End of the Tour would not be screened in Adelaide.  the-end-of-the-tour-2015-01

Lipsky’s 2010 book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, was part of my December Book Binge and understandably meant treating myself to another viewing of The End of the Tour. Since I saw the film the day it was released online in 2015 (but before reading the book), I’ll give a quick overview of the film, as it informed and influenced my reading of Lipsky’s work.

The End of the Tour is set over the course of five days in 1996, just after the publication of Infinite Jest; a novel that generated an enormous amount of literary hype. Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is a reporter for Rolling Stone who is assigned to accompany Wallace (played by Jason Segel) on the final days of the book tour. Lipsky meets Wallace and his dogs at Wallace’s house in Bloomington, Illinois, and travels with him (but without the dogs) on the publicity circuit. The film follows the gradual development of a friendship between the two as they engage in long and, at times, intensely philosophical discussions about life, literature, the literary world and fame. From these conversations, portraits of both Wallace and Lipsky are developed and the viewer is granted some insight into Wallace’s worldview and the distinctive pressures of sudden literary fame.

It is extremely interesting to come to the book after the film. The book is unique in that it’s structured as a transcript of the conversations Lipsky recorded while travelling with Wallace.  The text is extremely disjointed and non-linear.  The film does an incredible job of reassembling these rambling conversations into a linear narrative that manages to preserve much of the exact wording of the dialogue and the integrity of Wallace’s perspective and opinions. If I had read the book first, I would’ve doubted the plausibility of constructing a feature film using these transcripts.

That said, I relished the book. Both the style and the content worked to make me feel as if I was sitting in the backseat of the car, listening to them talk, almost able to smell the cigarette smoke and the juice from Wallace’s chewing tobacco. Ok, now I’ve made it sound gross. But if, like me, you’re a fan of the way Wallace’s mind worked, then you’ll love this re-acquaintance with the flow and substance of his thoughts. This is the beauty of Lipsky’s choice of straight transcription. Now that Wallace has gone and we will never receive the gift of another David Foster Wallace book, we’re let back into his head one last time. Drink it in. I suspect you’ll come to love the smell of the backseat.

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Jonathan Galassi – Muse

muse-1-1This book has been sitting unappreciated on my shelves since 2015 and I’m sorry to say that now I’ve read it, Muse remains largely unappreciated. I had high hopes. The plot sounded as if it would push my buttons: poetry, publishing and the literary history of the twentieth century. It wasn’t awful; it just failed to live up to my possibly/probably inflated expectations.

A brief plot synopsis without spoilers – Paul Dukach, a bookseller turned editor for a small but prestigious New York publishing house, is obsessed with the writing and life of poet Ida Perkins. Although Dukach works for the arch-rival of Perkins’ publisher, he dreams of luring his favourite writer onto his list. With patience, the story eventually gathers some momentum. Dukach stumbles over a literary mystery in the form of coded notebooks written by Perkins’ former husband. A mystery of sorts ensues. Who was the muse of Perkins’ last manuscript?

It’s at this point that I should mention that the author, Paul Galassi, is the president of the esteemed publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This goes some way to explain why this novel reads like a gossipy history of the golden era of New York publishing. Galassi has invented the poet at the heart of the story, Ida Perkins, but woven her into 20th century literary history.

The story, particularly the first half, is overflowing with insider references. Fictional literary figures (who are barely disguised real authors) and a roll call of legendary writers  rub shoulders with flimsily fictionalised publishers to create a shadow history of the publishing world of the last century. It is amusing at first, although I was aware that many allusions were flying over my head, but I felt that the story was given secondary priority to the literary puzzle. Who is who? Who is invented? If you are not a player in literary New York, I fear the cleverness may be as lost on you as it was on me. I had to do a quite a bit of research before uncovering that the novel’s two feuding publishers, Homer Stern of Purcell & Stern and Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, were fictionalised versions of Roger Straus of FSG and James Laughlin of New Directions.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s clear that literature is Galassi’s life-blood. I did enjoy his insider perspective and vivid recreation of this idiosyncratic world. But what I relished most was his creation of the poet Ida Perkins and her insertion into the Galassi’s fictionalised Western literary canon. I absolutely loved the idea that a female poet could become the most esteemed literary figure of the 20th and early 21st century, her poetry collections outselling all other genres and garnering a royal flush of major literary prizes and honours. May life imitate art!

In other news, while dropping off some dry-cleaning in Stirling today (oh, the unrelenting glamour) I managed to resist popping into the Book Shed. The Book Shed is a hidden treasure, a beautifully curated charity bookshop tucked at the back of the car park behind the main stretch of shopping precinct in Stirling. Usually I can’t go in without leaving with an armload of ludicrously cheap classics, literary fiction and poetry. Avoiding it took quite an expenditure of inner mettle. *Sigh* It’s only Day 5.

 

Mary Oliver – Upstream

oliver-1This book was one of the first titles bought in the Great December Book Binge. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and there was absolutely no way I would have been able to wait until 2018 before buying this book. Don’t even say the word library. This is Mary Oliver. Not only must I own this, I must own it in hardback. I even made a tiny ritual of fixing a bookplate to the flyleaf and inscribing it with my name, using a stamp given to me by my aunt on my sixteenth birthday.

