Losing Time

The NYTimes has an article about a Proust reading group in NYC. These sissies have taken two years just to reach the fifth book of the series. Your unhumble Virtual Memoirist, on the other hand, started the same book this weekend, a mere 4 months after beginning the project. In your (collective) face, you pansies!

As for the article, here’s a paragraph that I haven’t altered in any way. Please explain to me how it fits together.

As in the novel, whose narrator constantly forms opinions, only to undermine them, it is difficult to ascertain how Proust permeates each member. Some in the group take the same bus or have sushi together afterward; others have remained relative strangers, as they discuss how well Proust’s characters can be known.

Perhaps, as the next paragraph quotes, “It’s sort of cubist.”

More on Gates

In our previous installment, I wrote about meeting up with Newsweek editor and author David Gates. During his conversation with the NYU writing students (the occasion of our meeting), he counseled them against coincidence in fiction. “We all know that this stuff happens in real life–people get hit by cars, tsunamis devastate villages–but in fiction, if an action just happens out of the blue, it feels like the author’s just inflicting it on the character. If a car crashes, it should somehow be the result of decisions, actions or inactions of the characters.” Pretty Aristotelian, and the kids seemed to get what he was about.

As we were wrapping up the class, I thought I’d ask Gates about a story relating to his second novel, Preston Falls. Just like with M. Swann, Gates pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose for a moment.

“What happened is, my editor and I had gone back and forth over the manuscript of the novel. We’d found a bunch of sections that needed to be reworked, and had written all over the thing. In fact, I didn’t like the ending and wrote a brand-new one. When we finished, his office shipped the manuscript off to the typesetter, out in Pennsylvania.

“Then the [shipping company’s] truck it was on crashed, burst into flames, and all the contents were destroyed. And, as it turned out, my editor’s secretary had forgotten to Xerox the pages before sending them out.”

The classroom gasped. Gates did the thing with the glasses again.

“Yeah, I actually had fantasies about driving out to Pennsylvania and sifting through the ashes, trying to find remnants of the manuscript, so we could reconstruct it,” he said.

“I couldn’t really tell you how Preston Falls ends, in its published form.”

I chipped in, “And remember, kids: Don’t introduce bizarre accidents or coincidences into your fiction!” They headed off for spring break.

As I mentioned, we went out for drinks after. I had Gates inscribe a copy of Jernigan for a friend of mine (“With unironic best wishes”). On the way back to my car, I stopped at the Strand and picked up a replacement hardcover of the book, along with Cloud Atlas.

Last night, I opened up the replacement copy and noticed something funny: this book had previously belonged to a former friend of mine, an author whom I recently “disowned.” How’d I know this?

Well, his handwritten comments on the pages were one clue; his scrawl is pretty distinctive. The other clue was the part that read,

“Goshdarn, Gil is so afraid of life, like this Jernigan character. He has to erect a partition of humor between him and everything that might damage him, a humor glove, so he never actually comes in contact with anything.”

So remember, kids: Don’t introduce bizarre accidents or coincidences into your fiction!

Oh, and don’t write your thoughts about your friends on the back pages of novels they like and then sell those novels to bookstores that those friends might frequent.

See the Gates

Well, dear reader, I have a pretty bad admission to make: I never got around to seeing The Gates, Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s big installation in Central Park. The one Saturday that the official VM girlfriend & I were thinking of going, it was too darn cold. So I missed it. I was somewhat interested in it, just to see if it’d make a good impression on me. Plus, I could’ve tied it into a visit to the Frick and the Met, where I’d spend some time among friends.

To make up for it, I spent yesterday evening with David Gates, a senior editor at Newsweek and author of two novels I really enjoy: Jernigan and Preston Falls. David & I had been in correspondence off and on since 1996, since I called him outta the blue over at his day job. I think he was the first legit author I ever shot the bull with.

Since then, I’ve come to know several more authors, and there’s a key thing to know about them: Writers like to hear from people who like their books and stories. Corollary: Writers don’t like to hear from obsessive stalkers.

Gates & I had several nice conversations/exchanges over the years, and I got to meet up with him last night. When we first sat down, I mentioned that it had been nine years since we started corresponding, and David did that thing that Swann and his dad did, raising the glasses and rubbing the eyes and bridge of the nose. (A past girlfriend of mine once marveled of the fact that I’ve managed to never meet my 20-something-year-old first cousin who lives in Queens; that’s Israelites for ya . . .)

It was an entertaining evening. He spoke to a class of NYU freshmen about writing, then headed out with me and occasional VM contributor Elayne for a couple of drinks at a bar I’ll never find a hyperlink for. We slagged some authors, praised others, drank Makers Mark, and got back to slagging authors. I won’t dish, since David’s got a job to uphold.

