The Centennial: September 29, 1914

Just one bullet at Aarschot. A minor wound. But he wasn’t recovering as he thought he should, so they had shipped him back to Antwerp. Where, as it turned out, he couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and listen to people slosh around outside.

He slept for most of each day. Dr. Mertens of the flowing beard wouldn’t tell him that anything was wrong. But when he did awaken, feverish, he thought there were whispered conversations at the foot of his bed.

He thought he would probably die. The thought that he could die, when he had so recently been young and strong and able to shoot, made him so angry that he fell back asleep.

He thought he had died. He felt movement, he saw stars – directly above him. He lifted his head. What?

Dr. Mertens swam into view. You’re being moved. We’ll find a place where they’ll take good care of you.

That’s what Antwerp was supposed to be! he shouted.

Dr. Mertens glanced at the nurse. He appeared ready to share something – You’re going to die, There’s no hope, We’ll bury you alive – and the distant blast of a gun intervened.

He understood.

Assisted, he was able to board the train. Every car was unlit. By a handheld lamp he was shepherded past raw recruits, their eyes like moons as they saw him – he had wasted, in just weeks – a harbinger of their own futures. The nurse arranged him as comfortably as possible on a bunk. Then she was gone. Some time later, after more sleep, he felt the train begin to move.

It was his desk, wobbling in the wake of a passing freight truck. Eran picked up his head and found that he had drooled on a student’s paper. His first flu of the fall had hit him hard; he had even dozed off on the bus home after class. He was not, in the end, sure that his transport hadn’t been just a dream.

September 29, 1914: Evacuation of the wounded, POWs, new recruits, and equipment from Antwerp begins. The city would formally surrender to the Germans on October 10.

The Centennial: September 22, 1914

$49.95 wasn’t much money, unless you were a grad student. Eran was a grad student. So he skipped the three sessions with HH that his parents had asked him to attend, pocketed the money they gave him for co-pays, and booked time with Gwendolyn.

She had redone her waiting room. Now there were pictures of local celebrities shaking her hand. Eran thought he recognized a weathercaster from one of the local news shows. The photos appeared to be professional, and when Eran looked closer he spotted the embossing along the bottom: J & L Photographers.

Her preceding appointment, a gentlemen with a shirt unbuttoned to the navel to reveal…not much to brag about, exited with a triumphant “I knew I was Daisy Duke!” and Gwendolyn appeared in the door.

“Glad to see you again. How is World War I working out for you?”

“Funny you should ask.” Eran took a seat on one of the floppy beanbags that Gwendolyn used as props (along with incense, bead curtains, and her newly-pressed-on nails). “Do you believe in past-life regression?”

“Uh…”

“I know that you do it, for money. But do you believe in it?”

Gwendolyn pulled her lips all the way into her mouth. It seemed to be a thoughtful gesture.

“Why do you ask?”

So Eran told her: war, trauma, memory, etc. etc. etc.

“That sounds like quite a ride.” Gwendolyn said that line without performing it. It was probably the way she talked when hanging out with her brother in his kitchen, listening to him talk about his bad day. Eran could imagine her going to college, doing her taxes, figuring out how to distribute five different partial toppings on pizza: all the things she did while NOT wearing a glittery silver blouse with sleeves like desiccated bat wings flapping from the shoulder.

“Could it be happening?”

“I had a vision when I was in high school. Morbid, tragic, nothing worth sharing. But it came true.” Gwendolyn closed up her notebook. It was a legal pad, like HH’s. And suddenly Eran understood that new age healers prospered not because their clients believed in the Mystics, but because their services were cheaper than therapy. “I asked a psychic, and she said yeah, it could’ve been. Who knows why it happens? But the best piece of advice that he gave me was that it won’t always come and you can’t make it.”

“Yet you’re in business for it.”

“I like to hear people’s stories.” She curled up on the bag. “So what do they look like when they come?”

“They

Of course it happened then.

Hogue pitched below him. In front of him, Aboukir was rolling over to die. Rowers on the lone launched boat stroked frantically. In the sea, men swam like mad away from the sides. Like Titanic? (Was that Eran’s thought, or the host’s? Of course 1914 wasn’t far removed from 1912.) The underside of Aboukir tilted, rocked. It began to descend.

