No intro, no explan, nothing but books. Just trying to just say, yep, read ‘em and here’s what the entire book club (still just the one member) thought. Need to clear it all out before the real summer vacation reading starts later this month.
First up, Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis. This is a re-reading, 25 years or so after the fact.
Actually, 23 Julys ago, I think? Here is the cover of the very same copy I read back then and have kept on various shelves in various apartments and dwellings all these years — still smelling faintly of Bain de Soleil and Sun-In and a waft of one’s completely manufactured angst on a semesterly break home from one’s gruelingly existential life at a private college…
You know what? It’s kinda good. It might even be better than you remember it being — even though the final third of the book is a real drag, which I believe may have been the point: the monotony of drugs, wealth, clubs, palm trees. I wasn’t surprised to find it feeling fresh; I was and still remain one of those American Psycho apologists, who admire that novel for its indictment of ’80s consumer culture, or as satire, or as anything besides something worth staging a Take Back the Night march for. Less Than Zero really deserved everything it got, including the haters and the pans, and especially including the bad movie. (Really, an egregious act of adaptation.) I decided to re-read it after all these years, mostly because I’m thinking of reading the overwhelmingly poorly-reviewed Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis’s Zero sequel-of-sorts, when I go on vacation soon. I wanted another looksee.
This time I was struck by how Clay and his world functioned without computers and phones. It’s like reading about pioneers. They were all about instant gratification — the point of the novel is that instant gratification had ruined them (all of us!) forever — and yet they spend pages waiting for one another’s phone calls, pulling over to use pay phones, checking answering machines. I really feel someone should make an incredibly faithful movie version of Less Than Zero now, with 1980s L.A. replicated down to every last detail (using David Fincher Zodiac-style CGI if need be). Sort of the way Rich Linklater did Dazed and Confused and nailed the ’70s in an overlooked way. I guarantee you this time, done right, a Less Than Zero movie would look almost like a comedy. I’d laugh, anyhow.
The only other thing you’d find, reading it now, is the way that Less Than Zero presupposed a world of Kardashians, Lohans, Hiltons, Bachelors and Bachelorettes. Dig this little bit from Ellis’s interview in Details last month:
Q: Years ago people could have read some of your books and said, ‘Oh, this is just nihilism. These people don’t exist! There’s nobody that rich and stupid and narcissistic!’
A: Ha ha ha! Surprise!
• • •
Up next, two books that got reviewed together somewhere — I forget where; Salon? Well, feel free to look it up — but here’s proof that a twinned review of two different titles can actually sucker the book consumer into buying both!
Both of these books try in different ways to get at our national obsession and heartbreak around home ownership, mortgages, domesticity, debt. One’s a memoir, one’s a novel.
The memoir: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, by Meghan Daum. I thought this book moved along okay up to the point where the author settles down with a nice man and buys a house she really seems to like, and we’ve still got 75 or 100 pages or so to go. Then it becomes sort of like watching HGTV every night. (Which Michael and I often do. Aren’t we all more interesting when we don’t have what we want?)
So, the first half was much more engaging — after all, the tale is always taller when you’re broke in the big city and living in shitty apartments and working at shitty jobs and all of the sudden feeling … shitty. People have said this book is good because of Daum’s “courage” to tell it like it is.
But, as a reader, I was miffed by one area in which she held back on telling it exactly: a memoir like this cries out for actual numbers, personal financial data — and I’ve noticed that a lot of these Great Recession and real-estate boom/bust memoirs expect readers to be satisfied with phrases like “mid six figures” or “some money I had in a savings account.”
From Daum, I wanted not only the prices of the L.A. dream houses taunting her from the real-estate listing websites, but her own history of depressing equations, with all the plus signs and the minus signs. Such as: her salary of that first job in the 1990s? The monthly rent on her fondly and not-so-fondly remembered apartments? Credit-card balances at life’s nadir? The precise amount of the advance she got for her novel, which enabled her (at last) to buy real estate? (For a first novel? Does not compute.) I’d even consider putting copies of her tax returns for all the years discussed in this memoir in the back, as Appendix A.
You want to write a memoir about real-estate envy? We need to see the paperwork. Otherwise, it’s like writing a sex memoir with the covers pulled up to your chin.
