Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Mathematical Elimination of the Chicago Cubs, September 30, 2009, 101st Year

As practiced last year when the Dodgers swept the Cubs in the NLDS, I will try to limit my sportswriting to those events which merit mention. Last night the Cubs were eliminated from contention in the National League Wild Card Race. The 2009 season will continue for a few more days, but there will be no playoffs this year for the Cubs, the first time that has happened since 2006, one of their worst years ever.

The Cubs have become a "serious contender," I would argue, since 1998, the year Kerry Wood struck out 20 in a game and became Rookie of the Year, the year the home run record was broken (though history has proven this an insignificant accomplishment), and the first year the Cubs went to the playoffs since 1989. The 2003 season remains the high watermark for the franchise in their recent years, and the Piniella years (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, we all hope) represent their greatest chance at ultimate success than anything they have previously cobbled together.

What follows is a report card of all the major Cubs players from this year, as well as the top 5 reasons they failed, and the top 5 things they will need to do to succeed in 2010. We may as well try to go from highest paid to lowest paid.

Carlos Zambrano: C+
Big Z did not have a terrible year statistically, but I think it is fair to say that it has been his most frustrating season to date. His attitude seemed to become a problem at a couple points, but he is a Cubs mainstay and should return next year in very good form. Maybe he will win another Silver Slugger. He caused a lot of controversy when he announced that he wanted to retire at a young age, and various jokes about how much he wanted to stay with the Cubs. But everyone would be sad to see him go. He is the only pitcher in the recent era to record a no-hitter for the team, and he still has potential for improving talent at his age.

Alfonso Soriano: D+
I maintain that the acquisition of Soriano, along with the hiring of Piniella, are the two single most important moves the franchise has made towards serious baseball contention. Soriano is now roughly halfway through his contract. He has made the All-Star Team each of the last two years. I believe this is the first year that he has not made it. To be sure, he had his moments. He started off the season fairly well, got mired in a slump, briefly resurfaced for a quality few weeks of play after the All-Star break, and then slumped for the remainder of the season. He barely finished with 20 home runs. He has lost his spot at the top of the order. Many maintain that he does not belong in the lead-off spot but I will persist in believing that the greatest success will come with him there. His average this year, somewhere in the high .230s or low .240s, is pathetic for a player of his caliber. He had an off year, but he will make the adjustments necessary (as Derrek Lee has, for instance) and I believe recover from whatever injuries may be bothering him and improve significantly in 2010.

Aramis Ramirez: A-
Aramis ended up having one of the best seasons of his career--for the amount that he played. I believe he came back at less than 100%, and his return to the lineup was a big event of the summer, when it coincided with Manny Ramirez's return from suspension, and ESPN touted, "Which Ramirez return means more to the team? It's not the one you would think." Ramirez is another mainstay on the team and if he can be anywhere near as his consistent as his numbers in limited action dictate, then the Cubs will be very, very lucky to have him in 2010.

Derrek Lee: A
Arguably Derrek Lee's best season--certainly his best since 2005. Lee's 2005 season is a year to end all years--but his performance has been nothing short of spectacular this season as well. It is somewhat impressive to consider that he posted these numbers while not making the All-Star team. He was behind Pujols at 1st (and Prince Fielder), but that is the disadvantage of the league. Pujols should win the MVP, no problem, but Lee did everything he could to take this team to the postseason.

Ted Lilly: B+
Lilly was the Cubs only All Star, and ended this season with numbers that are not exactly All Star like, but good for 2nd best starter on the team. Lilly could flirt with being the ace of the staff, but the irrepressible Zambrano stands ahead of him. And Dempster has made a case for himself as well. On the whole this was a great pitching staff. But Lilly was the sole All Star, and turned in a very solid performance again. I expect him to be capable of greater things next season.

Kosuke Fukudome: B-
Fukudome is capable of way better than this. Maybe his first season's first half was a fluke--but I doubt it. This guy is a proven talent, and I expect him to have a much better season next year. He turned in a decent performance nonetheless. He lead the team in doubles and walks, and had a pretty good on base percentage, and had the third most hits on the team. He was reliable, and he has to stay on the team. He is a great presence to have at Wrigley.

Ryan Dempster: A-
Dempster has probably turned in the 2nd or 3rd best season of his career. It would be tough to beat his numbers from last year--17-6 with a 2.96 era--but he was a much better 11-8 with a 3.51 era than the numbers dictate. He was a constant presence on the team, which was much needed with frequent injuries popping up all over the place. It seems like he's kept improving late into the season, so expect a career year next year.