Someone was shouting: “It’s there, it’s there!” and the host looked and spotted a periscope, just peering above the water. They had thought a mine had done in Aboukir. It was like – these were Eran’s thoughts – the teens in the cabin realizing the predator was still in the hills, or like seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. It was a shift in reality. He or the host went cold.

Hogue fired. The host smashed his hands over his ears. Live bait, indeed – was the man’s thought.

The next explosion was not Hogue‘s firing; it was Hogue‘s being fired upon, successfully. The deck pitched again, this time not from the captain’s orders. He clutched a railing, looked to Cressy. They didn’t have a chance.

Eran arrested the rest of his sentence, glanced off to the side, and looked back at Gwendolyn. She didn’t appear to have noticed a change.

“They look like that,” he said.

September 22, 1914: Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy, part of Great Britain’s North Sea “livebait squadron,” are sunk in quick succession by the German U-boat U-9.

Deathmatch! Weiner vs. Franzen, The Next Best Thing vs. Freedom

The obvious attraction was in addressing Weiner’s comments about literary reputation. Franzen was their object, but I think that’s because he was around; to paraphrase Elliot Smith, there’s always a helpless little boy with a dirty mouth who’s always got something to say, and if it weren’t Franzen there’d be someone else in the NYC literary pole for Weiner to go after.

I’ll put the tl;dr up front: Franzen isn’t as good as his reputation suggests; Weiner is exactly as good as her reputation suggests; and I don’t care what the Times chooses to review or not review, because I’m not gonna read it anyway.

Also, I’ve been sitting on this one for a few months, literally. I intended to do a spot re-read of both books, pull out some passages for close analysis, and buckle down to the Times review despite my qualms. I haven’t gotten to it, so I’m clearly not going to, and it’s time to move on.

 

Loser 1: Franzen

If Freedom had no critical reputation – if it were merely an entertaining satire of thirty American years – I’d have read it on an airplane, enjoyed it, and recycled it. It’s basically Parenthood (the movie) with social commentary. But Freedom comes preloaded with Great American Novel baggage, which makes it a lot harder to figure out what think.

Franzen set out, apparently, to write the definitive chronicle of bourgeois neoliberalism in the New Aughts. He gets off numerous cutting lines at the expense of his key characters. Patty, who takes Walter as her husband but doesn’t let go of Richard, is nominally the center, or at least she seems to get the most pages devoted to her perspective. Walter is a feckless, curdled crank (much like Franzen himself) who approaches the world as if it were an assembly of political causes, because he can’t deal with what it’s like to love something you don’t idealize. Richard is just a jerk/plot engine with a guitar.

In the coveted New York Times review, Sam Tanenhaus referred to Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s not quite right. Franzen aims high and he does come close to the stars. I found myself wanting to give him more credit than he really deserved. As an example, there’s this sentence, in the formative-years section of Patty’s mock-autobiography:

As far as actual sex goes, Patty’s first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was seventeen by a boarding-school senior named Ethan Post.

That line, with its offhand, fanfiction-esque casualization of rape, is close to unforgivable. It comes off, in the moment, as a cheap aside by Franzen, an attempt to give Patty some faux-depth without having to spend any precious time and energy on it. I was so irritated that I almost couldn’t finish the paragraph, let alone the book.

And then, paragraph by paragraph, over the next fifteen-odd pages, Franzen pulls me back in. Patty tells her parents; they’re sort of supportive, but only if they don’t have to talk about it. Patty’s parents know Ethan’s, and think an acceptable way to settle things is if Ethan “formally apologized” to Patty “for being rough.” They say a trial would be destructive to Patty’s reputation. So it’s no wonder that Patty agrees, agreeably, to drop it. And I end up thinking that the casual, self-deprecation, midsentence dismissal of rape is the way Patty learned to describe it rather than the way she actually felt about it.

Franzen is aiming for the high canon. He has the interests, the network, and the talent; he takes time to get his books right. So why does Freedom fall short?

