Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Unruly Reading

I've kept annual booklists ever since I computerized in 1987, for the record and for the discipline, and lately I've been hitting the magic 52 mark pretty regularly. In 2013, however, I'll be back down in the 40s again. One of the many things you don't do when you're writing a book, I've found, is read a lot of them. And still it's been a good year, especially in fiction.

Many books I read are work-related in the nice-work-if-you-can-get-it sense--asked to review the latest Michael Chabon or R. Crumb, I inhale catalogue on the freelance equivalent of company time. I also read a lot of music books, including crappy ones I finish anyway, and because I'm writing a memoir I've oriented myself by reading many other such, some of which came up in my Ed Sanders-Samuel R. Delany column. But having decided that a critic's memoir should revisit life-changing works, I've also been rereading plenty. And in the process I reaccessed Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children so deeply that I decided to try titles by each that I'd long put off: Dreiser's The Financier and Stead's I'm Dying Laughing. And for good measure I finally picked up The Ice Age, the breakthrough novel of Margaret Drabble, whose less-renowned The Millstone was the first literary discovery I made via my fiction-loving and -writing wife, Carola Dibbell.

Although we got to Dreiser and Stead separately, Carola brought Margaret Drabble into the relationship, and it was Carola's disdain for The Ice Age that kept me away in 1977, when wild-and-woolly Lester Bangs himself was digging it. Almost four decades later, I thought it might be interesting memoir-wise if she'd been wrong, as happens occasionally, and craved something that would go down easy, which Dreiser and Stead do not. And while detailing the end of the world as we knew it, The Ice Age does go down easy. The reason it was a big deal is that it outlined the diminishment that was in the cards for all of us as an accidental songwriter turned accidental investor and an actress derailed by a disabled daughter have their lives ruined by the daughter's merely neurotic teenage sister and the forces of oppression, meaning a highly fictional Eastern European dictatorship rather than the world of finance Drabble had the foresight to engage. And she accomplishes this with typically matter-of-fact narrative grace. But grace has its privileges, and privilege inevitably takes too much for granted. I saw traces of my own life in its resigned impotence, as may you--potency has not been the lot of the literary classes in our era. But as often happens with the literary classes, Drabble's resignation ends up unnecessarily pat and civilized, an unseemly thing in a book that foreshadows a Margaret it never names.

Excessive civility is never Christina Stead's problem. An Australian leftist who spent most of her prolific, under-rewarded career in New York, England, and continental Europe, she created or copied from life one strong woman after another. Yet she was too old and crabby to appreciate second-wave feminism, and few of her strong women were what you'd call role models. Commonly slotted either a satirist or a naturalist, she was both simultaneously, with her own expressionist twist and a sense of craft many find unruly; as often happens with great writers, she was a driven original. Usually Stead manifests her research, memory, and imagination by piling up details omnisciently. In The Man Who Loved Children, however, most of the detail comprises perorations by and conversations among a husband, wife, and daughter with their own individually grotesque and eloquent declamatory styles--the talk, while far from all Stead's masterpiece has to offer, is what keeps you going. So now say hello to the posthumous I'm Dying Laughing, a sprawl of a tragedy assembled by Stead's literary executor from fragments that abandon one key character midway through. It's dominated by novelist, screenwriter, apostate Communist, and amphetamine addict Emily Wilkes, who in turn is based unashamedly on Stead's good friend Ruth McKenney--and sometimes, probably, cribbed verbatim from McKenney's letters to Stead, since destroyed.

Rich and famous via the frequently adapted My Sister Eileen, McKenney was also a card-carrying Communist, as was her well-born husband, whereas Stead and her Marxist economist husband were only committed fellow travelers. But all four were threatened by McCarthyism. So one of I'm Dying Laughing's sticking points is its obsession with the Communist Party, which Emily resents and worse for many good reasons yet can't do without--just as she can't do without the luxuries to which her royalties and her husband's annuity have accustomed her. Inexhaustibly, often at one of the awful dinner parties Stead excelled at, Emily rants about and exemplifies these contradictions, both poles of which are so unattractive that many of the book's few readers find her monstrous. But to me it's clear that Stead finds her irresistible, not monstrous, brimming with desires, values, and ideas she lives to put into words whether they hang together or not. More naturalist than satirist in the end, Stead refuses to judge.

While the CPUSA may be history, the Hollywood Left certainly is not, imparting to I'm Dying Laughing a currency the resigned would prefer wasn't there. And its hallucinatory feel made me wonder how come Robbe-Grillet and David Foster Wallace are experimental and this isn't. In a suspense that typifies an aesthetic in which closure is a delusion, you keep waiting for Stead to launch a denouement that finally comes lickety-split after you've grumpily concluded she left the thing unfinished. And believe it or not, there were times when The Financier left me with similar feelings--not as regards closure, although its status as the first volume of an uncompleted "Trilogy of Desire" does mute its climax, but in its relentless accrual of financial detail.