Milton Bradley: F(+)
The player everyone wanted to talk about this year does not appear to be returning next year, despite being signed to a 3 year contract that paid him something like ten million each year. Milton seemed to draw a lot of walks, which is the reason for the + after the F. He always seemed to toss his bat rapidly after seeing the 4th ball. I am probably being too critical. His story is reminiscent of Jacque Jones's tenure with the team in 2006, but Jacque will not be remembered as sorely as Bradley. Jacque had a better year, for one, and nobody questioned whether or not people were shouting racist comments from the bleachers of Wrigley. Most seem to deny that ever happening with Bradley. I am generally sympathetic to those with emotional problems and those that like to cause a stir with the media. But I am not sympathetic to people that make as much as he does a year and whine like a baby all the time. Sure, there is a lot of pressure being the new guy on the Cubs that's going to save the team--but have a little respect for the franchise, please. It is arguably the greatest institution in baseball and one should be excited by the opportunity to play in its hallowed grounds, not critical when one's own shortcomings are responsible for the failure of the collective. Milton's on base percentage wasn't all that bad, but his RBI total was pathetic for a player of his ability. If any single player was responsible for the team's not getting into the playoffs this year, most will point to Bradley. I will agree that he is most responsible, but several others (near the top of this list) also contributed significantly to their demise.

Rich Harden: B+
Rich Harden, like Ryan Dempster, is a better 9-9 with a 4.09 era than the numbers dictate. He has basically been a rock in the rotation for all of the anxieties about his susceptibility to injury. He is one of the key components to this pitching staff and should play a major role in the 2010 team.

Kevin Gregg: D+
If anyone besides Milton Bradley gets as much crap for being a big off-season mistake, it's Kevin Gregg. He blew a lot of saves, and lost the closer position. I think he has a doubtful future in this franchise. Maybe he will get the chance to stay on the team, but not as the closer. I think he might be able to have success in a middle relief or setup role. Who knows, I won't be totally upset if they keep him, but a lot of people grumble about him now.

Reed Johnson: B+
Reed made a case for himself being everyday centerfielder and lead-off hitter in replacement of Fukudome. His fielding has been a case of highlight reels. He plays hard, and has earned everyone's respect in the city. Look for him to become secure in some kind of expanded role next year.

John Grabow: B
New acquisition that I did not get to see very much of, but he seems good enough to keep.

Aaron Miles: D
Weak performance. His future is doubtful. Would like to see him return to form because he seems like a nice person.

Aaron Heilman: B
Heilman logged a lot of innings with Marmol and Guzman in the bullpen. His performance was never lights out. He was okay.

Geovany Soto: C+
His performance late in the season has given his grade a raise. If he continues to play like this, we will have the Geo we remembered and loved back. There was a good joke when Piniella mentioned to the media about how he had tried smoking pot once and didn't like it. It was so random. But it was in relation to Soto, and his tests, and his added weight in the spring. I don't think anyone really cares so long as he keeps performing at the level as he has in September.

Carlos Marmol: B+
He had some control issues this year, and seemed to lose more games than in the past, but he has earned his status as the new closer, and in that role so far he has been amazing. He had some problems this year, sure, but look for him to return to All-Star form.

Ryan Theriot: A-
Theriot led the team in hits and proved to be a reliable and consistent presence at shortstop. He is probably one of the best shortstops in the game that is not an all-star, and look for him to be named to the team next year. He's a great player.

Koyie Hill: B+
He turned into an "ironman" when Soto went down with the injury and set a record for consecutive games catched--or most in 20 years, at least. His percentage of runners thrown out was excellent. His hitting saw a little bit of improvement, and he remains an excellent back-up catcher.

Sean Marshall: B+
Had a great year, developing into a dominant presence in the bullpen. Maybe this is what he was meant to do--I think his stock went up with his performance this year.

Tom Gorzelanny: B
Had a couple good performances. Like Grabow, I say keep him.

Mike Fontenot: C+
Fontenot could have had a better year for sure. But give him credit sticking through the slumps and turning in better performances late in the year. A fan favorite, he needs to stay.

Angel Guzman: A-
Gave Carlos Marmol a run for his money as the bullpen ace. Excellent performance, and we hope to see more of the same.

Jeff Baker: B+
Baker kind of came out of nowhere and was awesome. He played second base with Fontenot and turned in really good numbers, I was tempted to give him an A-. He should stay.

Micah Hoffpauir: B-
Hoffpauir could have had a better year. He showed flashes of greatness.

Jake Fox: B+
Not as much as Jake Fox did though. Look for him to have an official "breakthrough" season next year.

Randy Wells: A-
He may not win the Rookie of the Year award, but he proved to be one of the most reliable starters during turbulent times this year. He was very, very impressive, and now someone that needs to be locked up in a long term deal.

Bobby Scales: B
Please give him a spot on next year's team. He was great.

Sam Fuld: B
Showed some prowess in the field. 2nd most highlighted player behind Reed Johnson. Sad that he hasn't gotten an RBI. Remains the best reason to watch the last games--to see how big his cheer is for his 1st.

David Patton: B-
Whatever, I have no opinion.

