Friday, December 22, 2006

Penny Press! Puggles and Winter Fiction!


Naturally, we here at Stevereads turned to the letters page of this week's New York magazine expecting to see many expressions of outrage over that 'Bonfire of the Puggle' piece they ran recently, in which an overprivileged yuppie made a kabuki show out of her search for her 'beloved' dog, who escaped her apartment while she was away because she took no more steps to PREVENT that than she would have with a pet rock.

But alas, the only outrage was our own. There was only one letter on the piece, and this is it:

"After reading 'Bonfire of the Puggle,' I was sent back in time to when I lost my dog Spencer. I identify with Cricket's emotional crash: there were no words to express my grief. I too posted a huge reward and didn't give up, and it paid off: Spencer was found safe and sound 200 yards from our house. Unfortunately, bad decisions cost us $16,000 in rewards and a new fence. Was it worth it? Of course."

That's from Jennifer Handler, and it's sort of a mini-version of the piece to which it's responding: just as nauseating, only shorter. The ostentatious reward amount is meant to impress, and of course that mention of a new fence (obviously meant to do the job the OLD fence failed, a job otherwise known as JENNIFER'S fucking job) guarantees a repeat of the story down the line. Pretty obviously, the word she couldn't find to express her grief is the same as Cricket's: "ooops."

But at least we were able to get a chuckle out of the same issue, in the 'Party Lines' section where celebrities are asked questions at gala events. At the Nike celebration commemorating the 25th year of Air Force 1, Queen Latifah is asked how she got her first pair. Here's her response:

"Boosted them, like everybody else! No, but 1982 was a broke year. I wanted white on whites, and I was 12 and on an allowance. So I got a job at Burger King, paid my dues, bought my sneakers. An honest story."

An honest story indeed, but you can't help but smile: you just KNOW her first answer was true.

Surely, we figured, our puggle-inspired doldrums will be swept away over in the latest New Yorker, the double-length 'Winter Fiction' issue ... yeesh, we should have known better.

Wotta load of crap. For reasons passing understanding, they dug up a two-page squib by Marguerite Duras and titled it 'The Bible,' for instance. This could only have been done to get Duras' name in the table of contents, because this ... thing isn't anything - it's not short story (there's no dialogue, no plot, nothing changes at all), merely the premise for one, and not even a particularly good one. And it's technically inept. It takes a great deal of incompetence to show a lot of technical ineptitude in only two pages, but Duras manages it over and over. "They made love together. She liked to make love. It was one of the things that she liked" is a fairly typical ghastly stretch.

One paragraph begins "Sometimes he took her out to dinner, but always to cheap restaurants. He confessed one night that he was buying, on layway, a Hebrew Bible from the sixteenth century. His father was rich, but gave him very little money." The very next paragraph begins, "Even after they'd known each other for three weeks, they still hadn't talked about anything other than the Bible and Islam." Sigh.

We don't begrudge the New Yorker the attempt to lure in Duras nugget-seekers, but what's the POINT of this? Virtually ANY of my young friends, if given two hours, could write a story of similar length that would be FANTASTIC. The New Yorker would benefit in stature for 'discovering' such voices. New Yorker readers would benefit by finding new and vigorous voices. And these young writers themselves would of course benefit in any number of ways Duras cannot. It's frustrating.

No other item in the issue is as bad as that one, but some of them come pretty damn close, particularly Paul Theroux's 'Monkey Hill,' which manages to be condescending, derivative, and silly all at the same time.

The condescension comes in because the story is set in India - so naturally all of Theroux's characters come right out of central casting. The Americans are braying, overmoneyed children, and the Indians are pidgin-spouting quaintly priapic savages. The derivative comes from the fact that nobody seems to be able to write any story about foreigners in India without that story being "A Passage to India," which gets a little tiresome. And the silly comes in because Theroux's new mistress must really love cabbing it uptown for her yoga classes - in fact, it's pretty evident she's dragged him along (probably making it a condition of sex): every single character in this story not only practices yoga but is a fact-quoting enthusiast, including, I think, some of the titular monkeys.

True, Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach' had a little more substance to it, but not bloody much. McEwan is typical of a whole raft of current novelists (Jonathan Franzen comes to mind) who ... well, who tend to blabber on. Long paragraph after long paragraph, all devoted to minutely describing the pottery. When he's not fucking Greta Garbo or Lana Turner, somewhere in Hell Ernest Hemingway is spinning in his grave.

McEwan's piece (it also is not a story in any commonly recognized definition of the word - it's a premise only: nothing changes, nothing moves at all, nothing much is ever at stake, and nobody evolves, retards, dies, or inherits) is about two young newlyweds on their honeymoon who, being virgins, are nervous about screwing for the first time.

And I know what you're thinking right about now - you're thinking, 'and then what?' Well, so was I, and you'll be equally disappointed. McEwan's piece is about two young newlyweds on their honeymoon who, being virgins, are nervous about screwing for the first time. Aaaannnnnnd .... scene.

But at least McEwan can put together half-way decent prose. We particularly liked this little bit:

"Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or a means of sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling 'self-pleasuring.' Edward had been pleased to discover the term. He was born too late in the century, in 1940, to believe he was abusing his body, that his sight would be impaired, or that God watched with stern incredulity as he bent daily to his task. Or even that everyone knew about it from his pale and inward look. All the same, a certain ill-defined disgrace hung over his efforts, a sense of failure and waste, and, of course, loneliness. And pleasure was really an incidental benefit. The goal was release - from the urgent, thought-confining desire for what could not be immediately had. How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson's decisiveness at Aboukir Bay."

Turgid, yes. Leadenly overwritten, yes. But at least it has a certain quality of intelligence, a faint hint that its author didn't just indifferently throw shit into a word processor and then send off whatever came out.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fiction on display in this 'Winter Fiction' issue, but it's going to have to do, at least until next winter.

2 comments:

Beepy said...

Geez, Steve, it's all about masturbation with you, isn't it?

Kevin Caron said...

eeew.