Sunday, February 10, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Our reactions are all over the map in this week's Penny Press, ranging from delight to dark despair, with lots of local stops.

Sometimes the little things gave a spurt of delight. For intance, Esquire's new guide to casual style has a comment it's almost impossible not to like: "Justin Timberlake doesn't look quite as good as he thinks he does." Hee.

Other times, it's much bigger things that take the topspin right off the serve, as is the case in the latest New Yorker - it features two appalling things instead of one, probably because it's a double issue. The lesser of the two is John Updike starting off his review of a edition of the works of Flann O'Brien in pidgin Irish. Because, you know, Irish writers really don't have much to distinguish them other than how odd they talk. Jaysus.

The bigger of these two big things was yet another short story by Alice Munro, this one called 'Free Radicals.' Some of you may have noticed over the years that Munro is not one of our favorite authors. In the last decade, this contempt has become all the sharper (and all the sweeter) as more and more lazy critics have taken to calling Munro some variation of 'the greatest short story writer alive today' or (Gawd help us) 'a modern-day Maupassant.' We've had fewer and fewer converts to our age-old contention that Munro owes her fame to two factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with talent: she's stuck to just the one genre, and she's a woman. We guarantee you: if some talentless schmuck had started writing, say, really sucky one-act plays in the 1950s and was still doing it six decades later, he'd be called 'the greatest' too, even if his one-acts had grown even worse.

Such is not the case for Munro; her short stories have always been just exactly the same level of awful, and one presumes they always will be. 'Free Radicals' is exactly the same as every other Munro short story: it's plodding, soggy, doggedly quotidian, over-long, and completely void of any catharsis, insight, change, climax, or plot. Every character sounds the same as every other, and the whole thing is swathed in an amnesiatic fog that absolutely defies recall. If you can read 'Free Radicals' and then - right then - tell me what happens in it, I'll give you the hat off my head.

But don't just take our word for it! Here's the fourth paragraph of the present story, centering on a wife who's just lost her husband:

She hadn't had time to wonder about his being late. He'd died bent over the sidewalk sign that stood in front of the hardware store offering a discount on lawnmowers. He hadn't even managed to get into the store. He'd been eighty-one years old and in fine health, aside from some deafness in his right ear. His doctor had checked him over only the week before. Nita was to learn that the recent checkup, the clean bill of health, cropped up in a surprising number of the sudden-death stories that she was now presented with. "You'd almost think that such visits ought to be avoided," she'd said.

Even the most indulgent freshman composition teacher would feel compelled to savage such prose. Just look at all that's wrong with it, all the junk that's left hanging around the prose, all the equivocation, all those endless, suffocating pluperfect constructions. She hadn't had time to wonder about his being late - in other words, it never crossed her mind, so why mention it? And since some deafness in one ear isn't in any way life-threatening, what does its inclusion do except make a tedious sentence even moreso? And what's with the vaudeville impossibility of somebody draping themselves over a sidewalk sign to die? Ever hear or read of anybody doing that? And what about those last two sentences? At the beginning of the first sentence, Nita's learning about sudden-death stories is in the future, and by the end of the same sentence it's in the present. And by the end of the next sentence it's in the past. And Nita's final sentence has not one but two brake-locks on it, the almost-think and the ought-to-be. This is very, very bad prose - tortured and sloppy and obscure - and it goes on forever in 'Free Radicals,' and yet sure as sevens there are readers out there who'll slog through it and say, "Munro has done it again!" Actually, we here at Stevereads would say the same thing, but we'd mean it in a different way.

But our outrage over yet another Alice Munro slogfest is nothing compared to our outrage at Tom Chiarella's latest piece for that same issue of Esquire. It's called "Learning to Smoke," and it chronicles the author's first foray in the world of smoking, at the age of forty-six, as a story-gimmick.

We've seldom read a more disgusting piece of periodical literature, because Chiarella finds smoking wonderful, even the few bad side-effects he bothers to mention. The whole piece could have been ghost-written by an ad man from Big Tobacco (we're 100 percent sure it's emailed to every single person in the industry), only this is worse, because Chiarella is a very good writer.