Because Franzen is too busy playing the pre-fabricated role of the big-boy author. He has done his research, he has established his point of view – and he wants a pat on the head for doing it. Freedom‘s middle section, where Walter and his nubile assistant Lalitha (more on her in a second) seek Richard’s help in upping the cool factor of Mountain-Top Removal (MTR) mining, is an insufferable infodump. For a good twenty-odd pages, the novel ends and a New Yorker article begins (that’s not a compliment). An editor should really have sat on Franzen’s face until Franzen rewrote it into something more naturalistic.

Because he’s addicted to tiresome narrative cop-outs. Lalitha is a young plot device of Indian descent who exists (spoilers impending!) to 1) sexually validate Walter through her attraction to him, 2) sexually validate Walter by helping him avenge Patty’s affair with Richard, and 3) die, leaving Walter heartbroken. Her death is quite possibly the hackiest moment in a book filled with similarly hacky moments. It’s impossible to give a shit because we were never given any reason to care about her in the first place. Removing Manic and Pixie still leaves a Dream Girl, which is the actual problem with that character type.

Because he is a brilliant expositor of things that don’t need brilliant exposition, in ways they’ve already been brilliant exposed. Patty and Walter’s respective midlife crises, the cheesiness of the national independent music scene, MTR, subcontractors for the Iraq War – everything Franzen has to talk about has already been thoroughly hashed to death in the NPRish blogosphere, and in exactly the same way that Franzen wants to talk about it.

Because – this is Franzen’s central fault – he so carefully, correctly, and excellently knits together the ways people manage their lives to maintain a surface calm that he elides their animal cores. Like Mr. Bennet with his wife and his neighbors, Franzen doesn’t love his characters. He doesn’t know them. He doesn’t want to know them. He just laughs at them. And in doing so, he flattens them out so much that he misses the chance to figure out what they’re actually like.

 

Loser 2: Weiner

The Next Best Thing is impossible not to read as a chronicle of Weiner’s own failed sitcom. Ruth Saunders heads to Hollywood with the grandmother who raised her. Her sitcom pilot (about her life with her grandmother) goes to series, but then the casting is wrecked, the jokes are spackled over with horny-senior-itis, and Ruth burns out over her battles with the network. The one bright spot in her life is her requited crush on her boss, Dave.

The writing in Weiner’s book isn’t as good as the writing in Franzen’s.

I spent some time on that sentence, to make sure it meant exactly what I wanted it to. Let me put it another way – here’s a list of all the novels Weiner has published in the last ten years:

  • Goodnight Nobody (2005)
  • The Guy Not Taken (2006)
  • Certain Girls (2008)
  • Best Friends Forever (2009)
  • Fly Away Home (2010)
  • Then Came You (2011)
  • The Next Best Thing (2012)
  • All Fall Down (2014)

Here’s the same list for Franzen:

  • Freedom (2010)

To be fair, Franzen also published a memoir, an essay collection, and translations in that period. But Weiner also worked on a TV series. She’s crazy busy. And it shows in her books.

Weiner and Franzen appear to have similar gifts (and flaws: neither should write about sex again, ever). Weiner is a good writer; she’s not a hack. She, like Franzen, has things to say about the world. She weaves in an apt Dorothy Parker quotation. Unlike Franzen, she’s not full of herself. She gets off some brilliantly precise lines that remind me of Michael Azerrad:

Cady would be our star, even if she showed up for the first day’s filming having sustained a major head trauma and forgotten every word of English she’d ever known

But the pace of her publications must mean there’s not a lot of time for rewriting, restructuring, or second-guessing. With Franzen dicking around on a single novel for ten years, he had time to get everything structurally right. His plotting and prosing are solid; it’s his ideas that suck. If Weiner had spent even another year on her manuscript – taking out the placeholder sentences (“I tugged on my hair, thinking”); pulling back the sentimentality of Ruth’s relationship with her grandmother; yanking the triumph-over-adversity ending (it’s enough that she uploaded her show’s original pilot to YouTube; that it’s a hit is the step too far); and for god’s sake, not asking us to laugh at Ruth’s sitcom script, because it comes off as horrible – The Next Best Thing could have been a B+/A- instead of a C. Weiner could be Jonathan Franzen. It would just take time, and editors.