Top 5 Reasons They Failed:
5) The Cardinals were too good.
4)The loss of Mark DeRosa.
3)Poor years from Soriano and Zambrano, comparatively.
2)Kevin Gregg's signing
1) Milton Bradley's signing

Top 5 Things They Need to do to Succeed:
5) Get more consistency out of their big ticket players.
4) Resign Mark Derosa.
3) Sign a big name in addition to him.
2) Improve their overall approach to offense, and not leaving so many runners on base.
1) Not make any big mistakes in the off-season.

They had a pretty good year in spite of everything. There were a few bright spots, and there is no reason to believe the Cubs will be any less of a contender next year than they have been in the three past.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower

To believe the hype, or not to believe the hype? That is the question all of us bloggers face when reviewing a new book or album or movie that carries an enormous buzz. The Vampire Weekend debut album comes to mind. I think it is fair to say that Wells Tower's debut collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the literary equivalent to that piece of cultural history from 18 months ago. Except that, in the case of the former, I disagreed with the general consensus, and in this case, I agree with it. The hype is deserved; Wells Tower will be here to stay for a while.

I saw him speak at a panel discussion entitled "Short and Sweet" at the Printer's Row Lit Fest this year. He was definitely one of the biggest celebrities in attendance this year, though he has only recently become a known name. I think he is about 36 years old. Apparently he went to college and is friends with one of the guys in Les Savy Fav. He used to write for the Washington Post, or something? Then, he got his MFA from Columbia University (like the author posted about previously, whom he may surpass in fame in the coming years) and he published stories in all the right places (The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's) and here finally is his collection. I have to say it is the best short story collection I have read since Richard Lange's Dead Boys, and it is hard to say which is better. Lange's is dear to my heart because of its L.A.-centricity, but Tower's seems to cover more human territory. Not that all of Lange's protagonists are the same (as at least one review, in the San Francisco Chronicle, assumed, which I found weird) but they do all seem genetically, if not socio-economically, similar. Tower's protagonists are of a much wider variety, and because of this, his book appeals to the least common denominator (or would greatest common factor be a more appropriate mathematical term?). I don't think this book will make Oprah's Book Club, nor do I think Tower would want to become a part of that institution. I think this book lacks a specific "issue" focus that Oprah's books always seem to project. Nevertheless, I still can't help but think of this as an Oprah-style-book because it's something that is practically impossible to denounce or discount. Uniformally positive reviews are the rule here.

I did read it very quickly, and I enjoyed it very much. As much as I would like to be cool and slam it and affect the pose of a sophisticate hipster who is above consuming anything that has generated a "buzz," it would be a mistake. I got it out of the library on Tuesday and finished reading it on Friday. Story-by-story analysis? Alright, but don't expect too many quotes. Tower may have established himself as one of the best young writers working today with this volume, but he is nothing compared to Mann--not yet, at least.

"The Brown Coast" opens up the collection with one of the few third-person perspectives it contains. It is about a guy (Bob) who has been sent to make some repairs on the summer home of his uncle (Randy) in Florida, or somewhere. He captures some fish and puts them in an aquarium. He makes friends with his neighbors and goes skinny-dipping with them. He is separated from his wife but wants to get back together with her. Later, there is a destructive act, and it is only in this kind of denouement that Tower's stories seem to inhabit thematically similar territory. This story did remind me of Richard Lange.

As did the next one, "Retreat," which is about two brothers--one a real estate entrepreneur and the other a musical therapist. One brother has recently bought a mountain with a cabin on it, and has invited the other one over for a weekend of bonding. They go hunting with another man, bag some serious game, and then later, something destructive happens. This story was probably better than the first one.

"Executors of Important Energies" is about a kid who patents crazy inventions and makes a pretty good living off it (which made me think of "Shark Tank") whose father is starting to succumb to Alzheimer's, or some variant of it. His father is a chess guru and lawyer, and married to a much younger woman. The kid lives in the West Village, and meets his father in Washington Square Park, where he is taking on another hustler in a game. They befriend this person and take him out to dinner. This is a very good story but arguably not as good as the second one.

"Down Through the Valley" is about a recently divorced guy who has to pick up his daughter and his wife's new lover, a spiritual guru, from some new age camp and drive them home, because of an injury. It's complicated to explain. They stop at a roadside bar to get some dinner, and a fight breaks out. This story does have some nice moments, potentially even great moments, but is one of the less memorable of the collection for some reason.

With "Leopard," the collection veers into new territory, describing the miserable existence of an 11-year-old boy who fakes being sick to avoid going to school because his classmates are so mean to him, only to be stuck at home with a seemingly worse stepfather. He is asked to get the mail, which is no small task at their house, and he fakes fainting on the walk back. In the mailbox was a flyer asking for help to find a lost pet leopard. A cop stops by and tries to help. The ending is really messed up. This was definitely a highlight, but still slight in comparison with what is to come.

"Door in Your Eye" is about an 83-year-old man who has moved in with his daughter and been told by her that a woman across the street from their apartment is a whore. This story is hilarious and sweet and while also slight, another highlight in the collection.

