Tag Archives: America

The Ghost Writer– Philip Roth


Where we can find an example of post modern inter-textual strategies as a common device used in  the reviews found in the World  Lit Blog, Traces is in the review of the Philip Roth/Nathan Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. The reviewer (in his embedded textual self) explores the understanding of digital identity through impersonation of a reviewer for Traces, a Journal of windsweptfiction:

Ghost Written….

The problem I have with Philip Roth, the next writer on our pre-2009 Nobel review agenda is which of the 15 or so critically acclaimed books of his to review? He has won 20+ literary awards and 11 of his novels have won specific awards.

The Ghost Writer was suggested to me as the next novel to read after his gem of a first novella, Goodbye Columbus. TGW is the first novel of the Zuckerman Bound Collection –  which also includes Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy –  sharing the alter ego Jewish American writer, Nathan Zuckerman as the narrator.

In the first of the novel’s four sections, entitled Maestro, Nathan Zuckerman narrates his own Portrait of the Artist as a Young man as he reflects back 20 some years in time to the opening setting when as a new literary light he meets his saint, EL Lonoff, after receiving an invitation to the reclusive old writer’s Berkshire farmhouse. The model for Lonoff is reportedly Bernard Malamud, whom Roth met on several occasions and was an avowed admirer of. The master and (hopeful) apprentice carefully sound each other out, one with not much at stake other than a wasted evening, the other with his whole life’s calling hanging on every word. The exchange between the two is Jamesian. Significantly a topic the two discuss is the James short story ‘The Middle Years’ which reflects a similar artist relation to his work dynamic as our narrative. We witness three ‘portraits of the artist’ being painted simultaneously: Lonoff’s by Zuckerman’s imagined-Lonoff’s as well as his own. Lonoff emerges as being a Father figure for the narrator. Roth, painting with all three hands, works in two additional intertwined stories: Zuckerman’s recently strained relation with his own father, and the appearance of Lonoff’s young secretary Amy, who of course, is also a young writer-in-waiting.

As we navigate away from our plot summary – for one, most other book blogs take care of those duties, and two, I find it boring  and three, any more details and it will destroy The Ghost Writer for you if you have not read it….

TGW themes and modal devices.
A self consciously staged Bildungsroman, the novel more specifically examines of the writer’s process of development. Besides literary influences, the ineluctable  influence on an artist by his milieu. Roth’s Zuckerman does not deny his Jewish American heritage, but in comparing the older Jewish Lonoff to Zuckerman, Roth compares two counterpointed relations of the two artist’s to their work. Zuckerman’s approach to his writing is termed by Lonoff as ‘turbulent’ he  is willing to use his personal as well as his families’ ethnic engendered struggles and past actual incidents in his work even if it means damaging his relationships with his family and his own heritage. The almost ascetic self-restrained Lonoff would not go there, his fiction is disengaged from the messiness of his own personal affairs.

The nature of artistic identity. (the post modern part)… Roth’s Zuckerman dramatizes his own conflict of  identity as a writer– the predicament he finds himself in with his father’s and the jewish communities’ response to his short story manuscript, Higher Education– by converting it into the ‘provisional’ narrative of  the novel’s third section, Femme Fatale…In the novel, two identities, fictional guises coexist, each having claims to the ‘artist’s identity’. What Zuckerman finally does in his transformation, in sheltering an identity within a second one, is what Lonoff does in reality-moving away from his subject, figuratively as well as literally. How distance between the artistic self and its work is created, the form this takes is the difference really between Modernism -Lonoff, and the post modern strategy of Zuckerman..

What I took Away
Its seems one can’t mention Roth without gushing about his prose ( gems like : “In whose sea did Andrea bob now?”) or his ability to modulate the narrative in which ever way he chooses. In looking at my array of six adjectives to summarize a novel, I could not use ‘powerful’ to describe the tension created by the novels conflicts…though there are the poignant moments, overall  it is on the cerebral/literary side of the spectrum. But I would not be embarrassed to resort to beat-to-death-book-blurb:  ‘brilliant’.


As the above text exemplifies, the reviewer foregrounds his authorial identity as the writer of his own incoherent review, violating distinctions between blog text and reality…

Karma Chameleon (JM Coetzee)


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Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust– Nathanael West



If I were asked to submit a syllabus for a semester of Major American Fiction from 1900-WWII course, I would fearlessly have Nathanael West’s name beside the five or six usual suspects.

A life cut way too short in an auto accident the day after his friend Scott Fitzgerald died from a heart attack. His four novels were only appreciated really (as usual) posthumously.

Flannery O’Connor said that for her the two most important American 20th Century novels were As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts…

Depending which side of the opinion fence you come down on regarding the illustrious Harold Bloom, he declares West canon worthy, but I differ in his reading ofMiss Lonelyhearts.

I had repeatedly seen his name come up as a marginalized writer mentioned by other writers, and of those who encountered him raved about. His themes and treatment probably were as shocking in there day as Marlyn Manson was in his…
I only decided to reach for the New Directions publication of Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust at the last minute. It was fateful that I almost put off reading this guy (again) again.

