Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chronic City

Well, I have just been tantalized by the deliciousness over at my friends' blog "Tea and Limpets," and am now moved to contribute something to the blogosphere as well. While I didn't bake any bread or create a dessert of mini brownie pie shells filled with mousse, I have been reading a pretty great book. In my last post I talked about how excellent characters can override my experience of reading a terribly written piece of literature. Now, though, I am soothed by the deliciously long sentences of Jonathan Lethem.

"Chronic City" is Lethem's most recent novel, and so far I think it is his best. I read "Fortress of Solitude" and "Motherless Brooklyn" in college, and I loved both of them. Both FOS and MB play with different narrative styles: FOS is in 3 sections: the first from the point of view of a little boy living in Brooklyn, the second an extended fictional liner note written by the same boy, and the third from the point of view of the boy many years later as an adult. "Motherless Brooklyn" is narrated by an autistic man. In "Chronic City," the narrative easily moves between first and third person, but always stays true to itself, and is not as self-conscious as either of his two earlier books. (He has written many other novels and short stories, but I haven't read them all.)

When I was living in New York I actually met Jonathan Lethem twice. The first time was at the Cooper Union (location of the Lincoln-Douglas debates), where he was discussing the work of a science fiction writer whose name escapes me. At that meeting I was overcome with excitement at meeting my then-favorite author, and I could barely speak as I asked him to sign my copy of Fortress of Solitude. The second time was at a bookstore on Prince Street called McNally Jackson. This time he was with a musician named Paul D. Miller, discussing a book called "Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture." The book seemed incredibly interesting, and the audience was very engaged in the discussion of sampling and ownership of music in this digital age. After the presentation, I went up to meet him again, and when I offered my hand for him to shake, he just didn't shake it. Maybe he was sick, but I think probably he is an eccentric person. But I still like him!

So with that, I want to share with you a sentence in "Chronic City" that practically made my eyes pop out of my skull and my heart leap with delight, especially after enduring the short, stiff prose of Twilight:

"To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement-demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances. We only pretend we live on something as orderly as a grid."

Bonus interesting factoid: Lethem splits his time between New York and Maine now, and I like to think he wrote his twisty descriptions of underground Manhattan from the comfort of a wide living room with windows facing a lake surrounded by dense forests, far from the noise of the city.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

You should know I'm not immune to the vampire craze.

Seeing as the title of my blog comes from a Billy Collins poem, you may guess that I am an appreciator of the written word. Some might call me a bibliophile, and they'd be right. I love reading, and I like to think I have good taste in books. I majored in English, after all. There is just one thing that I can't really explain. I love the Twilight books.

Still reading? Thank you. Now, I say I can't really explain it, but I am going to make an effort. The Twilight series has universal appeal because it is a love story, and I think that most people enjoy love stories - especially those with happy endings. The series has the added interest factor for me of being about different kinds of love: romantic, friendly, familial. So that is the reason I like them. But, there are also reasons why I think they are terrible.

Aside from the basics - namely, the fact that the vampires in these books COMPLETELY depart from historical vampire lore, combined with the old-fashioned-bordering-on-pre-women's-lib values that the characters adhere to - the books are not well written. Stephenie Meyer's prose style is halted, overly descriptive, and lacking in a very robust vocabulary. In the fourth book she misuses the word "ironic" more times than I could count.

What I think has carried these books to the level of international phenomenon is that the characters are strong and memorable. When you read the books you really feel like you are in the narrator (Bella)'s head, feeling everything she feels, and wanting everything she wants. There is a juicy level of temptation and longing in the first two books that keeps the pages turning.

Also, I mentioned the old-fashioned values. Twilight has been criticized for being anti-feminist, but I don't think that's entirely true. The book has a simple hook for young women: girl meets boy, he loves her back, everything works out. She doesn't start a career and have blazing success in the business world, she doesn't go on a quest for self discovery. She falls in love, and that gives her life meaning. Now, of course I know that this is not something that fits into the realm of feminism, but I think that the reason it has such appeal for young girls is precisely BECAUSE it is old-fashioned. I think that feminism has pushed this ideal independence so far that young women are longing to go back to a simpler time. For a better written and more cohesive take on this argument, please read this article:

So there you have my thoughts on Twilight. Even though the terrible writing drives me absolutely insane, there is something about these books that keeps me coming back for more. My advice is: don't start reading them.