"Wild America" signals the beginning of the end, the final trilogy of stories that I think should be considered the strongest overall part of the collection. If "Wild America" is not the longest story, it is the second longest. It is about one day in the life of Jacey, who is hanging out with her cousin Maya, and a boy named Leander. All are in high school. Maya is a model and aspiring ballet dancer who smokes and Jacey is plump, athletic, and might one day consider a future in pharmacy. Leander is a boy that Jacey necked with once in a planetarium, and now has been invited to come over and watch Jaws. A trip to a convenience store with Maya veers off into the forest for a pot smoking excursion, which ends in Jacey flipping out and turning her attentions towards an older man who is sunbathing on a rock in a creek nearby. This is a really weird story and I didn't think I was going to like it at first but is just paced very well.

"On the Show" is probably the best story in the collection. It is about a group of people brought together by a carnival and a despicable act in a portable toilet. It is something of a mystery story, a whodunit that seems almost secondary to the entertaining description of what it is like to be a carny. It may be longer than "Wild America," or vice versa, but these are the two longest stories, and this is definitely the more elegantly composed of the two. It is almost like a short novella, and it could have gone on indefinitely, it seems, following any of the characters. But as it stands, the length is perfect, the material is pure page-turner, and the characters are wonderfully evoked.

"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" is the notorious title story that I feel like most people consider the single highlight of the collection. It could also be known as the story about Vikings. It does end the collection on a great note, a lighter note for sure. After all of Tower's deep and often unsettling observations on contemporary America comes a piece of historical fiction that is absurd, depraved, and just kind of silly, if harmless. It's not especially long, but it is not the slightest of the lot either. It is probably the most comic of all stories but it also contains the most grotesque imagery. One could easily be cynical about this story, or what it represents (which is open to debate), but I don't think it's meant to be taken all that seriously. Take an exchange between the two main characters, on their voyage to the land they are set to pillage, as an example:

"We had less light in the evenings out here than at home, and it was a little easier sleeping in the open boat without an all-night sun. Gnut and I slept where we rowed, working around each other to get comfy on the bench. I woke up once in the middle of the night and found Gnut dead asleep, muttering and slobbering and holding me in a rough embrace. I tried to peel him off, but he was large, and his hard arms stayed on me tight as if they'd grown there. I poked him and yelled at him, but the big man would not be roused, so I just tried to work up a little slack to where he wasn't hurting my ribs, and I drifted back to sleep.
Later, I told him what had happened. 'That's a lot of horseshit,' he said, his broad face going red.
'I wish it was,' I said, 'But I've got bruises I could show you. Hey, if I ever come around asking to be your sweetheart, do me a favor and remind me about last night.'
He was all upset. 'Go to hell, Harald. You're not funny. Nobody thinks you're funny.'
'I'm sorry,' I said, 'Guess you haven't had a whole lot of practice lately having a body beside you at night.'
He rested on the oar a second. 'So what if I haven't.'" (224-225)

At the "Short and Sweet" panel, Wells Tower mentioned that he was at work on a novel. Whatever it is, it will probably be worth reading. Maybe it will not be as good as this collection, but he seems to know what he is doing, and I would put odds that his star will only continue to grow. Whatever he releases, I'll be paying attention.

Ed: It is perhaps worth noting that Oprah released her newest book club selection--a collection of short stories titled Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan--also a debut collection. True to form, it is more issue-centric than Tower's collection, and it will probably appeal to Oprah's audience and Akpan will now become more famous. This is only worth noting because it was funny that I mentioned her book club and that only a few days later, she picked her next book, a short story collection. I would like to think that Oprah is a reader of this blog (I would love to become her friend) but I highly doubt that.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Garden State - Rick Moody

The first thing I did when I picked up Garden State at the library was to make sure that it was not the source material for the film directed by Zach Braff. That movie has, among other things, given rise to the popularity of the Shins and the new "hipster" indie set as a cultural institution. Some other films (those by Andrew Bujalski come to mind) mine similar territory, but never to the blockbuster degree that this film did. And it is hard to see what makes it so seemingly great. I will say that there were a couple good scenes in the movie (when Peter Sarsgaard smokes pot with his mom the morning after their big party, or the scene in the rock quarry, or whatever) but overall I found it average, and it's biggest saving grace is that it is not as bad as The Last Kiss.

So I was happy that Garden State was its own different thing. I also thought it would be instructional for me, a not-quite-ready-to-quit-yet writer, in what it takes to get a first novel published. Here's the thing about Rick Moody: he got his MFA from Columbia University. It's one of the top programs in the country--and also one of the most notorious for being expensive and generally unwilling to provide funding for its students--and Rick Moody is its most famous alum. This book was published in 1992, when Rick Moody was 31. That's pretty young for your first book (these days), and in a way Garden State is the official beginning of the purported "MFA Movement" in contemporary literature. Except that Garden State is actually really awesome.