I wonder whose idea it is for Weiner to put out a book a year or so. Ruth tells us:

I knew myself well enough to know that I was not a girl made for lying around on beaches. I liked being busy, I loved to write, and I’d panic about the money running out, no matter how much of it there was.

It’s hard, basically impossible, for me not to read Ruth Saunders as Jennifer Weiner. So maybe Weiner is choosing her own pace. On the other hand, she’s a bestselling author and a gravy train for a lot of people. Ruth gets pressure from the studio, from the actors, from the managers to adulterate her vision in the interest of production values. Maybe Weiner has the same voices in her ear: It’s good enough. It’s a hit. The next one can be Great. In Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, the tiresome author avatar asks his agent for a hiatus: a break from publishing a book a year. The agent says it’s not a good career move. Stephen King has published about a book a year for forty years now, but in the decades since all that 1980s cocaine left his system, most of those books have been bad. Weiner has enough power to set her own pace. If this is the pace she chooses, this book is as good as she’ll get.

Postscript: It’s maybe not fair to stack a Weiner also-ran – one that a lot of her fans disliked – against one of Franzen’s towering achievements. I probably should have read one of the favorites: Good in Bed or In Her Shoes. Not coincidentally, those were Weiner’s first two novels. They might predate her publication treadmill. But they’re always checked out from the library – probably speaks for itself – and I didn’t like The Next Best Thing enough to put money on Weiner.

 

Loser 3: The New York Times Book Review

A lot of people dumped on Weiner for her comments about Franzen, including Franzen himself (which, tacky, dude). Sample Weiner quote, about Freedom:

I got about halfway through the Patty’s diary section, and then I realized that a female author would get crucified for attempting to write in a male voice that sounded so utterly inauthentic…That, plus my typical Franzen issue—the endless contempt he seems to have for all his characters—made me put it down.

She’s right about that. But more important, in terms of the industry, are her comments about the Times. This HuffPo interview (with Jodi Picoult) lays them out pretty well. My takeaway of their perspective: the Times should start paying attention to the kinds of fiction that people read, and should realize in particular that there are a lot of women (readers) who read a lot of women (writers). Christopher Beha made a decent counterpoint that the Times should review books that make people say “Holy crap, what was that about?” – i.e., books that surprise, shock, or disorient the reader (my words) – which rules out Weiner and most commercial fiction, but also Franzen and most literary fiction.

I had intended to do a semi-detailed review of the Times Book Review here, to look at whether Weiner and Picoult’s criticisms were accurate and weigh whether a change was needed. I sat on that part of the essay for, literally, months. “Gotta get to that paragraph. Oughta go check out some book reviews.” Finally I realized that, via procrastination, I had come to my conclusion, and it’s this: I don’t find the Times Book Review valuable or interesting, so I don’t really care what it does. The Times proves that it’s hilariously out of touch with culture every time it writes a music review, as when it compares Sharon Van Etten to PJ Harvey (don’t). If you’re looking to them for validation of your literary choices, you’re in trouble.

Thanks to Kate Mulcrone, who provided feedback on this essay.

The Centennial: September 18, 1914

Over the summer, despite the weight of war memories pressing down on him, Eran had held it together pretty well. He had nearly stumbled over that first vision in class, but saved himself. MRI and parent-mandated counseling aside, he hadn’t brought any consequences down on his head. He had just about gotten used to it.

Then his regular schedule started. Teaching, students, Stefan’s performance-heavy Versailles-to-Sudetenland seminar, and Stefan’s comments in their one-on-one. “Your ‘Domestic and Western Front Origins of Postwar British Pacifism’ paper should be a chapter in your dissertation…When will I see an outline?…How will you keep up with Mildred this year?” All while waiting to Bakula into the next body.

Every moment that he spent on campus, Eran expected Stefan or Mildred to Notice: What’s wrong with you? / You don’t look well. / Have you considered a leave of absence? Or a passing campus security officer: Excuse me, sir? / Can I call an escort for you? / I’ll walk you to Boynton. He would have been found out earlier if Kyle, his closest friend in the cohort, hadn’t gone AWOL and incommunicado, his Facebook and Twitter accounts dead. An ABD eighth-year Eran had never met was handling Kyle’s class. In their weekly meetings, Xiaoyu chortled to Mildred and the other TAs that Stefan had been hauled up before the DGS to explain himself. But even being low on the priority list, he still expected to be found out. His closing, lockable carrel had become his prime hangout.

