Friday, December 1, 2017

1 + 1 = 3: Reading Nicole Krauss" "Forest Dark" and Andrew Sean Greer's "Less."

I don't know what part of my brain obsesses over counting things, but I've long liked to know "how many" there have been of things that people normally don't count. I spoke several years ago about The New York Times Book Review bestseller game that I used to play with my colleague Nancy that tested our reading. You'd get 4 points for a front page review (though the review had to start on the front page, not just be mentioned), 3 points for a full review inside the pages, 2 points for an in short description or full page ad, and 1 point for any other ad or a bestseller appearance. I'd bring it into the 21st century by limiting the number of bestseller points to one per book (as a book can show up on the physical and ebook list), allow 3 points for a profile that's not a review but focused on that book, and a point of a book was mentioned in an essay that didn't happen to be about that particular book. 

I don't know how you play this if you read the Book Review online, because everything is not discretely arranged with boundaries. Features may pop up different days, and I think some are online only, making it difficult to determine exactly where a review belongs. Another advantage for print, albeit one that's relatively meaningless.

Another game I have started playing over the past few years is to count how many books in the 100 NYT notable list I have read. Since I started playing, my numbers have gone downhill. But this can be a good opportunity to step back and fill in a few gaps. Several of these notable books wind up being read the following year, either for book club selections or if the author visits in paperback. My goal, completely arbitrary, is to get to double digits. But it's harder than you think, because many of the nonfiction categories are not of interest to me, whereas other nonfiction categories in which I do read don't seem to qualify, and instead get ticked off in essays. It's almost as if the Times is not just saying what books are best, but first decide that writing about certain subjects is intrinsically better than writing about others. Imagine that!

The nice thing is that this year, I did much better in nonfiction than I normally do, partly because I was following my what-to-read-after-Eviction path. And that led me to prioritize a few books like Nomadland that I might not have gotten too. And with that nonfiction boost, I got to nine books. Well when you get to nine and you see double digits in the distance, there's a little extra adrenalin boost that comes out. That led me to read two more books that had been on my bookshelf since their release (actually since the advance reading copies were distributed) in succession. And that led me to my next game, which is.

Why does it always seem like when you read two books in succession, more often than not, you start seeing parallels that nobody else seems to notice? First I read Forest Dark, the fourth novel from Nicole Krauss. And then I thought, how can I not read Andrew Sean Greer's Less, with it showing up on the top ten of the Washington Post? That one I got 50 pages into as a galley, after Lee Boudreaux (really!) pitched me at a Hachette bookseller meeting. And I don't know what happened, but I said, "Not right now" and moved on to something else. Perhaps it was an upcoming event that had a reading deadline. I didn't have a deadline.

1. First and only visit to Boswell for their previous book. This would not mean anything to anyone else, but both Nicole Krauss and Andrew Sean Greer came to Boswell for their previous novels, Great House and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. In both cases, I also read their previous-to-that novels, The History of Love and The Story of a Marriage, as did Nancy, our marketing director at Schwartz, who did a particularly good job jump-starting bookstore-wide handselling for A History of Love. I have noticed that competition for literary authors has gotten tougher since Boswell has opened. There are a lot of book festivals out there right now. Wisconsin alone has at least a half dozen. 

2. Quest. Nicole Krauss's novel, Forest Dark, runs, like The History of Love, on two tracks. Up first is Jules Epstein, a sixty something lawyer and philanthropist, divorced and restless. He is convinced by (no, he's skeptical but goes along with) a rabbi who is gathering a reunion of descendants of David. He heads to Tel Aviv and this leads him to another unusual opportunity. At the same time, there is Nicole, a woman struggling with an impending divorce who, on a trip to the Tel Aviv Hilton, is confronted by a gentleman who claims that Kafka didn't die young, he emigrated to Palestine, and Nicole has to tell his story.*

As for Andrew Sean Greer's Less, the story is of Arthur Less, who, upon being abandoned by his younger lover Freddy for another man, decides to skip their wedding, and book an around the world tour, paid for by speaking engagements, award ceremonies, and teaching gigs, plus one vacation camel ride in the desert. As he deals with major (his publisher passed on his most recent book) and minor (he's supposed to appear in costume to talk to a science fiction writer and he doesn't have a costume) setbacks, he has to figure out what to do with his life. And maybe he can rework that book so that somebody wants to buy it. 