Not to say that every writer who has their MFA has no soul, or something, but there is a general concern that they have "figured out the nuts & bolts of literature" and therefore write cookie-cutter stories and novels. I do think that is true for many graduates of these programs, and many of those that aspire to this level, and it may even be true for Rick Moody in some of his other work, but definitely not in this novel. It might be useful to compare this to Purple America, which came out four years after this, and which was one of the first posts on Flying Houses. In between these two books came The Ice Storm, which is an awesome movie and a book I want to read now even more. Surprisingly he only has one other novel, The Diviners, in 2005. As we might have learned from our previous post, it pays to be selective.

So which is better--Purple America or Garden State? For my money--Garden State. And that is not to say that Purple America is bad--only that it is more comic and less realistic. The opening chapter of Purple America shows off more literary tricks than anything in Garden State, but his debut is easily the more moving of the two. I read most of it yesterday, Labor Day, horribly, horribly depressed. And it didn't make me feel much better, but I could definitely relate to most, if not all of the characters, and it already holds a special place in my heart for having been with me on this troubling day. That is what makes books more special than movies. The experience of consuming it colors one's opinion.

This book is about many young people in their early to mid 20's living in New Jersey, most in their parents' houses. The fact that I moved back to my parents' house almost exactly one year earlier on Labor Day also plays a certain role in this reading.

It is about Alice Smail, who used to be in a band called Critical Ma$$ with Scarlett, and L.G. Scarlett lives in her own place above an exterminator's office. L.G. still plays music but is coming to grips with the fact that he has to work as a carpet salesman in order to make a living. The other main characters are Dennis, Alice's boyfriend of sorts, and Lane, Dennis's step-brother. Alice's mother and Dennis's mother are also notable, as is Max Crick, who works as a cable installer and sometime drug dealer--but the real heart of the story is Lane. Every time that Lane appears, the novel hits its stride. But it would not be as good if it were only about him, if he were the main character. As it is, Alice is pretty much the main character, but Lane will capture most readers' sympathies. He has recently moved back home with his mother because he could not take living in the city and working his job. At the beginning of the novel he is lying in bed for days, barely able to speak. Later he will be awoken in the middle of the night and brought out to a party, which causes an event which bisects the novel beautifully.

I have to mention that Garden State bears more than a passing resemblance to my first novel, Daylight Savings Time, not the least of which is the occurrence of that day (but in April, not October) as a significant moment in the narrative, but also in its depiction of "young people who don't know what they want to do with their life" and drug use and an "ensemble cast." Where it differs is that, while I really don't know what I'm doing with my life, nor did I know anything about my characters, Moody knows his characters inside out. And their experiences ring true, while the experiences of my characters ring spoiled brat, i.e. the author. So basically, Rick Moody accomplishes what I hoped to accomplish with my first novel, except his takes place in the suburbs while mine takes place in the city. His narrative is also just more finely chiseled.

Like I said, I read the majority of this novel in a day--but it would be hard to say it is an instant classic. It's a very good book, a very, very good book, and it might be on a top 10 list of the best novels of 1992, but I don't know if it would win the NBA. Anybody that is in their 20's and confused about the bitch of life that is a career--this book is for you.

It's also oddly appropriate that I read it after Franny and Zooey. Just one of those things, that one of the main characters in each book is named Lane, and I think this book does not accidentally bear other similarities. It may not be about praying, but it is definitely about nervous breakdowns.

If there was one single aspect I had to mention as a facet of the "MFA Movement," it would be the "listing concept." Many works in contemporary literature by MFA graduates feature weird lists of things, like if they are able to be comprehensive about a certain subject then they are really smart and deserve the title of all-knowing, all-seeing writer, who can describe anything and everything. Occasionally, Moody works this to his advantage:

"Silence, then. Alice didn't say anything. Lane breathed. He was looking back and forth down the corridor. Then he just started talking. All these decisions came about as though they were made somewhere else, not in his own head. It was like taking dictation. He told her about where he was, about how there was this day the second week there when he had suddenly known he would survive, about how everything cleared in that moment. Like some long, involved fugue coming to its resolution. Lane told Alice about women. He told her his crimes--not even knowing if she was listening. He told her about the woman in his philosophy class in college. He told her about how there'd been another girl at the patent law firm. He had never said a word to either of them. He had spent so much time alone. He didn't know how many afternoons had passed this way. There was no way to start all the conversations he owed. He didn't even know where to begin. Books might be better than people. He told her how he was afraid of women and afraid of men too, and how he felt at the roof party, and how it felt when he fell, and how he had wanted to jump, and he told her about civic corruption and philosophical disenfranchisement and the hypocrisies of patent law. He told her about his lust for the outdoors. He told her everything that had gone wrong, everything he had lost, everyone who had hurt him, and then he told her about his father." (180-181)

This book is 210 pages long and moves much more quickly than Purple America. I am guessing that being able to identify with the characters helped move me along, but I also know that this is a very good novel, and one that all young writers should read--a) so that they know the market, and b) so that they know how good a first novel has to be in order to be published today. It's a shame that Zach Braff had to use the same title--a movie of this book would have been so much better. So, so much better.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

What can you really say about Franny and Zooey that is profound, important? Only that, if you haven't read it, and you have read that other more famous book by the same author, you will be caught unaware.