Although Dreiser's softer-hearted champion Frank Norris anticipated this thematic, few subsequent novelists of substance have gone near it--one of them Stead, whose mammoth 1938 House of All Nations is Anglophone lit's one bright shining arbitrage novel. So give The Financier its due as an act of aesthetic daring. A full century ago, Dreiser devoted most of 500 pages to finance, assuming you count the 80 or 100 Frank Cowperwood spends in prison. With bad manners aforethought, he wrote a novel about money as an end in itself, a novel in which the action is all leverage and short selling and unsecured loans and secret slush funds and, OK, some influence peddling--all of which the literary classes scratched their heads at despite Dreiser's dogged explications de nombres. There are physical correlatives to the money to be sure--not just the Philadelphia trolley lines at stake but also, by the by, grand homes bedecked with the bad art that Cowperwood knows is good for business while enjoying it for its own conspicuous sake. But only women can truly distract him from his grand passion, albeit not to the extent they did the skirt-chasing (and luxury-loving) (and C.P.-joining) Dreiser. Yet in part because The Financier was written before sex sold, Cowperwood's love life is peripheral to the bold perspicuity and mathematical command that make him his creator's hero.

Granted, my enjoyment of all this, while palpable, was also somewhat theoretical--I'm Dying Laughing was more fun, and not totally fun even so. Nevertheless, The Financier was no less enjoyable than three books of fiction I added to my list with the aim of educating myself in the ways of postmodern fiction, which neither my fun-loving book-a-week nor my old-fashioned English B.A. has ever found much room for: Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her, David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and George Saunders's Tenth of December. All are collections, and Díaz is a ringer -- mildly pomo though the sci-fi arcana and Nuyominican lingo of The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao may be, it's very nearly my favorite novel of the young century. Yet This Is How You Lose Her fell short even as it gave me some of the formally suspect stuff I value in fiction. As a populist fellow traveler who manages 15 to 25 books of fiction a year including rereads, whodunits, sci-fi, and graphic novels, I do go for narrative motion, however humanist and ideological that illusion may be, and documentary value, which always has a freshness to it and sometimes -- as in The Financier and I'm Dying Laughing, come to that -- juices narrative motion. In short, I appreciate the kind of edifying entertainment snobs have looked down on since Dwight Macdonald was a highbrow.

Just as shameful, my disappointment with This Is How You Lose Her may be as much moral as aesthetic -- an impatience with the self-aware male chauvinism of a title meant to unify a bunch of stories where the narrator doesn't get the girl and it's his fault. No wonder I was happier when the hospital laundress was telling her tale, when Mami was rebonding with her two boys. And Díaz's sexism has nothing on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where the 20 interviewees who loom over the book are reflexive womanizers whose callous venality takes a bedazzlement of forms. Pretty soon Carola couldn't stand it anymore, but I kept going to the prizewinning finale, a detailed, discursive account of a rape that Carola agrees is also breathtakingly humane. That's the idea, of course. By deconstructing narrative form, the postmodernist means to blast away habits of thought that prevent us from feeling . . . well, you know the drill, and for as long as there's been an avant-garde it's been mostly hogwash. Yet in addition to plenty of showing off and some total hogwash, Wallace's collection includes writing more mind-opening than anything approached by the two older novels I've exhumed. Highly recommended is the excruciating "The Depressed Person," its 33 pages no less gripping for being half footnotes.

What there's more of, however, is loathing. There's even a story about loathing itself, self-loathing actually--"Suicide as a Gift," it's called. You needn't know much about Wallace to figure that he was a depressive so pathological he considered himself hideous, so that he couldn't help identifying with the loathsome cads his stories devastate. But that doesn't mean you have to like it, and it cuts into his documentary value something fierce--I'd rather someone better balanced despair of American culture and human fate, thank you. And into this breach steps Wallace's friend and fellow MacArthur winner, George Saunders. Encountered in The New Yorker over the years, Saunders's stories had an airless quality that put me off. But sparked by Joel Lovell's cover hagiography in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, I bought Carola Tenth of December for her birthday, read it myself, and came out on the other side convinced Lovell was right: these 10 stories "make you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experiences of other people." As is Saunders's practice, all ten cultivate an objective, unemotional, perhaps subtly satirical surface. Only three employ the science-fiction devices with which he's known to distance himself from realism. Like Wallace, he writes about disoriented citizen-victims of late capitalism, with nary an artist among them. But there's almost no loathing at all. Median income is lower than in Wallace. Love happens, albeit not quite romantic love. The bad bosses seem stuck in the system, and the liminally dysfunctional families are outnumbered by those doing the limited best they can.

We're told that compassion is respectful and pity demeaning, but Saunders knows that sometimes pity better suits the facts of the case and is so much kinder than nothing. One admirer has praised "the unique and matchless rhythm" of Saunders's sentences, and he himself has said: "Specificity, precision, and brevity, applied in language, drive us toward compassion." I don't doubt the former or want to argue the latter, writing-class boilerplate though "specificity, precision, and brevity" may be. But while there are quite a few writers whose matchless rhythms are brief, precise, and specific, I can't think of one who gets near Saunders's quality of feeling, which while focused and strengthened by his sentences I believe also precedes them. That's why I found Tenth of December the most powerful of these six estimable works--although less powerful than Sister Carrie or The Man Who Loved Children, both of which spew and circumnavigate like it's going out of style.

Barnes & Noble Review, December 27, 2013