There was one benefit. Stress led to apathy, which made drafting a shitty dissertation outline a breeze.

Chapter 1: Haig = butthead

Chapter 2: On the origin of buttheads

Chapter 3: How does a butthead function in polite military society?

Chapter 4: blah blah blah 1916

Chapter 5: Domestic and Western Front Origins of Postwar British Pacifism

Conclusion: he’s dead

Maybe not that shitty. And

Beyers and Kemp out, de la Rey: it had nothing to do with him but it felt bad bad bad. Cape Town had dissolved three days and hundreds of miles of ocean past, overwhelmed by desert or waves or somehow both. There would be nothing to go back to.

The thoughts poured over Eran in a rush. He had barely translated them when the next sensation hit. His host had joined the army instead of the navy for a simple reason: seasickness. A full pail was at his feet. Eran knew he had been dragging it around for two days, in case a deck rail wasn’t convenient when it needed to be. The ocean could have been wind-whipped or it could have been violently calm: he was keeping his head down either way. He missed the bicycle infantry days.

(Eran had always wished he had an eidetic memory. He needed a Google frenzy upon reentry. He tried reciting names and terms that floated through. Bicycle infantry? Beyers? But the brain he was in dragged his brain inexorably onward, as if Eran were pushing bootlessly against the left screen during one of those scrolling Mario levels.)

It wasn’t only sickness. Any moment he expected to hear that the scouting party had been lost. Probably killed. Disappeared into a German vortex.

Chatter. What? Eran felt him(self) ask, head still between his knees.

Someone – a gravel-voiced someone, whom the host disliked with an intense neurochemical bloom – took pity on him: All clear, they say. No enemy in sight.

It was Amiens all over again. 7500 miles away, the same damn thing.

Returned to his carrel, Eran scribbled for a good hour. Names. Dates. Questions. Google results. He scanned over his outline. Maybe not Haig? Maybe it was finding how these different wars – Western, Eastern, Balkan, Asian, African – fit together? A grand unifying theory, even if he were wrong?

Eran wrote: Yes.

September 18, 1914: Advance scouts of the Union of South Africa’s Force C landed at Lüderitz, in modern Namibia, and found that the Germans had withdrawn.

Review: Beth Gutcheon, Domestic Pleasures

If I had hazarded a guess when I did the Reads-in-Progress, I would’ve said that Blindness would stay middlebrow-mediocre while Domestic Pleasures would run itself into the ground. Shows what I know. The mediocrity of Blindness ended up irritating me as much as any Ed Wood craptastrophe, while the rut into which Domestic Pleasures settled is smooth and entertaining.

So Beth Gutcheon is basically Elinor Lipman, with the crisp dialogue, the domestic focus, and the easily attainable literary goals. Once Gutcheon stopped doing things that bothered me – like introducing a new perspective character every five pages – the book was able to blossom. Connie’s final breakaway from her useless, blowhard husband is a pleasant revelation, as is Patsy’s newfound maturity. If anything rings false, it’s the lives of the teenagers, Phoebe and Jack. Gutcheon isn’t quite able to transcend the generational divide, so neither child has any recognizable core, nor are they such Heathcliff originals that they merit further study.

I wouldn’t go seeking out Gutcheon’s other works or anything, but I’d read them if they were around. Worth taking on an airplane, anyway.

The Centennial: September 14, 1914

On the small stone bridge, in the very middle, lay a toppled pickelhaube with a hole through the crown. The street beside it was marked with a dark stain.

Eran’s host felt a surge of unwelcome sympathy for a particular German.

In the twilight, Amiens was reverently hushed. Impossibly, the violence had left no echo. Eran flashed back to the lonely king smoking outside his palace at dusk, seeking noise.

The town could have looked worse, but it could look better.

His host seemed to be a shopkeeper, a late-life wife with a young daughter and a husband who had joined up. She kept thinking of ledgers, a doll-like face, and Etienne of the silken mustache.