Recently I read it for the second time. The first time was in the summer of 2002, over seven years ago. Has my experience of being alive changed since then? Yes. Am I in a very different personal situation than the time of the previous reading? Yes. Did my experience of actually reading the book differ at all? No.

This book is about nervous breakdowns and praying. During one particular day last week (last Tuesday, six days ago), I read the majority of Zooey, the much longer second part of the two prose pieces that comprise the volume, in between a lunch and dinner shift of my current stint of waiting tables at a restaurant. I was very depressed this day, and the book made me feel it even more so.

The crux of the entire work is Franny's dilemma--what is she supposed to do with her life?:

"'All right,' Franny said wearily. 'France.' She took a cigarette out of the pack on the table. 'It isn't just Wally. It could be a girl, for goodness' sake. I mean if he were a girl--somebody in my dorm, for example--he'd have been painting scenery in some stock company all summer. Or bicycled through Wales. Or taken an apartment in New York and worked for a magazine or an advertising company. It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.' She stopped. She shook her head briefly, her face quite white, and for just a fractional moment she felt her forehead with her hand--less, it seemed, to find out whether she was perspiring than to check to see, as if she were her own parent, whether she had a fever. 'I feel so funny,' she said. 'I think I'm going crazy. Maybe I'm already crazy.' (26)

Franny takes place almost entirely in a restaurant. It is the beginning of a weekend she will be spending with her college boyfriend Lane. Franny counters practically everything that is said to her in conversation with a depressing, fatalistic rejoinder. Then she goes into the bathroom and cries. Then she holds up her book, "The Way of a Pilgrim," and is able to stabilize. Then she tells Lane about the book, which is based around the idea of "praying without ceasing." If you repeat the phrase 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' over and over, it will eventually be worked in the natural rhythm of your heartbeat and will open you up to a spiritual experience. Then she compares this basic prayer notion with that of several different Eastern religions and claims that the exact same thing is described in various texts by them. Then she faints. Lane, who has been rather curt and dismissive of her throughout the entire story, finally shows some tenderness and the ending has him vowing to help her get some rest and recover.

Zooey probably takes place a few weeks or months after the incident described in Franny. It is here that the Glass family is introduced. It would be tedious to get into all of the details that explain the authorship of Zooey, but basically, the story is written by Salinger's most frequent literary stand-in--Buddy, who is also born in 1919, the oldest living child in the Glass family, in his mid 30's and a writing teacher at a college in a rural part of the Northeast. Zooey is about 25 and an actor and taking a bath and reading a long letter from Buddy as the story opens, and his mother comes into the bathroom and has a long conversation with him about Franny. How are they supposed to make her feel better? Zooey concerns itself with this notion for its entire duration, but it also contains the synthesis of the religious inquiry of its predecessor.

Basically, Zooey is much longer, and solves the problem, or question, that Franny poses. And yet it still does not really reach a satisfying conclusion. What is most touching about the work are the lengths that Zooey goes to in order to help his sister. Eventually he tells her what she should be doing with her life, and that everything she is going through is "normal" because they, the two youngest Glass children, are "freaks."

Anybody between the ages of 18 and 26 may benefit most from reading this volume, but for its analysis of religious devotion, this should be required for anyone with strong opinions about that phenomenon--which, okay, is just about everybody in the world. Catcher in the Rye may be regarded as Salinger's most important contribution to literature, but I think it is fair to say that Franny and Zooey is a more polished and precise work--and while it may not be as titillating, it is certainly reaching for a higher echelon.

In Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that J.D. Salinger was probably the most influential writer of his generation. Along with Vonnegut himself, I feel that Kerouac rounds out the trifecta of the most influential novelists of the 20th century--and all were born within a three year span. Kerouac died forty years ago, Vonnegut died a couple years ago, and Salinger has not published anything in 44 years. Salinger is certainly the most selective of the three when it comes to the total number of books that he felt he needed to publish. It would be interesting to compare the religious philosophies espoused by Kerouac and him, but it is fair to say that he is the more abstinent of the two. My only point in writing this final paragraph is to say, Vonnegut was right. As a writer, he is the only one in our lifetime to have achieved a mythic status--that of a literary god. While it may not be 100% true, it's basically safe to say that every single young writer has been influenced, whether they realize it or not, by the predominant literary style that Salinger has helped to create. All four of his books are excellent, and while Franny and Zooey may not be the most "entertaining," it does offer the most profundity of all his works and may therefore be considered his true masterpiece. One could also say that his oeuvre as a whole is the true masterpiece.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Shoplifting from American Apparel - Tao Lin (+ Interview)

This is my first published piece since college. Aren't you proud of me?

Here is the uncensored version. A note about the list of authors: I do not think Tao Lin is as good as most of these authors, but he is certainly as good as some of them. It is merely an illustration of the place that he has carved out for himself amongst the biggest names of today. If anybody is missing, please feel free to comment.

