A Jumped-Up Pantry Boy Who Never Knew His Place

If an auto-biography involves a tale that is at least partially based on the writer's own life, I'm going to coin auto-bibliography as a tale that informs the reader about his or her own experiences.  Maybe often we say we "identify" with a character, but I think that's usually kind of froth of empathy and character motivation that parses to readers as sensible and real.  But these are books that I identified with in a more personal way -- I saw myself in them.   I mean -- if I can paraphrase Morrissey --  they something to me about my life.

2. Five Auto-Bibliographical Novels

Steven Millhauser, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954 by Jeffery Cartwright.  A close read of the title gives it away, but this is a faux-biography of a ten-year-old novelist by his eleven-year-old best friend and biographer.  The appeal is an incredibly detailed chronicle of childhood imagination, in such a way that vividly captures the spirit of play.  For me, at the time I read it, it led to treasure trove of recovered memories -- the non-traumatic sort. (The conceit, spoiler alert, is that the genius artiste Edwin is really no different than any other particular boy who fascinates over comics and spaceships and toys.)

Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.  Again, here is the exactness of the tween/teen years that resonates, in a novel that uses superhero powers as a metaphor in all kinds of cross-wired ways.  I explained some of what I love about this book here (in a post whose title also quotes Morrissey -- I may be more of a Smiths fan than I thought I was).  While I was reading this book, I wanted only to be reading this book.  Not because it's particularly suspenseful or compelling in its plot, but because I really felt at home in reading it.  I did not grow up in Brooklyn, my father was neither a painter nor a soul singer, and these characters would have been a few years older than me, and yet I more closely identified with this book than any other I've ever read.  

Colson Whithead's Sag Harbor is  The Fortress of Solitude on summer vacation. In a way that Lethem captures late 70's/early 80's teenagerdom, Whithead does the same for mid- to late-80's summer vacation on Long Island.  He covers the rise of the waffle cone, the summer of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, when everyone said "dag."  There's also, here, a whiff of the teenaged fear/suspicion of dads -- one's one, others -- that resonated for me.

David Shields, Dead Languages.  Another novel about a teenaged middle-class boy, this one with a stuttering problem and journalist parents.  It's been a long time since I'd read this, but feeling pangs of identification with it.

Sam LipsyteThe Ask.  At the start of this book, its point-of-view character has a bureaucratic job with a third-tier university.  It's a very funny book, particularly the daycare-in-a-minivan bit involving The Passion of the Christ.

Extra non-novel bonus: Sam Lipsyte, "The Dungeon Master," The Fun Parts.  A short story that recalls for me the Weir's Downer Avenue basement, playing D&D -- a game designed for 5-7 role players -- with one other person, with the game being far more about story-telling and problem-solving than dice roles and dwarf vs. beholder melee.


There's Money In New Wave

A friend -- my oldest friend, in fact -- asked me via text message to send him a list of the 50 books that have most influenced me.  I like a good challenge, and I'm game to talk about good books, so I'm going to make use of this space to do it.  In chunks, thematically linked, over the next ten posts -- and with the caveat that influences wax and wane (as do obsessions, phases of the moon, and/or friendships) so this may be biased towards the now.  (Raymond Carver, for example, was a huge influence on how I wrote stories in pre- and early graduate school, but he doesn't hold much sway on me any longer.  I guess we'll see if he makes the fifty.)

So: this is for Rob Weir. Feel free to eavesdrop.

1. Five Books that Merge the Fiction and History

All five of these books sprawl without necessarily being long-- multiple characters and points of view, "plots" (such as there are any) covering long periods, connections drawn or suggested between disparate situations.  None of these books would rightly be called "historical fiction," but yet they all are tethered in certain ways to events and people we'd recognize as having actually existed.  These books appeal not because there are "real historical figures" in them, but because the merging of what we think of as "real" with fiction infuses mystery into what we think we know.  Each of these books suggest some kind of invisible layer of meaning, some unknown connective thread, between what is real and what isn't, between what we know and who we are.  Maybe when faced with the unknown or the insensible, we create meaning.

Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour is a fantastic novel, and it's a crying shame you haven't heard about it.  It shares the literary DNA of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. In 22 chapters mapped on to the arcana of the tarot deck, Arnott links together a secret history of the 20th century.  Actual historical figures interact with fictional characters, and different literary styles infect particular chapters.  Ian Fleming appears as a point-of-view character, as does a character that could be a stand-in for George Michael (the pop star, not the founder of FakeBlock).  As in Infinite Jest, the plot -- such as there is one -- concerns a mysterious and important document related to Rudolph Hess' strange 1941 peace mission to Scotland.

E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Race relations in the early 20th century, written with a cool kind of distance.  Houdini, Freud, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White.  Doctorow said, "I'd never read that J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford met. But for me their meeting was unavoidable ... So have they met? They have now." 

Don DeLillo, Underworld.  The long prologue first appeared a novella in a 1992 issue of  Harper's Magazine as "Pafko at the Wall."  At that time, Harper's Magazine used a different paper stock -- less shiny, thicker -- for the long-read folios in their magazine, paper that was gravid to the touch. I may have read this in the Cafe Demi.  In it, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and NYC restauranteur Toots Shor watch the Giants play the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in 1951.  The baseball from that game ("Giants Win the Pennant!  Giants Win the Pennant!") carries through the rest of the book -- a talisman like the Hess documents in House of Rumor, the videotape in Infinite Jest, or...

...the desiccated penis removed from Napoleon's corpse in John Vernon's Peter Doyle, a book which is sadly out of print.  I wrote about Peter Doyle here a few years back.  (I'd also put Peter Doyle on a list of books that seemed to promise a sequel that is yet to arrive, along with Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.)

Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden.  This novel involves letters sent home to Dayton, Ohio, by an elderly doctor assisting in a refugee camp in South Africa during the Boer War.  The letters themselves become a kind of fable, though the "real" world the novel sets up includes a young Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  There's a bit with a horse stuck in an attic during the Dayton flood.  The horse is named Cow.  It's fun and sad and weird in the right sort of balance.