She spun to see it all and Eran spun with her, taking in the river, the rubble, the quiet: Amiens regained. So much had already happened. This would be the Allies’ hub, the nerve center of the war, with one more great battle, four years on, to mark the beginning of the end.

“Eran? Stefan’s ready for you.”

In the department’s office, Eran had been doodling in the corner of his notebook. A dark infinity symbol was nearly pressed through the page. He shuffled together his books and went in.

September 14, 1914: The French retake Amiens, which had been occupied by the Germans during their drive to Paris. Amiens, a railway hub, was strategically important to the Allies through the remainder of the war.

The Centennial: September 5, 1914

It never took long for a teaching plan to fall apart. Even if “plan” should’ve been in scare quotes to start with.

Eran had organized his section of HIST 1000 to explore both causes and effects, looking at Communism from 1917 to 1991. He had split his class into two randomly constituted groups, one tracing backwards from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to look for a root cause, the other moving forward from the Russian Revolution to look for the beginning of the end. In the “plan,” he had expected one of two things to happen. Either the group beginning in 1991 would conclude that the Soviet project was doomed from the outset while the group beginning in 1917 would identify some point between 1950 and 1970 as the pivotal moment, or both groups would go, “Yeah, Stalin sucked.”

Eran hadn’t anticipated that both groups would look at him with vague incomprehension when he outlined this plan. Or that, after the outline, when he sat down with the 1991ers to help them plan out their research, the girl in the dark glasses would ask, “So what caused the Soviet Union to break up?”

Fortunately, Eran was teaching a MWF 9-10 schedule, and his own classes were on Tuesday and Thursday. So by mid-morning Friday he was on his own time. He had immediately gone to Bordertown, ordered the largest, most expensive latte drink on the menu, and settled in to read the students’ first assignments. Given what you currently know about the collapse of the Soviet Union, explain in one page when you think the collapse became irreversible. He wanted to see what they currently knew, how they thought, whether they could write, and whether he had any prospective history majors in the bunch.

An hour later, he was done with all 21 papers and tabulated his results:

  1. Not much.
  2. Mixed bag.
  3. Depends on the person.
  4. Yeah, maybe four. Not bad!

Eran had a boatload of reading to do for his own classes, and he had vowed that this would be the semester he started writing his dissertation, even if he wrote it on the garbage-paragraph-a-day plan. He didn’t have time to get caught off guard by a flashback.

He found himself at the London Underground.

Eran had been to the station once before: study abroad, parent-funded. It was Whitechapel. Eran desperately, pruriently wanted to crane his head around and look for where the Ripper murders had been, so much more recently than in Eran’s time. So it’s violent. So what? At least it’s different violence. But the head he was in was just leaving it. Purpose: a pub, something to eat. A hand dove into his pocket, hunting coins. There were few.

“You going to carry that around all day?”

Eran couldn’t access his companion’s name. Henry, Charles, George: one of those kings. He felt strongly that his own name was Pete. In his hand he held a copy of London Opinion, a discard he had snatched while riding into Whitechapel. All day on the line for a fare, when he didn’t have anywhere else to go.

“Everyone’s signing up, aren’t they?” he said. Eran interpreted Pete’s accent as Cockney, but it sounded just a shade off in this year. Possibly not enough BBC codification.

“Nothing to do with us, right?”

“Nothing to do with us. Until they come and take us away.”

Lord Kitchener’s finger and eyes followed him no matter which way he slanted the paper. Your country needs YOU. Nice to feel wanted, he supposed. And anyway, only a matter of time until they did come to take Pete away. And the stories coming out of Belgium… Maybe it was a worthwhile cause, something left to proud of in the empire’s old bones. Maybe.

Maybe Eran needed to get reading before Stefan asked whether he was serious about scholarship.

He had drained his latte and had nothing left to stall over. So he stared out the window. The propaganda effort, the belief that a country’s future could really depend on whoever saw that cover. Had it worked? If it had worked, what would it have felt like to enlist at the time?

Pete’s was another fate Eran would never track down. He simply marked the name in his notebook. Above it were the wife’s, the Belgian soldier’s, and the Danube sailor’s.

September 5, 1914: Cover date of the London Opinion which debuted a version of the famous Lord Kitchener recruiting illustration.