Around 5:15 PM today I looked at the mail and saw that my advanced reader’s copy of Tao Lin’s new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel had arrived. I was dismayed to see it read “DO NOT QUOTE.” One of the staples of my blog is quoting large portions of text from the work being reviewed. If I was allowed to quote from this book, I would choose something that the drunk guy in the jail cell says. That was the funniest part of the book for me. Anyways it is 8:56 PM and I am finished reading the book and in that time I also watched the Cubs play the Florida Marlins in Florida and the Cubs lost.

Tao Lin’s fifth book, and first novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, will probably not register on your pop culture radar. But if you are at all interested in the future of literature, take notice. It is not going to win any awards, but it is a stop-gap between Lin’s first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and his forthcoming second novel Richard Yates, a work that hints at Lin moving in a more mainstream direction, with greater exposure, and an increasing legion of fans. This book is about a main character named Sam (who seems almost entirely autobiographical), and various friends Luis, Sheila, Kaitlyn, Paula, Hester, Joseph, Chris, Jeffrey, and Audrey. Sam does shoplift from American Apparel and then later he shoplifts from the NYU Computer Store, a pair of $40 Sony In-Ear headphones, which particularly affected me as my Sony headphones have recently gone mute on the left side and I would replace them but I don’t want to spend $40. But headphones cost $4.99, says a teenage girl in a jail cell that has been caught shoplifting from Urban Outfitters. Sam works at an organic vegan restaurant in the East Village, I think, and he has to do two days of community service in order for the shoplifting arrest to be expunged from his record.

I have only previously read Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin and I would have to say that there are generally less plot holes in this book than in that one, though “plot holes” is an inaccurate term—“minimalist detail” might be closer to the truth. More to the point, Eeeee Eee Eeee features a number of absurdist elements like talking bears and dolphins and celebrity slaughterhouse imagery, whereas Shoplifting is content to stay firmly planted in the real world, even if it is a narrowly defined one. This is my biggest complaint about Lin’s work as a whole, and I’d imagine a potentially serious issue for his critics. Detail is eschewed in the name of wit, or poignancy. Minimalism is evoked and any hope that a comprehensive exploration of any particular subject is going to happen is squelched. If there is anything this book does explore comprehensively, it is the phenomenon of GChat, along with other internet staples of today, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Photobucket.

Which brings me to my next point. For the sake of neat classification and perspective, let’s look at, who, in my mind, are some of the most prominent (or similarly directed) living authors of today, based on their age-decade:

90’s: J.D. Salinger.
80’s: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, Milan Kundera.
70’s: Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy.
60’s: Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Richard Ford, John Irving, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (the latter two influences on Lin).
50’s: Lorrie Moore (ditto), Dennis Cooper, David Sedaris.
40’s: Bret Easton Ellis, Rick Moody, J.K. Rowling, Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Lange, Chuck Palahniuk.
30’s: Stephanie Meyer, Wells Tower.
20’s: Tao Lin, (Probably his MuuMuu House posse, too)

He is on the wrong side of 25 though.

If it is not already clear at this point, Tao Lin may not be for you. It is easy to see why his work as a whole has been extremely divisive. On the one hand, there are struggling writers who work in a much more traditional style who feel their work may be “about something”—whether it be vampires, struggling with mental illness or a traumatic experience, serial dating in an urban environment, the world of fashion, or the experience of being a soldier fighting in a war—and are constantly met with rejection. These comprise half of Lin’s critics—and the other half are the part of the literary establishment that seek to promulgate their MFA credentials by supplementing their income with teaching, who mistake minimalism in their student’s work for laziness.

But then there are those who understand where Lin is coming from, to a certain extent. He has amassed a rather impressive contingent of fans and in his work they see themselves—that is, lonely, depressed, and probably spending too much time on the internet. Any visit to his blog (formerly entitled “Reader of Depressing Books,” now listed as the difficult-just-for-the-sake-of-it, and the many comments on any of his posts, will show that now, approximately 50% of his followers have adopted his voice and pose.
But it would not be fair to call Lin’s aesthetic a “pose”—because it is authentic, if anything. Of course it is sarcastic, and while it may come off as flippant at first blush, upon further review the tone is refreshingly honest, and free of pretense.

And it is also not fair to say that Shoplifting is meaningless. True, it does seem that Lin simply doesn’t care about satisfying a reader’s expectations, but there is a story here: Sam’s relationship with Sheila, which is almost immediately over in a very short number of pages with eight months elapsing almost instantaneously; the psychiatric effects of GChats with Luis in the wake of this heartbreak and larger issues of emotional well-being; the shoplifting crimes themselves, which act as fulcrums to the story at the ¼ and ¾ points, respectively; the Scrabble-induced hook-up with Paula and the ambiguous sleepover with Kaitlyn; the pining for Sheila during the course of a later relationship with Hester, who seems to not let Sam be himself; the long denouement, somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Eeeee…,that details the course of a weekend spent in Gainesville, FL to perform a reading (which describes the actual beginning of the Shoplifting…) at a free vegan buffet at a record store; and finally, the revelation of Sheila’s current state. There is one celebrity appearance, by the musician Moby, but it should not offend any fans of his (as certain depictions of Sean Penn did for me in Eeeee…).