And I’ve gotta get back to writing about methods development for extractables/leachables testing in pharmaceutical processes.

To the editor

On March 7, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Literary Novelists Address 9/11, Finally“, on the occasion of several new novels about the attacks and their aftermath.

Unfortunately, your writer seems not to have researched this matter well enough. In September 2003, I published Paul West’s novel, “The Immensity of the Here and Now: A Novel of 9.11.” This book was reviewed by the Village Voice, Library Journal, Booklist, Midwest Book Review, American Book Review the Santa Fe New Mexican, Boston’s NPR affiliate (WBUR) and the Air Force Academy’s literary Journal, War Literature and the Arts (where it was the Editor’s Choice), among other venues.

Among the comments Immensity received:

“‘The Immensity Of The Here And Now’ is profound, disturbing, and a compelling inner study of picking up the pieces in the wake of personal devastation.” (Midwest Book Review)

“In Paul West’s 23rd book of fiction [. . .], the aftereffects of [9/11] gradually come into view, then withdraw into a jungle of memory and hallucination — the tragedy perpetually accessible and elusive, too easy and too impossible to imagine.” (Village Voice)

“As West so ingeniously perceives it, 9.11 is not just a day that will live in infamy, but an infamy that will exist at a particular place and on a particular day forever.” (War, Literature and the Arts)

“Risky, raucous, filled with moments of audacious beauty, ‘Immensity’ proves that West, our foremost word wizard, won’t play it safe, unlike so many American artists.” (Bill Marx at WBUR radio)

“West’s phenomenal command of language and the flux of consciousness, and his epic sense of the significance of 9/11 are staggering in their verve, astuteness, and resonance.” (Booklist Magazine)

Immensity was also blurbed by literary critics Sven Birkerts, Irving Malin and Hugh Nissenson. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s sites, along with national distribution to bookstores via several wholesalers and distributors. An extensive collection of reviews and blurbs is on the book’s site [now defunct. –ed].

The New York Times received advance copies four months before publication, but declined to review the novel. Evidently, a new work of fiction about 9/11 by a literary author with more than 20 volumes to his credit was not even deemed “new and noteworthy.”

Given the limited space the paper has for book reviews, I can understand the decision to pass. However, I can’t begin to imagine why Mr. Wyatt would write, “only now are books being published that some literary critics are saying take the substantial risks needed to give them staying power” when The Immensity of the Here and Now has been in print for 18 months.

Paul West may be a difficult writer, but he is one whom we should not ignore.

Gil Roth
Voyant Publishing

Funny Books

Really long article on comics, by Charles McGrath in the New York Times. Oh, wait. It’s about graphic novels, not comics. My bad.

It actually has some good points about the narrative form, and some neat comments from cartoonists. It doesn’t really get into the finances of the business, which is integral to understanding the development of comics.

I’ll write more extensively about the subject soon, as it’s something I care about a lot. I’m not sure how such a massive article on comics can get published without mentioning (like it or not) the work of Dave Sim, who recently finished a 300-issue serial written and drawn monthly over the course of twenty-seven years, but we’ve all got our lacunae, I guess.

And it’s “McCloud,” not “McLoud.”

Notes from New Hampshire

Hey, VM readers! Here’s another non-Gil treat for you! My buddy Elayne is up at her farm-house in New Hampshire this summer, finishing up her book, and sent me a lengthy missive yesterday. She’s a pretty funny story-teller, so I asked if it’d be okay to run this piece. I’m hoping that this involves into a weekly ramble/dispatch from NH. She starts out with an anecdote about a chance meeting with Philip Roth, which arose because of Ron Rosenbaum’s great new column about Roth’s new novel, The Plot Against America. I’d like to Ron’s piece, but it’s a temporary link at the New York Observer site, so it’ll be inactive in a few days. Without further ado:

Elayne and Chip “meet” Philip Roth

Last fall, Chip [Samuel R. Delany] and I are going to meet for Lunch at Luisa’s (sp?)–an Iberian place that Chip likes, but Dennis won’t go to because one of the waiters “looks at him funny.” Being anal, I get there early. It is kind of a late lunch though, maybe two or three o’clock in the afternoon, so none of the tables are set any longer. The place is small, and seating is tight; you almost feel you are eating lunch with the folks seated at the next table. I take a table near three older guys. The waiter looks at me–with a distinctly non-funny gaze–and brings water, utensils, napkins, etc. I notice that one of the men–seated practically on top of me–looks just like Philip Roth. I say to myself “I wonder if that guy is Philip Roth?” (I simultaneously say something to myself like “I sooooo fucking rock if I am ‘lunching’ with Philip Roth!”)