His friends - even the tobacco addicts, especially the tobacco addicts - are horrified by his decision and warn him that it's not a game, that he'll become addicted. He happily assures them that even if he does, he's only going to pursue 'the lifestyle' for a month - after which, he'll just quit. He's aware that this quitting might be difficult and might involve some unpleasant symptoms, but that's OK - he wants to experience that too. The possibility that once addicted he might not be able to quit, even if he wants to, isn't mentioned in the piece. The possibility that, faced with the flat fact of that failure, he might start to rationalize, equivocate, and outright lie about this new thing in his life, sits on the piece like wet fog but is never addressed. Instead, the essay is a long love-letter to the oh-so-adult sublime pleasures of burning your own lungs. Take as one example a scene from the 'second week' of his experiment (the semi-quotes only come off if some completely impartial observer can tell me Chiarella no longer smokes - but such an observer would be lying, so it hardly matters). He and his girlfriend have just had a nice restaurant dinner, and suddenly, for the first time, he feels 'a faint pinging sound in the center of my chest.' His girlfriend asks if he's OK.

"I'm okay," I said. "It's just, I feel like, I don't know ..." I paused and swallowed to be sure this wasn't just some weird new need for more food. "I think I need a cigarette." She smiled and stood, held out her hand, and we went to the exit, stood on the handicap ramp, and smoked two American Spirits. She didn't like my smoking any better now, but she accepted it and even allowed herself to enjoy it in moments like these. Up and down the street, now blanketed by darkness, the streetlamps formed friendly circles of light, so it looked like a kind of orchard. People stood, one or two per light, out there smoking cigarettes, looking up quietly at the stars or the cars or the windows of houses and stores. "Wow," I said.

Yech - disgust prevents further quotation. The whole thing is like that, pretty prose enslaved in the praise of the ugliest thing humans have yet devised doing to themselves. Nowhere in the article is there any mention of some of the worst non-lethal effects of the addiction: the way hard mucus clogs the vocal chords and flattens the vocal register until all addicts have the same android raspy monotony; the jumpy, incessant clock-watching between doses (the addicts who breezily say something like 'oh, I don't even think about it most of the time' are lying their asses off); the sticky, chelatinous yellow armor-plating that coats the tongue; and most of all the pervasive reek that surrounds the addict in a ten-foot sac of nauseating stench at all times. Chiarella doesn't mention any of this stuff - his piece makes it seem as though smoking isn't much different from, say, chewing gum: easy to take up, easy to do lots of, and easy to stop. Revolting, that Chiarella would shill like this for a freelance gig.

Fortunately, all is not lost in the Penny Press! Over in the latest issue of New York magazine, Sam Anderson turns in a spiffy, first-rate review of Toby Barlow's wonderful new verse-novel called Sharp Teeth. Here's the opening paragraph of the piece, to give you a sample of the joys to come:

Let's say that you've recently polished off your local library's collection of vampire sonnets, and perhaps even flipped, with a melancholy hand, the final page of your older brother's three-volume haiku sequence about a marauding colony of Minotaurs - that you've exhausted, in other words, the literary exploration of monster subcultures written in obscure forms. Well, take heart. Toby Barlow's first book, Sharp Teeth, is a verse novel about werewolves. This makes it not only a decisive answer (nay!) to the age-old question 'Is long-form monster poetry dead?' but also a perfect marriage of form and subject: Both the werewolf and the verse novel (which lopes across the centuries from Pushkin to Browning to Vikram Seth) are shaggy hybrids that appear once in a blue moon and terrify everyone in sight.
Hee. As fun as that is to read, it's even more rewarding to re-read; that final sentence is the funniest damn thing we've read so far this year.

The whole piece is just as good, and to make matters even better, it's not misplaced praise: Sharp Teeth is a wonderful, fizzy joyride of a book, well worth your time when it comes out in paperback next year. We'll be sure to remind you.


JC said...

The guy in front of me at work moves in a 12-foot cloud of cigarette reek. You always know whether or not he's in the office, whether or not he's walking up behind you... it's almost like being a whale or something and being able to ping a signal off him as he gets closer, read from the waves coming back how close he is.

Are dogs really sensitive to it? I'd assume you'd say they are, but I wonder about smoker's dogs. Do they just naturally associate the smell of the cigarette with their beloved owner and begin to actually like it? Can they get addicted?

howdy doody said...

if you think smokign is themost disgusting thing peopel do to themselves, you need to go back to college. I would say we have a bigger issue with food than we do with smoking. The guy has a right to try whatever the hell he wants to and he isn't obligated to mouth the party line. I think he's right; you are just a puritan. Don't want to smoke? Don't.