Meanwhile, the novel is called The Hole We’re In, by Gabrielle Zevin. I stuck with it, even though I started disliking it midway. The author digs herself quite a hole here. It’s got an epic scope that reminded me of Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood, stretching from 1998 into the 2010s. It’s about a religious family in the suburbs, who are up to their eyeballs in McMansion-style credit-card debt. One daughter is a bridezilla; the son runs away to New York for film school; the youngest daughter is disowned and winds up serving in Iraq, and eventually comes home to the ruburbs, where she ends up working in a Walmart analogue. It’s called (unfortunately) “Slickmart.” And Slickmart is locally-owned, instead of being a corporate box store. Slickmart is just one of many wha-hunh? sort of botched details in The Hole We’re In. Zevin’s observational lapses on details like these disturbs the careful reader, or anyone who’s ever driven across America and paid attention.
Also, the family’s religion is off, in terms of believability. They’re not megachurchers, but instead the author calls them “Sabbath Day Adventists” (which is actually the name of a black church started in New York, sez Wikipedia) and so, instead, they’re a mishmash of evangelical vegetarians who preach an anti-consumerist streak (refusing to shop at Slickmart, e.g.), but are in credit-card debt all the same? It doesn’t add up. Even for a novel. It felt like the author had only read here and there about modern American Christianity and consumer culture. Back to the writers’ workshop for The Hole We’re In, with a suggestion to cut about 10,000 words.
But also? I read The Hole We’re In to the end, so that’s a form of praise. As demonstrated by the cruel, Fifty-Page Test, the One-Man Book Club is fickle.
• • •
Couldn’t help myself, ’twas too curious, and picked up a sale copy of The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee, by Sarah Silverman. (I’m allowed! Look, if the rest of the world can sequester itself with Stieg Larsson mysteries and Twilight novels, can I not spend a day or two reading a half-good celebrity memoir?)
I didn’t want this book for any great reason other than she has intrigued me — funny sometimes, strange always, and willing to say stuff no one else says. I appreciated this spunk, on the fourth page:
I’m not a literary genius. I’m not Dostoyevsky, whoever that is — I’m pretty sure I just made that name up. I’m only thirty-nine years old, with most of my final two years of show business still ahead of me. … I have never struggled with addiction and I was never molested. Tragically, my life has only been moderately fucked up. I’m not writing this book to share wisdom or inspire people. I’m writing this book because I am a famous comedian, which is how it works now. If you’re famous, you get to write a book, and not the other way around, so the next Dave Eggers better get on a TV show or kill someone or something. …
She’s right, you know. Let’s have another look at some of the list of top-selling nonfiction books (with sales numbers) as of late last year, shall we? Amid all the self-help and Sarah Palin and Teddy Kennedy sales, the eye scans downward, through the top 100 …
Time of My Life. Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi (320,000 copies)
Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin. (201,000 copies)
Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea. Chelsea Handler (200,000 copies)
High On Arrival. Mackenzie Phillips. (170,000 copies)
Mommywood. Tori Spelling (146,000 copies)
Here’s The Deal. Howie Mandel (100,000 copies)
You ask: Are those good sales numbers? Let me assure you: FUCK, YES, at least for book authors. Good money for semi-famous comedians, too, I would guess.
Anyhow, the first half of The Bedwetter is as good as any weirdo-girl memoir I’ve ever read, and the back half is exactly as padded out and aimless as any celebrity book I’ve ever read. I loved her guiding moral principle of “make it a treat” (i.e., a modern twist on “everything in moderation”) and there’s a remarkable dose of honest storytelling about her family, especially her funny father. Oh, and she included a photo of a writer from her TV show wearing a co-worker’s hair clip on his dick.
But she really lost her nerve, though, when it came time to describe her relationship (and breakup) with Jimmy Kimmel. She decides, it seems, to turn it into the strangest little two-page allegory about putting a pet cat down. (Pussy euthanasia?)
Best not to think it through too much.
• • •
Wilson, by Daniel Clowes. I hadn’t enjoyed an expensive, hardbound comic book in a while (graphic novel — does it really apply here? I guess so), and Clowes is still pleasingly misanthropic. And, I’ve always liked his strong, commercial-art styleline. And Wilson is jam packed with angry observation.
Like when Wilson is waiting for a flight and asks the man next to him:
What do you do?