So on the surface, you can see that both Forest Dark and Less are both crazy quest novels.

3. Humor. Less is clearly a comedy and reviews have painted the book as one of the funniest books of the season. I felt that in many cases, Greer's novel was being pitted against Tom Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher, as they were both comic novels that came out in the summer.  I thought they were running neck and neck, but Less made the top ten of The Washington Post, as well as The New York Times 100 notable, whereas Mrs. Fletcher did not. But Mrs. Fletcher seemingly also lost to Matthew Klam's Who Is Rich?, which I didn't even know was in the running (but I'm sure is great)*. And I can't even have this conversation without talking about Lonesome Lies Before Us, because Don Lee's book couldn't hit the 100 because The New York Times didn't review it, despite raves from The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.  As I mentioned to Peter Edelman at an event this week, the review hole keeps shrinking. It's like we're in a science fiction movie.

Forest Dark doesn't wear its humor on its sleeve, but compared to the mournful Great House it certainly has its humorous moments. And then I thought about how crazy the plot twists were in the story. Krauss doesn't write for laughs, but there's a lot of zaniness here, despite the somber tone. I'm all about the funny-sad, so kudos to Krauss for that.

4. Autofiction (not my term). Krauss has a character named Nicole whose life mirrors the author's own. And one can definitely see this book as author (Nicole) in search of subject (Jules). Several critics noticed the parallels to Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am, which I wound up not reading. Both had couples in deteriorating marriages and both sent their characters to Israel for answers. Read a few reviews and you can see more parallels. I can't imagine they were discussing this with each other. But that's sort of like reading The History of Love and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close together. It's almost like they were companion novels with their overlapping themes, but to my knowledge, they weren't working together or even sharing material. 

So Andrew Sean Greer's book is not about a person named Andrew Sean Greer, but there's a precedent for substituting a person whose name begins with the same first letter. Could Andrew = Arthur? I wouldn't be having this meditation if the protagonist was named Xavier. Like Krauss's novel, Less is about a writer in search of a subject. In this case, he has a book, only it's not working. And while I don't know the details of Greer's own life, one should note that his last novel's protagonist was a woman (The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells) and the one preceding that featuring a Black man (Story of a Marriage). And having met Mr. Greer, I would say that the ebullient humor that runs through Less is much more in the spirit of Mr. Greer.

5. Canon. Since identity is a crazy popular subject for fiction nowadays, the author protagonists of both novels struggle for where they fit in their respective literary canons. At one point, Arthur Less is scolded for being a bad gay (OK, now I'm convinced he's a stand-in for Andrew Sean Greer), and is told to basically write different books. He's even called out at an award ceremony because in his first book, the protagonist returns to his wife. "But it's The Odyssey" appears to have no sway on that particular critic. So what of Less? I just heard from two friends who finished the book, a former bookseller colleague and a college friend, and both were enthusiastic. It's like the golden age of gay fiction of the 80s is back, and now everyone can read it. But of course I wonder for Greer, where does that leave him for his next book? 

Krauss's Nicole, on the other hand, is beloved by Israelis, and I think that stands in for Jews in general. She's stopped by a woman in the supermarket who praises her for her work and to keep doing what she's doing. Oh good, only the fate of the Jewish people depend on your writing. It strikes me that being accepted or shunned by the National Board of Identity comes with its own special problems. And I think that this might be a reason why Great House and Forest Dark do not seem to command that same sort of emotional connection that The History of Love does. There's something very satisfying that the two tracks in History connect together, but I well understand that there's something soft in that as well. It's almost like the author vowed, after the reception she had for History, "No hearts will be warmed in the writing of my books!" 

In a way, it's sort of like a bookstore being slammed for not being academic enough, and also not doing a good enough job with genre. You can't be everything to everyone, but that doesn't stop people from complaining.

I am convinced that the Forest Dark and Less were more interesting to me by reading them together. I'm now reading Zadie Smith's Swing Time. I'm not sure how it ties into either of these books, but it probably does. 

*Yes, it's all a competition isn't it? But of course Boswell didn't make the semifinals for the latest best bookstore list

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