So the guys talk and I sit down and eavesdrop. Not in a super-nosey, starfucker way, more in an I-am-all-alone-and-sitting-really-close-to-you way. Then (gah!) the Roth guy mildly misquotes Lolita (a line from Quilty) and I smile. In a good-natured tone, he asks me why I am smiling. So I tell him Lolita is my favorite novel and then gently correct his quote. At this point, the ‘Rothman’ asks me if I would like to join their table, but I demure (in part because I am not quite sure he really means it, and in part because I would probably ask stupid, lowbrow questions like, “Was it YOU who decided to cast Richard Benjamin in the movie version of Goodbye Columbus?”).

Enter Chip, who sits down. Now we are even more crowded-in than before. I can hear every word the Rothman and his buddies are saying (they are discussing how scrawny Nicole Kidman is). Since I knew she was starring in the then up-coming film of The Human Stain, I was even more confident in my identification of Roth and treating it pretty much like a fideism.

But to be sure, and to alert Chip to the potential increase in lunch-cool-factor, I wrote on a paper napkin. What I wrote was “Hey! Isn’t that guy Philip Roth?” It took a minute for Chip to do the let-me-perform-a-subtle-head-swivel thing. It took another minute for him to work his “gaydar” on the conversation about Nicole, which had now shifted to the topic Tom Cruise’s body. So Chip wasn’t entirely without reason when he took the napkin back and wrote, “I doubt it, because all of those men are GAY.” Then I wrote (and yes, now we looked like either lovers or retards), “Well, that might be. But one of those gay guys is Philip Roth!”

I flip the napkin over, (so the Portuguese waiter can’t read it, dammit!) and we proceed to have lunch. Chip excuses himself to use the bathroom. I am alone . . . again. Roth and his friends have ordered some really messy appetizers, like baked queso with chorizo or something. Roth leans over to me and politely asks if they can have one of our clean napkins, because, as I mentioned, none of the other tables are set. But the only clean napkin we have is the one where Chip tried to “out” Philip Roth AND both his friends as, in my friend Susan’s phrasing, “the Gay.” So, because I am a freakin’ social genius, I say nothing and just shake my head “no”. Roth gives me a “You clearly HAVE an extra, clean napkin. Why won’t you give it to us, you eavesdropping, nosey, Nabokov-obsessed, girl-freak?” sort of look. I then try to use the napkin in a way that looks nonchalant, but I only manage some super-spazoid, napkin-as-hot-potato maneuver.

Chip comes back and writes on the crumpled napkin, that he and Roth’s papers are both stored at Boston University. He doesn’t introduce himself though, for obvious reasons.

General Store

Before you read this, please do a Google Image search of Harrisville, NH and then an image search of Chesham, NH. Ok. So the first couple images you see on the screen? That is where I am.

I go to the Harrisville General Store today to get milk and some other stuff. I notice that outside, sitting on the bench, are two big and ugly biker dudes. There is a Harley Davidson “conference” thing up in northern NH this week, so I figure they are stragglers from that. They are all leathered up, and tattooed with things like “Kill All Towelheads,” “Americans: Dumb And Lovin’ It,” “If You Can Read This, You are a Communist Whore,” and various snake patterns. Anyway, as I am coming out of the store and gazing out peacefully at the beautiful, gently undulating lake that forms the town’s visual backdrop, one of them approaches me, opens his mouth, and asks:

“Where’s the closest Hooters?”

Pause. I had NO IDEA what the biker-guy said. None. I kind of thought he said, “Where are the most shooters?” Or something, and had a “guns or tequila?” moment. But then:

“Excuse me?”

A little louder, he asks again:

“Do you know where the closest Hooters might be?”

Now, a bunch of synapses have to fire and pretty quickly. I do a quick calculation based on the fashion, the tattoos, the Harleys, the fact that they are asking a woman to direct them to a tit-bar, and several fairly hackneyed stereotypes, and I ask myself, “What are the odds these guys are not total assclowns?” I look at the Edenic surroundings, do the math, and decide “zilch.”

I say, “Sorry guys. You are in a Hooters-free zone.”


They think for a minute and the one is able to formulate:

“This zone. How far does it extend (he probably really said ‘how far does it go,’ but it is my story, darn it!)?”

(Sit back. Here comes the genius part . . .)

I reply, “Boston.”

See, Boston is an hour and a half away. I am pretty sure Manchester, NH has a Hooters, and Manchester is only 40 minutes away, but there is just no way in God’s heaven I am sending them somewhere so dangerously, disastrously close. Plus, tee hee hee, along the main “road” to Boston, they have been having all of these manhole covers blow off and fly into the air. I have no propensity for killing bikers. I’m not a killer at all, generally (OK, there was that baby bird. Once.) But because of the exploding manholes, the traffic is WAY SLOW on that road right now. Then the second biker inquires,

“Boston, Mass?”