The bleak tragi-comedy farce of Miss Lonelyhearts is Dostoevsky with a wit and a narrative voice as subtle as a chainsaw…
Remove about four period slang terms (speakeasy for ex), and it could have been written tomorrow. Dense, but not demanding, its 56 pages begs an immediate re-read. Its a D-word novel: Disillusionment, depression, Drinking and Despair. A hero that slowly acquires a Christ-complex and has Mephistopheles for a boss.

The Day of the Locustis the longer work, and stands more as a traditional narrative, less farcical, but similar themes, but throw in a Hollywood setting perfect for West’s exploration of displaced people with misplaced dreams. West weaves the story of two rivals Tod Hacketand Homer Simpson, as they vie for the affection of the Hollywood dream queen wannabee, Fay Greener, along with an an entourage of grotesques (there is a dwarf, a cowboy, a clown, a Mexican and cock fighting) into a slow build up to its troubling and unexpected climax. The writing is just superb.
I chuckled to  discover that this is the birthplace of the Cartoon character for the Simpson’s, Homer Simpson: Groening (simpsons creator) has stated in several interviews that Homer is the namesake of a character in the 1939  novel The Day of the Locust.


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The Beetle Leg– John Hawkes

 Beetle LEg


Presenting the titular novel for my Blog, for this (along with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), represents the high water mark of Windswept Fiction….

Most would have started their foray into John Hawkes overlooked oeuvre with one of two of his best known works, The Lime Twig or The Blood Oranges. I on the other hand had been made aware of him in the early 80’s when he was (then) on the second wave of the next great American novelists. After Barth, Pynchon and Barthelme, came W.H. Gass, Robert Coover, John Hawkes and Stanley Elkin. Of the second wave, only Gass and Coover have remained on the literary landscape, though Hawkes had a strong critical following in France. After recently reading a novel by each Hawkes and Elkins, I would argue their semi-obscurity is undeserved. Both treat themes with narrative processes that are still quite relevant. Both possessed an immense amount of talent. I had read many years ago, his 1985 Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. While I remember it having some noteworthy prose, it was not at all otherwise memorable, and is now considered one of his weaker efforts. I picked out The Beetle Leg, because mention of his obscure early novel kept cropping up by some heavyweight writers I admire. Written in 1949-50 while he was spending the summer in Montana’s ‘Badlands’, as a tour guide on the Fort Peck Reservoir dam.  This was his second novel, after The Cannibal, and as a 24 year old his prose and narrative style here were on the forefront of experimental fiction. His mentor-editor noted novelist and critic, Albert J. Guerard called it ‘Surrealist Western Fiction’ so the typical readership of the time could nod to themselves when they came across passages like:

Now I’ll talk. You’ve answered to me for having found him crouched with bare, folded feet, for having watched the thinly wrinkled, perforated breath of skin that was his throat-dry now, untouched, except for the soothing pressure of some tons of earth-for having spied on the wrappings, the colorless cloth, the complete expulsion of bodily fluids, the immobility of ten dangling fingers shoved like minnows into the shriveled ground.

 Reading halfway through I wondered if Cormac McCarthy read The Beetle Leg before he wrote Blood Meridian… Hawkes’s early credo was: ‘the true enemies of the novel were character, plot, setting and theme’. The novel’s structure is more akin to a that of a poem, chapters are movements, stanzas made up of the un-framed scenes and images of these few who search for something human to hold up, to finally hold onto in this impossible and nightmarish desolation of the reservoir. The prose has its own unique cadence, and is dominated by its visual nature, it breathes what it sees. Interestingly, the chapters are ‘numbered’ in braille symbols. Hawkes constricted narrative lens offers little interiority of the characters, with little contextual framing of scenes. He interweaves a backstory of a local geo-catastrophe, the Great Slide, the one event shaping the the landscape as well as the families scratching out a living in the sere badlands, with the story of the lost’ couple, the ‘Campers’ in the narrative present. The insignificant settlers are pitted against the menacing landscape. The first chapter frames enough to offer an entry point before the increasingly dense later chapters. Surrealism it isn’t tho. The undertow here is more important than the chaotic-sometimes incoherent seeming surface. If you are not averse to non-traditional fiction, and if you do read it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading it aloud. To friends and family. To random strangers…

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The Living End– Stanley Elkin

The Living End


Stanley Elkin is a Post War American novelist who has somewhat fallen through the literary ‘cracks’ (tho still on the critic’s radar)

I first heard of his early novels, A Bad Man and Boswell, when I was in college (oh so long ago)… He was at the time on the forward edge of the new wave of contemporary American fiction along with Hawkes, Coover and Gass (and Barthelme of course).

I remember an ancient PBS interview with him and a reply he made to the interviewer when asked: “What is the most important advice you give to young aspiring writers” (he taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis ), his response:

“Go and get yourself a word processor”…This was in ’79 and we were thinking what is a word processor???

I FINALLY read his 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Living End  and the reward was worth waiting for. The last time I encountered such megawattage prose and sparkling narrative voice in a post war American Novelist like this was maybe Barthelme, Gass, Hawkes or Coover (his contemporaries). This short novel is a messed up 20th Century Divine Comedy…Purgatory in the middle section, sandwiched by a little heaven and hell before and after. Elkin takes irreverance to a level so absurd, it loses its context. Elkin’s Hell is sadistic pleasure in pain, (and with bene’s).After reading this, I almost look forward to the ‘afterlife’ as much as reading the rest of his novels…

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