Interesting Readings

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, as you will have heard, died this week. The many news outlets will have covered her more fully and better than I can here. So rather than offer a retrospective, I want to share some thoughts that I haven’t heard expressed. I only hope they do her justice.

Among the avalanche of Morrisonia the week brought was one that claimed that she was America’s greatest writer. My immediate response was, not sure I could or would refute it, but how does one judge? I cannot. What I can say is that, for me, she is one of three indispensable contemporary novelists, along with Gabriel García Marquéz and John Fowles. They were of the same generation, Fowles having arrived on the scene a year before García Marquéz and five before Morrison. Their oeuvres were light on titles but dense. And they showed us new possibilities for the novel–new forms, new subjects, new treatments, new and stunning uses of language. Morrison’s language was poetic, soaring and earthy, sometimes all at the same time. I once had a student, a journalist lately returned to school, who simply could not get with Song of Solomon because it was too purple. Of course, his rigorous training in the limiting language of newspapers and his fondness for Hemingway made her style harder to accept. Yet her language was, like that of the other two writers, perfectly suited to the task at hand. And magnificent. 

All three brought something else readers desperately needed: magic. Fowles offered a special kind of magic, born out of the novel’s form and the possibilities contained in it, possibilities no one had ever quite explored before. The tired term “magical realism” (I may have helped tire it out) was inevitably applied to GGM’s work, but that was all right, since he and his fellow Latin American writers of the Boom were first responsible for it. But when applied to Morrison’s, it made her sound derivative, and that is something she never was. Morrison’s magic was unique to her, owing only to the her own experience in her own place and time, where one child could be nicknamed Milkman and his best friend Guitar, where there were flying Africans and ghostly daughters. 

In 1981, John Barth, no slouch among inventive novelists, published an essay called “The Literature of Replenishment,” in which he offered a mea culpa for having declared a mere four years earlier that the novel had exhausted its possibilities. Suddenly, he had discovered, maybe some new approaches had indeed turned up on the doorstep. As evidence, he gave us the examples of Gabo, whom we’ve been discussing, and the Italian arch-postmodernist Italo Calvino. He wasn’t wrong, but maybe the initial diagnosis had been. In an eleven-year period ending in 1977, the year of that premature postmortem, three novels appeared that blew up our understanding of what the novel could do: Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Song of Solomon. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for the many gifts.

Toni Morrison


Slovak Editions

Tatran Publishing has brought out Literature and Novels with the magnifying glasses. I miss those guys. Both books had already come out in the Czech Republic, so I feel like a one-man international incident.

Slovak Editions

Emerson and American Poetry

May 25 is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birthday (1803). He is one of the great essayists America has produced. And as a poet, he’s a great essayist. This piece by Dan Chiasson, another poet, gets at Emerson’s importance for American poetry.

America’s Literary Wild Man

“A screaming comes across the sky.” That’s the simple, declarative first sentence of *Gravity’s Rainbow,* by Thomas Pynchon, who celebrates his 82 birthday today. It is also virtually the last simple or declarative thing in the novel, which won the 1973 National Book Award. Pynchon published eight novels over the half-century between *V.* (1963) and *Bleeding Edge* (2013). That’s not a prolific rate, but what he lacks in frequency he makes up for in length and density; several are thick enough that, in hardcover, they can thwart armor-piercing bullets. My own preference is for his short one, *The Crying of Lot 49* (1966), a love not always shared by my students, who showed an unfortunate fondness for mere realism. Pynchon is the patron saint of the deranged, the conspiratorial, the manic, and the doomed–my kind of guy.
I know a guy who knows a guy (making this a typical Pynchon story, since hardly anyone knows him directly) who was at Cornell with him in the 1950s. One night at 2:30 in the morning Pynchon burst into the guy’s room and asked, “Do you have a 1943 World Almanac?” I don’t know if it’s true, but everything about it sounds exactly like him.

A Building, A Program, A Story

The fire yesterday at Notre-Dame Cathedral set off many thoughts, one of which took till this morning to announce itself. In 1981, I opened The Atlantic to find a story called “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. I knew the name but hadn’t spent any time with him, his oeuvre being slight and the volume of stories that would make his name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love only appearing that same year. Still, the magazine had been pretty reliable as a source of good-to-great fiction, so I read it. I was instantly hooked despite the unsavory quality of the narrator/main character, or maybe because of that. His voice and attitude fairly screamed, “something big is bound to happen to him.” And it did. After complaining about “this blind man” who was coming to visit his wife, the nameless main character (whom the blind man, Robert, calls “Bub”) reaches his revelation while watching a program about building cathedrals and helping Robert draw one by guiding his hand, that being the only way Robert can “visualize” a Gothic cathedral. In Emily Dickinson’s words, it blew the top of my head off.

But so did something else: I had watched that program a year or so before the story appeared. It was the moment when I learned how flying buttresses worked. And even what they were. Suddenly, I had a personal point of contact with this piece of fiction. That never happened with Dickens or Joyce. From that unlikely commonality, the story lodged itself in my consciousness, and I inflicted it on decades of Intro to Fiction students, who seemed to like it well enough even if they hadn’t seen that program. 

That sentimental attachment came back yesterday, watching Our Lady of Paris in flames, complete with burning roof and tower, and a falling spire to do Yeats one better. While we all thought of Victor Hugo–whose tale involving a hunchback is actually titled, Notre-Dame de Paris in French–I felt, although it took a while to recognize the sensation, the tug of a much smaller piece of writing by a contemporary about sin and redemption and hope, which especially during Holy Week is the message the great cathedrals were built to convey.


Freddie Mercury Proves Film Is Narrative Art

In Bohemian Rhapsody, we see Freddie Mercury walk from the dressing trailer to the Live-Aid stage twice.  The first time is at the end of the opening sequence. He preens, stretches, nods to people, and generally goes from Freddie Mercury, civilian, to Freddie Mercury, rock god.  The performance is about to begin. The movie closes with that performance, Queen’s triumphant mini-concert to the adoring masses. The critical moment in terms of telling its hero’s story, though, is not the music itself but that same stage walk-up we watched earlier. Except that it’s not. Everything he did the first time, he does the second. Same actions, same people and objects crossing his path, the works. But there’s an addition.

This time,  we see his bandmates close behind him, between “us” and the him. So we didn’t get the whole story the first time.

That tracking shot conveys two pieces of information. First, they were with him the whole time, ready to support him, to share in the glory, to be stars in their own right. And second, on the first trip the camera was interposed between Freddie and the other three. The early shot says, this is Freddie’s movie. The second, that he didn’t get here by himself. 

So here’s the thing about those two shots: they select which information we see, and that selection is the essence of narration. The camera lens does not merely present; it includes, excludes, chooses. Does that make movies the same as novels? No, but it does mean that they control the flow of information in a way that resembles written fiction more than it does drama, despite the presence of actors and directors and such. This isn’t my original observation; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg made it back in 1966 in The Nature of Narrative, a work I probably first read a decade later. But it is something that all serious moviegoers need to learn at some point. The language of film is visual, not verbal (else there could not be silent movies), but the mode is narrative. Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it?

KPFA Interview

My interview with C.S. Soong for his Against the Grain program will air on KPFA in Berkeley, 94.1 FM, on March 4 at noon PST (3:00 EST) for those in the Bay Area and for everyone else. It will be archived at for those who can’t catch it live. C.S. and I had a great conversation. That is, he asked excellent questions and held up his end of the bargain. All I ever hear on my end is Tom blathering and hoping desperately he doesn’t sound like at big an idiot as I suspect. Check it out and see if I was lucky!