Wilson: Your job? JOB?
Man: I’m in senior management at a small equity firm. And I do some consulting for various–
Wilson: Glaze. No, I’m just kidding. Go ahead.
Man: Well, I–
Wilson: But not with all the mumbo-jumbo. I want to know what you actually DO. Like the physical tasks of your daily life.
Man: Well, like I said, a lot of it involves consulting, with a focus on how to best implement managerial strategies in–
Wilson: Jesus! Listen to me, brother — you’re going to be lying on your deathbed in 30 years thinking “Where did it all go? What did I do with all those precious days?” Some shit-work for the oligarchs? Is that it?
Man: Look, I’m proud of what I do, and I work very hard to–
Wilson‘s great, but I wonder if David Boring, a copy of which I gave away ages ago, was a tiny bit better. All the reviews seem to agree that Wilson is Clowes’s masterwork — and there’s something deliciously mean about it. All those New Yorker covers really pay off — probably no better way for a comics artist to achieve legitimacy. Even Michael Dirda seemed taken by it, but his review makes it seem dull, as only Dirda can do. Might do better to enjoy Sam Lipsyte’s review from Sunday’s NYT on this one.
• • •
Finally, Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum. This 2007 book is two books in one, really, printed side-by-side in a two-column page format: On the left side of the page is Hotel Theory, which is Wayne Koestenbaum the essayist, doing a brilliant rumination on, and deconstruction of, the idea of hotels (life in hotels, what are hotels, who are we when we check into hotels; hotels in literature, cinema, television; hotel as a state of mind). Koestenbaum is always a dazzling read on this kind of thing — like his book about opera, or his book about Jackie O.
Then comes the other book, on the right-hand side of each page, called Hotel Women, which is written by Wayne Koestenbaum the experimental poet. It’s a darkly comic novella imagining Lana Turner and Liberace and some other folks trapped for life in a glamorous but terrifying place called Hotel Women. Koestenbaum wrote this part without ever using the words “a,” “an” or “the.” Which makes it all the more beguiling to read.
An excerpt, from the Hotel Women side:
In Hotel Women, Lana Turner and Wallace lay together on mussed sheets, windows open.
“You’re impotent,” said Lana.
“I know,” said Wallace.
“I came to Hotel Women to revive our love life. I brought along your pornography. What else can I do?”
“I’m despicable. I’m more impotent here than in your hacienda.”
“Your impotence is no joke. It’s not cinema, carnival, or concept. It’s genuine tragedy. It’s something wrong with you and therefore wrong with me.”
“If we talk about my impotence, maybe it will go away.”
“We’ve tried therapy, we’ve tried vacation.”
“Do you think this place is bugged?”
She put Wallace’s useless penis in her mouth. Lime Naugahyde furniture seemed powerful in comparison.
“You needn’t continue,” said Wallace. “Maybe I should reciprocate.”
“Don’t bother. It’ll depress me.”
She planned compensatory assignations tomorrow, one man after another, at MGM.
Do you ever get done reading a book and have the realization that, no matter how much you’ve enjoyed it, there is no one to share this particular book with? Sure, I can (and did) go online and find like-minded reviews of Hotel Theory in places like the Believer and Bookforum. But it has recently occurred to me that those people are never my people. Not anybody I actually know, anyhow.
I cannot think of a friend who would want to read Hotel Theory or talk with me about Hotel Theory, but it’s just as well. I can’t think of anyone I would foist Hotel Theory on and say “you must read this and we will talk about it.” Because then they’d have to avoid my questions about whether or not they read it or liked it, and then I’d “owe” them, in a sense, and have to read something they like that I’m not interested in. Sometimes reading Koestenbaum is like reading Gertrude Stein — or Rebecca Brown, D.J. Waldie or George Trow — or one of those authors I’ve just had to puzzle out and find delight in all on my own. Too much has to happen. I might not even recommend Hotel Theory to myself, but I’ve already read it, and thought each little piece of it was exquisite or almost-perfect in one way or another.
And that’s why this is a One-Man Book Club.
• • •
Vacation looms! For the summer dip, I’m considering the aforementioned IMPERIAL BEDROOMS, HITCH-22, DEAR MONEY, THE ROUTES OF MAN, and STATE BY STATE. Any other suggestions?