No Einstein: Boston, Maryland.

“Yeah. Sorry . . . but I do hear the food at that one is excellent, and that it is kind of a ‘lesbian’ Hooters. There are lots of female customers there.”

This titillates/confuses them a little. They half-grumble, drool a bit, get on their bikes and ride off. In the direction of Boston.

They are probably still waiting. . . .

Gross Thing

Yesterday, Katie (the barn cat) came to the living room window to say “hello” to me and to show me the near-dead chipmunk she had in her mouth. I was at the end of the Elayne-confronts-animals-in-pain movie, after the wounded bluejay incident, and was in no mood for more dead shit. I just hoped she killed it sooner than later, didn’t bat the poor thing around too much, and that someday chipmunks would evolve into T-Rex-sized predators who would follow cats around, catch them, and slowly nibble them to death.

I just kinda went “Eeeew” and turned back to my History of the Spartans.

This morning, I let Benifer (“Benifer” is my moniker for the puppy that lives here, because he is the unlikely lovechild of “Benji” and “Lucifer”) out to play in the fenced-in back yard. About half an hour later, I go out to get him. Something brown hangs from his mouth.

Double “Eeeew.”

Now I have to figure out how to get Benifer to release the (now dead) chipmunk. Then I have to figure out how to remove it from the yard. Katie, of course, is nowhere to be found. I run inside, get some dog food, and look for a shovel or something to scoop the chipmunk up and fling it into the woods. Meanwhile, I am fluttering my arms around like a gay man meeting Liza Minelli and muttering “gross, gross, gross” to my freaked-out self.

My complicated (but ingenious) plan is to distract Benifer with the dog food, scoop the chipmunk up with the shovel, and quickly dispense with it. Trouble is, I can’t find a fucking shovel. Anywhere. I run to the BARN (which is where everyone KEEPS SHOVELS!) and there is a car, but no shovels. The dog is still “eating” the chipmunk. I panic and run into the kitchen and get the tool that any intelligent person would use to remove a six-inch-long, dead chipmunk: a spatula.

I know, Gil. But this is not the time for your pity.

I grab a handful of dry dog food, run outside and throw it on the ground. As I had predicted in the complicated-but-ingenious plan, Benifer momentarily drops his “prey” in order to investigate the food. I then spend ten minutes trying to balance the dead chipmunk on the spatula and run up the bank and throw the chipmunk over. But the chipmunk isn’t yet experiencing full rigor mortis, so he is all floppy and his weight keeps shifting and he keeps falling off the spatula and I keep screaming. And see, one of the benefits of the shovel would have been avoiding the close-up view I keep getting of the poor, dead thing. The image of a dead chipmunk on a kitchen spatula is a dismal image indeed. I remember thinking, “If someone were watching me from a distance, they would think I was some pent-up housewife gone mad.”

After about ten minutes I finally manage to fling the beast over the fence.

Along with the spatula (in case you were wondering).

One Last Thing

As I mentioned, sometimes the television is on here, but in the other room. During the day, I occasionally get to hear a snippet of some lame soap opera. Sometimes I even hear lame things George Bush is saying, or lame commercials. But the soap opera on today, when I went in to grab a dictionary, was far from lame.

The scene (I have NO idea of the context) is this attractive middle-age black woman, talking to an older woman, also black, who is seated in a wheelchair. The older woman seems to be in some kind of nursing home. The younger woman says to the older woman:

“How could your own daughter do this to you?” (I presume she means putting the old lady in a home).

The older woman replies (as the camera closes in on her face):

“Because she is an atheist, thieving, crack-addict whore.”

I swear to you.


Literary Production Numbers

British literary critic James Wood reviews The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. XII: 1960-2000: The Last of England?, and sharpens his knives:

Mind you, Stevenson’s three lines on A House for Mr Biswas make one glad that the rules [of the Oxford guide regarding what constitutes an “English” writer] allowed him to venture no further: “The novel uses its broad range of characters and their conflicts for comic effect, but they also offer extended insight into a complex, multiracial society, both hopeful and fearful for its future.” That sentence might be a Rorschach test: if you find nothing much the matter with it, you are an unsaved academic. Apart from the inconvenience of being largely untrue — there are almost no non-Indians of any significance in the novel — and its grating habit of sounding less like criticism than an AGM report, it is almost morally offensive that this should be the only description of that marvellous novel.

Lightness? Wait.

When I went through a significant break-up in college (1989-1993), I would watch Miller’s Crossing and re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When I had my big split two years ago, I went back to Kundera’s book. It meant a lot of different things to me in my 30s. The things that appeal in college years seem laughable when you’ve lived in (some semblance of) the real world for a while.

John Banville recently returned to the book after 20 years.