Yesterday, the act of reading this book also became a little ritualistic. Mary Oliver’s poetry and essays are all inspired by her fascination with the natural world and her work is characterised by close observation, keen insight and ecological understanding, all packaged in deceptively straightforward language. For Oliver, the practice of paying close attention to nature is an act of devotion. So it felt right that the reading of this book took place outdoors, lying on a daybed with way too many cushions, the light streaming down through the vine leaves, my dog and cat snoozing against my legs.

oliver-2Upstream is a book of selected essays and in my fan-girl devotion to Oliver’s poetry I’d come across several of these pieces in previous collections. Her books such as Blue Iris, Winter Hours, Owls and Other Fantasies and Blue Pastures are all poetry collections studded with the occasional essay, so I found Upstream to be a treat in that it was an uninterrupted indulgence in her skill as an essayist.

From the title essay I was in heaven. All the wisdom and empathy for other species that make her poetry so immediately recognisable was right there from the first page. In my opinion, Oliver’s way of looking at the world and recognition of the intrinsic value of the non-human is crucial in the face of the ecological crises we’ve set in motion. But she’s gentle – there’s no table thumping or finger wagging. She takes her readers with her out into the fields and woods of New England and invites us to look. In seeing through her eyes, we’re feeling her wonder, thinking with her insight. It’s all perfectly clear and reasonable. She’s a writer who manages to make being profound look deceptively easy.

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“Upstream” and “Staying Alive” are classic Oliver fare, imprecations to see and let ourselves be lost in wonder at the life that goes on at all scales around us. “Of Power and Time” explores the importance of solitude to the creative life. “Sister Turtle” is a beautiful meditation on the moral dilemma of valuing non-human life yet needing to eat, with food consumption’s unavoidable attachment to suffering. The third section collects a series of Oliver’s biographical essays on the life and work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. Section Four recounts episodes from Oliver’s life where she spent significant time observing and thinking about individual creatures who shared her living space: a household spider, an injured bird, a dog that adopted her. Section Five is an ode to the town, people and landscape that housed her and her partner for decades; Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Despite my deep appreciation for the content of these essays I can’t escape the feeling that what I loved most about reading this book was hearing her voice. Yes, her voice is clear and consistent across all her writing – I believe I would recognise a Mary Oliver sentence anywhere. But to read her essays, one passing through my mind after the other, was to hear her speak to me again in a long, delightful flow. Not a conversation, of course, but as if I was sitting with her by the fire and she was rambling away to me over a glass of whiskey or a hot cup of tea. For me, Upstream was an intimate and sustained connection with the mind of a writer for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect.

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Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth

img_3513-2This feels a little like cheating since I started this book in the death throes of 2016. In my defence, I’ve had this short story collection on my shelves for a while and finished it ten hours into 2017. So I’m making the call: it counts. In fact, I didn’t even buy it in the first place. It came to me in a box of short story collections that I won in a writing contest, which must count as the best prize ever (aside from a giant novelty cheque). So with that in mind, I definitely think it’s an appropriate start to the Year of No New Books.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite writers and the reason this book languished unread for so long on my shelves is that I thought I’d already read it. I remember confidently exclaiming to a friend that I’d read everything Lahiri’s ever written after finishing the English translation of her book of essays In Other Words.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lahiri’s first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. I consider this book to be one of the best short story collections ever written. At this point I should mention that in addition to naming 2017 as the year I kick my book buying addiction, it is also meant to be the year I finish the first draft of my own short story collection. Clearly, I’m an idiot with pretensions to being an overachiever. Anyway, this explains my desire to reread The Interpreter of Maladies – I wanted to discover the secret to the perfect short story so I could steal it for my own work. But as so often happens when confronted with brilliant literature, I was swept away and completely forgot my analytical objectives. Before I knew it, I had finished the book and all I could recall was my pleasure in Lahiri’s insight and beautifully composed sentences and my awe at the way in which she constructs completely believable characters that so perfectly illustrate the difficulties and anxieties of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Damn it.

Which brings me to Unaccustomed Earth. This was meant to be Learning From Lahiri: Take 2. I realised only a few pages into the title story that I’d been deceiving myself. I was reading this collection for the first time.

These stories are all classic Lahiri in that they explore similar themes to her previous short stories and novels but the point of difference is that these build upon and extend her previous work. The Namesake, The Lowland and The Interpreter of Maladies focussed primarily on the experience of first generation immigrants of Bengali heritage as they adapt to the customs of their new home. Lahiri’s characters struggle with culture shock, trying to reconcile the cultural expectations and values of their Indian heritage with the reality of living in America.

The characters populating the eight stories of Unaccustomed Earth are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Rather than struggling to reconcile Indian and Bengali culture with American values and lifestyles, these characters have been born in the US and are pretty much assimilated to Western life. These characters face different struggles, primarily the need break free from parental expectations that are still mired in what to them seem to be restrictive and conventional Indian custom.  American individualism clashes with Indian community values and responsibilities within the microcosm of the extended Indian-American family.

These stories are all long form and Lahiri uses this extended format to cover broader timeframes, exploring the above themes over decades in her characters’ lives. It’s addictive writing. We are drawn into these families, empathising with them as siblings, parents and grandparents move across the world, marry, have children, divorce, remarry, die. Lahiri writes beautifully, using language that is simple and direct yet carries a huge emotional load. While I loved the stories of the first section, the three linked stories of part two had me utterly at their mercy. Lahiri is not known for providing her readers with Hollywood-style resolutions, and I love her for that, but I was totally unprepared for the power with which she drew these stories to a close. The final two pages. I can’t say more than that without issuing a spoiler alert. All I can say is – read this book. Even if you think you don’t like short stories then read this book for the last two pages. They just might convert you.