Today, there is no other literary figure of his age that has caused so much controversy and received so much criticism, praise, and gossip. Most of that is his own doing. In now “famous” PR moves, he has sold royalty shares from his novel to be published in 2010, Richard Yates, for $2000 a piece, he has sold his profile on MySpace, and he has started his own literary imprint which features similarly-minded writing from authors in the same approximate age group. This leads me to the analogy that, what Calvin Johnson is to music, Tao Lin is to literature. While the underground music scene in the 1980s spread their message through zine culture, the underground literary scene twenty-five years later is conducted through the blogosphere. And like Johnson, Lin espouses some of the same virtues: veganism, a “twee” sensibility, and the support of other artists with a similar aesthetic. If this comparison holds up, Lin can expect as long and fruitful a career as Johnson’s, so long as he remains true to his original ideals.

I asked Tao a few questions about Shoplifting from American Apparel and his career in general. Here are the questions I asked him and the answers he gave:

JK: Why did you want to write Shoplifting….? Was this based on a real experience? I think I remember reading somewhere that you really did get caught shoplifting once.
TL: Shoplifting from American Apparel is based on real experiences. Some events and dialogue are not entirely accurate or in the same order as it happened in reality. But it was 100% based on the concrete reality of my life.

JK: How much of Shoplifting would you say is autobiographical, percentage-wise? Some of the GChats in the book seem almost to be lifted from real life—are they made up?
TL: I would say 100% of Shoplifting from American Apparel is autobiographical. I think nothing is “made up.” There are maybe 2-10 lines that while typing it onto the computer screen, or editing it into what is in the final book, I felt some kind of awareness that the line did not occur exactly "like that" in the memory of my life. If forced to say what percent of the book is "true" I would say 97%.

JK: Do you think you will ever stop writing? Under what circumstances would you be compelled to spend the majority of your time focusing on a different profession?
TL: I don’t feel I will ever stop writing. If I don't write for, say, five years or something I feel I still would not say I have stopped writing, in that it seems like I'll never consciously stop writing. At this point in my life I think I view writing as I do talking or walking or eating healthy food, to some degree, in that it can be a means in itself, but is more often a means to other things, such as friendship, "feeling connected" with someone, money, or to feel less bad physically or emotionally.
In addition I feel "vague" re "what is 'writing' to me." When I am thinking things, in my head, I sort of view that as “writing,” in that most of the time I think in language, in sentences or sentence fragments with words in them.
Maybe I would spend the majority of my time focused on something else if I lived in an environment without computers or pens or humans, like if I lived on an island, alone, and had dogs for companionship and was satisfied. Maybe that would be a situation where I would think less in language and more in "sounds," or something, and "stop writing."

JK: I am just curious—when did you actually complete the final edits on Shoplifting and submit it for printing? I think “Obama” comprises 2 out of the 30,000 words of the manuscript or so—was this after the election?
TL I finished a “final draft” maybe three or four months after the election. I think the novella ends a few days before the election.

JK: Richard Yates will be released next year and I think a lot of people are looking forward to it. Are you working on something new, or still in the revision process? Can you tell us anything about your new projects?
TL: I think a “final draft” of Richard Yates was finished around October or November of 2008. I foresee working on Richard Yates for probably 100-200 more hours, in a period of maybe 1-2 months, maybe this December or January.
Currently I view myself as being focused on promoting Shoplifting from American Apparel. I feel I will continue this focus until November or December, when I will then edit Richard Yates until February or March. After that I will probably begin to view myself as being focused on a new project.

JK: Your work seems to espouse the “minimalist” style. What kind of effect do you like about not providing lots of detail, for example? Is it important enough to you even if it prevents you from reaching a larger audience? It seems like most readers want something more “all-encompassing,” or something.
TL: I view my writing, up to Richard Yates, as having two different styles, in terms of prose (poetry, too, maybe, but will focus on prose in this answer). I view these two styles as distinct relative to each other.
My first story-collection, Bed, was one prose style. Bed had many long sentences, adverbs, adjectives, words I normally don't say "in real life," semi-colons, and em-dashes. The rhetorical parts of my first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, also employ this style that was first seen in my oeuvre in Bed.
The other prose style I have worked in, I feel, is that of Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates. These two books have almost no concrete details and very little adjectives, adverbs, semi-colons, or em-dashes. The sentences are short and I use only words I would also feel "normal" saying "in real life."
I feel that both styles can reach a large audience. Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut do not provide much detail and seem to have a large audience. William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon seem to have very long sentences that probably provide many details and they also seem to have a large audience.