Wednesday, May 25, 2005

#78 on Amazon

Sean Wilsey’s book Oh the Glory Of It All has been out a week now, and it’s #78 on Amazon. It’s selling well in some Bay Area bookstores, which is not surprising considering all the pre-publicity hype. The reviews have been generally – but not completely – favorable. The New York Times Book Review asked Francine Prose to review the book, and she liked it a great deal. New York Magazine had the idea of a joint author-to author interview with Wilsey and another Francine, this one Francine du Plessix Gray, who also just published a (much kinder) memoir of her parents.

The New York Observer, on the other hand, suggests that Wilsey squandered an opportunity:

“With this cast of characters, how can the memoir go wrong? Slowly at first, then all at once. I read pages 1 through 50 in a state of delighted fascination, feeling immensely lucky to be offered an intimate glimpse of these extraordinarily privileged people, all clearly toxic at close range. The opening description of the nuclear family—“We were Mom and Dad and I—three palindromes!”—is deft and lighthearted despite the looming disaster. But after the break-up, with the arrival center-stage of an arch-villain, the tone darkens. This sentence marks the abrupt end of the good times: “Dede, at all times, remains pleasant and charming, even as she pierces you with a javelin slicked in shit.” The reader flinches, the author shrugs: “But how can I explain Dede? She’s my evil stepmother. She’s an unbelievable cliché.”

Worse, the cliché is married to an enigma: “Whatever I can tell you about my father,” Sean writes, “will probably be wrong. I have a collection of theories and incidents and facts concerning Dad, but no comprehension.”

Maybe because he can’t explain either his fickle father or his father’s new bride, and because his mother’s melodrama (“Mom, patron saint of Peace and Glamour”) is faintly ridiculous (she’s confident that she’ll win a Nobel Peace Prize) and borderline pathetic (as the poisonous Dede remarks, “There’s just nothing more awful than a woman who lets herself go”), Sean turns to a new topic: himself. For 200 miserable pages, in dogged chronological order, he recites the crimes and misdemeanors of his increasingly delinquent adolescence. Mom and Dad and Dede recede. Instead of high-society meltdown and simmering feud, instead of goofy, globe-straddling idealism, instead of epic bouts of conspicuous consumption, we get a sniveling skateboarder with crab lice who masturbates to the image of his loathsome stepmother and flunks out of one dingy East Coast boarding school after another. Classic bait-and-switch. "

Wilsey will be in town next week at a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on May 31 and at Booksmith on Haight Street on June 2.

For insight into another Bay Area author, the New York Review of Books has an engrossing essay by Michael Chabon, in which he discusses the writing of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Chabon moved to Oakland to live with his mother and stepmother and set up a tiny office in what essentially was a crawlspace. He describes his sense of dislocation in California (he was set to enter the writing program at UC Irvine) and his quest to combine his love for science fiction with a more traditional and linear storytelling style.

"I returned to chill gray Oakland from sunny Orange County, to the little basement room in my mother's house where I did some of my finest feeling lonely and homesick. There I ventured through a few more pages of Swann's Way and fretted about all those people I was soon going to be surrounded and taught by, people who were and knew themselves to be proud practitioners of novelism. Was everyone obliged to write a novel? Could I write a novel? Did I want to write a novel? What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you came right down to it? A really, really, really long short story? I hoped so, because that was the only thing I knew for certain that I could manage, sort of, to write.

Now here I was, basically required by law, apparently, to start writing a goddamned novel, just because all of these windy people down at Irvine were unable to contain themselves. What kind of novel would I write? Had the time come to leave my current writing self behind?

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life—fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction—to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction. I had found some writers, such as J.G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction. They all paid a price, however. The finer and more masterly their play with language, the less connected to the conventions of traditional, bourgeois narrative form—unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure, naturalistic presentation—their fiction seemed to become. Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop preferring traditional, bourgeois narrative form.

I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and "round" characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill—or rather I didn't want to lose—that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it—if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together—then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week."

(via Conversational Reading)

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