Anonymous said...

read it-- I hearly think he endorses it-- he talks about being posioned, about throwingup about a persisent cough, about consulting with a doctor... even with tobacco companies...I thought it was funny, and the ending was sad.. sound like he felt he might die

Imani said...

I'm still in college (grad school, specifically) and I'd say smoking ranks high on the disgusting scale, but it's Canada. Maybe the American versions are, on average, seedy brothels and heroin dens of some kind or other.

(Isn't it annoying when you criticize something and some lark comes by asserting that the poor victim has a right to say what he likes? No shit. What does that have to do with anything?)

What I really wanted to say was thanks for letting me know what the heck that first sentence in the Updike article was. I assumed it was some kind of weird Manhattanese, New Yorker...thing and skipped it, unperturbed.

Hmmm. That excerpted Munro quote didn't read so good.

steve said...

Addicts' dogs can't become addicted, but they can certainly suffer physically - breeds with shorter snouts especially get polyphs, tumors, and cancers of the nose and throat many times higher than the average for dogs of healthy people. And unlike their addict owners, they've of course never CHOSEN to be at higher risk for any of that. The addict owner makes the choice for them.

steve said...

As for going back to college to observe the ravages of cheeseburgers, you have GOT to be kidding. I assume you're making some oblique reference to obesity levels, and I agree the numbers are dismaying. But there's no comparison whatsoever. How COULD anything compare with sucking a carcinogen into your body, coating your throat and lungs with arsenic, lead, and tar 25 times a day, day in and day out?

steve said...

Every single negative side-effect he mentions - the throwing up (look! I can do it at will!), the persistent coughing (he likens it to the song of a blackbird, for Pete's sake! He makes it a Beatles lyric) - is described in the coolest possible way, and the many, many side effects that CAN'T be spun positively he simply doesn't mention. That's cravenly deceitful, whether he has a right to write about it or not.

Anonymous said...

Sharp Teeth is a wonderful, fizzy joyride of a book, well worth your time when it comes out in paperback next year. We'll be sure to remind you.

I can't wait till next year! Must buy and read now! Only $15 on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

my only point is that he doesn't endorse it. He speaks about it well because he writes well. What should he do write about it poorly because its a culturally agreed upon transgression? He sounded pretty dismayed by the end, and not by quitting. You just aren't being accurate-- he talks about how much he hates his son smoking, and I believed him. he also says he quit, and why wouldn't I believe that? it's a good article, which is the only reason I even googled your blog in the first place. But I'm a former smoker-- that makes me less than a real voice to you-- so apparently this is not the site for me.


Kevin Caron said...

Yeah, this blog isn't for you - if you're not into the BEST. BLOG. EVER.

Seriously, Rennie - stay for a bit more. You may find yourself strangely, inexplicably attached the august presence of The Great Steve-Who-Reads. I shan't suggest that his baronial tone be taken with a grain of salt (perish the thought!), but one should prepare for strong stances on a number of subjects (including smoking, beagles, High School Musical, 70's Thor comics, High School Musical 2, and Captain Kirk).

Speaking of Beagles - where is the article on the triumph of Uno, Steve? If I can' come here for my Beagle-news, where do I turn?

steve said...

Uno WAS magnificent, wasn't he? Of course, the doggie equivalent of Rain Man won the top award, but still - that moment of beagle-triumph was exquisite.

steve said...

And yes, Rennie, by all means, stay. The sting of being so wrong, wrong, wrong all the time is something all my other readers have come to terms with - you'll have plenty of company adapting!

And I was being accurate - all the things you bring up are out of context just enough for you to make your case. Take the mention of how the author hates seeing his son smoke - yes, you believe him, but what ELSE does he write about it? That compulsively sucking tar and arsenic into his body seemed to somehow HELP his son, to lessen the sadness that had always been a part of his life. What the eff? Wonder how sad the kid will be to smell like an ashtray, or not be able to walk up a flight of stairs when he's twenty-five?

The tone throughout is APPROVING. If the piece could be summed up in one sentence, it'd be: "Smoking: just about as much going for it as against it." Which is not only incorrect but something of a secular sin to write.

brian said...

To quote Roy Munson:

"Who's done more research than the good people at the American Tobacco Industry? They say its harmless. Why would they lie? If you're dead, you can't smoke."

I think this should pretty much end the conversation.