On ‘Art as Therapy’ by Alan de Botton

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?

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On ‘The Twenty-Seventh City’ by Jonathan Franzen

By Parul Sehgal, The Slate Book Review, Nov. 8, 2013

Some books ought to be allowed to molder in peace. Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, is a paranoid conspiracy novel, the kind of thing that doesn’t age well—and hasn’t. It has earned some rest. But it’s been trotted out for its 25th anniversary, and to make matters worse, saddled with a new introduction, a moist and ghastly piece of writing by an academic named Philip Weinstein. “Most readers know about Jonathan Franzen by now,” Weinstein writes. “One of our darling novelists, an earnest bad boy.” He tells us everything about the book—its excellent reception, its ambition and prescience—everything except how roundly Franzen has denounced it.

9781250046703The Twenty-Seventh City is one big mask,” Franzen told the Paris Review in 2010. “I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface.”

What Franzen was capable of bringing to the surface is a hectic homage to Pynchon and DeLillo that springs from an appealing, slightly porn-y premise. The year is “somewhat like 1984,” and three Indian women—a chief of police, a princess, and a junkie—orchestrate a real estate scam in St. Louis with the help of its most prominent citizens, who they sexually manipulate into submission. The police chief (and mastermind) S. Jammu meets her foil in virtuous Martin Probst, who is almost “Christ-like in his incorruptibility.” To win him over, she tries to induce in him something she calls “the State,” a confused compliance that takes over once an individual has been stripped of everything he values. Jammu arranges for Probst’s teenage daughter to run away from home and has an operative seduce and kidnap his wife. Then she goes to work on Probst with her own subtler weapons.

I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is. Rarely has a novel about municipal politics so evoked the feeling of municipal politics: the tedium, the needless busywork. On every page Franzen heaves around evidence of his research on everything from St. Louis tax laws to Indira Gandhi’s suppression of civil liberties. On every page is the palpable anxiety—anxiety that feels specifically male—to prove that writing is labor. Franzen’s own parents “actively discouraged” his work, he has said: “They considered art of all kinds, including creative writing, frivolous.” Hence this book, perhaps, its suspicion of beauty and pleasure that seems like an ethical stance. The son of a civil engineer is proving to his father that he could build a city (and destroy it).

“I see a 25-year-old with a very compromised sense of masculinity,” Franzen says in that Paris Review interview. “There was a direct transfer of libido to the brain—this was my way of leaving the penis out of the equation and going with what I knew I had, which was that I was smarter than most people.”

Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore

9780374107291_p0_v2_s260x420Linda Leavell, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 480 pages. $30.

By Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, September 2013

Call it the Curious Case of Marianne Moore. She was an American Athena, spawned by no particular school but championed by every major poet of her generation. Her poems are Wonderlands populated by spiny creatures and pools of sudden malice, where language is precisely used and used precisely. She was also a beloved pop icon, instantly recognizable in her tricorne hat. She threw the first pitch for the Yankees in 1968, palled around with Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali, and was invited by Ford to name a new car. The New York Times noted her death in 1972 on page one. She continues to anticipate us with her enthusiasm for data and sampling texts, her horror of sentimentality.

Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.

Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information— with mixed results.

She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”

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Lost And Found: 5 Forgotten Classics Worth Revisiting

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By Parul Sehgal, NPR, July 16, 2013

I don’t remember when I first realized that books could go away, that they could — and did — pass into obscurity or out of print. Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani, Speedboat by Renata Adler, the sublime An Armful of Warm Girl by W.M. Spackman. Each of them, snuffed out. It seemed a scandal. But I vividly recall becoming aware that particular books were prone. To take chances with language or form was to court extinction.

But every now and then, if the moment is right, if the culture is finally ready or a champion found, these books return. (Most of the novels mentioned above have been brought back into print, though Myra has not. Vidal’s heroine so intent on “the destruction” of the American male still waits for her moment.) This summer I’m reading and recommending books that have been restored to us, that have been reissued, reimagined or — in one instance — presumed lost and discovered for the first time.

9780345803702_custom-97164fcdf4054bc80821ebeefcb800f012307739-s2-c85My Last Breath: The Autobiography by Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel, Paperback, 256 pages
I’ve long loved this strange, slanted little book for its offhand genius and excellent gossip. But I used it to prop up a wobbly table in Calcutta in 2003 and haven’t seen it since. It’s been reissued, and I’m happy to find it as remarkable as I recall. Like any surrealist masterpiece, it’s playful, subversive and (frequently) baffling.
Devoted to protecting the “essential mystery in all things,” Buñuel doesn’t excavate the past or take us behind the scenes of Belle de Jour (a pity). It’s not information he cares for, or veracity, but wisdom and beauty; not memories but the act of remembering. Scenes come to us highly aestheticized. In one early memory, Bunuel walks with his father in an olive grove. They come across a strong, very sweet odor, and then the bloated body of a dead donkey. Around the carcass, vultures staggered, too full to fly. He’s a confident, discursive writer eager to riff on what he loves (“vast damp forests wreathed in fog,” “little tools like pliers,” firearms) and loathes (crowds, Borges, newspapers). He recounts meeting Hitchcock, collaborating with Dali, mourning Federico Garcia Lorca, attempting an orgy with Charlie Chaplin. He settles scores and spills his friends’ secrets shamelessly. On the topic of Dali’s sexual proclivities he tells us that the painter was fond of seducing American heiresses, but being almost entirely asexual, “those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the women’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.”

Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell

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By Parul Sehgal, Slate, June 7, 2013

Angel asks the same questions we always ask about desire: Why do I like what I like? Am I wrong to like what I like? and Why is it so hard to ask these questions anyway? But she poses them stylishly. The book edges forward in fragments—aphorisms, accusations, snatches of pillow talk. On every page, a riddle or two. On every page, an eel of text.

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

15815364By Mohsin Hamid

Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2014

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” begins under a bed. With you — yes, you — under a bed. Once you quit cowering, you’ll be the hero of this novel written in the second person, although there’s nothing remotely heroic about you at the moment; you’re so sick you can scarcely speak. The only remedy at hand is a large white radish, which your mother cooks up in a foul brew.

Courage. You’ll live and what’s more, you’re only seven steps from getting Filthy Rich, according to the narrator. (You’re also nine steps from ruin, but we’ll address that in a minute.) The marriage of these two curiously compatible genres — self-help and the old-fashioned bildungs­roman — is just one of the pleasures of Mohsin Hamid’s shrewd and slippery new novel, a rags-to-riches story that works on a head-splitting number of levels. It’s a love story and a study of seismic social change. It parodies a get-rich-quick book and gestures to a new direction for the novel, all in prose so pure and purposeful it passes straight into the bloodstream. It intoxicates.

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Red Doc>

9780307960580_custom-689066379ad8cb7f9c4b62c3af2a1dec4dd50f8f-s6-c10By Anne Carson

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, February 2013

When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own elegy for a brother—illustrated with collages, photographs, and scraps of letters. The pages folded concertina-style into a gray box, its shape suggesting the self-enclosure of grief and the cold slab of a headstone. In 2012, Carson updated Sophocles’s Antigone, another story of a sister grieving the death of her brother, in Antigonick, a hand-lettered translation with playful drawings and enough creative license to include references to Virginia Woolf and Hegel. Even if one of her books looks conventional, trust that hidden architecture undergirds the story. In her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (1998), Carson retold the myth of Herakles and his tenth labor: slaying the red, winged monster Geryon and stealing his oxen. She made the two men lovers and narrated their romance in a nonchronological hodgepodge of styles—the academic essay, the interview—the chapters formally different and discrete as rooms.

In her new book, Red Doc>, Carson picks up the story of Geryon again, fashioning from it yet another curious object. The sentences are squeezed into a tight column, about an inch and a half long. Scenes are sequential and cut occasionally to witchy pronouncements from a Greek chorus who call themselves the Wife of Brain. Surrounded by acres of white space, the text looks like tracks in snow.

When we left Geryon in Autobiography, he was in Buenos Aires, the unhappy party in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles’s new lover. At the beginning of Red Doc>, he’s older, still unlucky, still tending his animals and losing his looks. “Am I / turning into one of those / old guys in a ponytail and / wings he thinks sadly.” He’s spent the last seven years reading À la recherche du temps perdu.(“Reading it every day,” he tells his mother, “was like having / an extra unconscious.”) Fortuitously, he’s shaken out of his stupor and self-pity by the reappearance of his old love, now a war veteran who calls himself Sad. They meet a delightfully deranged artist named Ida, and embark on a desultory journey over a glacier, into a body shop–cum–psychiatric clinic. They pick up Hermes—in Greek mythology the cunning messenger of the gods—as a hitchhiker. They sleep with each other and squabble and leave Geryon at his mother’s deathbed. It’s Alice in Wonderland without the philosophy, just the nonsense and surreal size play: “Ice bats . . . the size of toasters” and “crows as big as barns / rave overhead.”

In Carson’s work, philosophy and literary criticism (or even their parodies) have functioned as a trellis around which scenes are strung. Formal structures and especially the fragment allow her to pose questions with and within her work, to insinuate and tease, and she’s at her best in the interrogative mood, as in her book The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001). Because Red Doc> lacks this scaffolding, her players skitter in constant and confused motion. This wouldn’t matter so much if the story were strong enough to hold them, if the characters were, on some level, enacting psychological or philosophical questions. But Red Doc> is only superficially interested in narrative. It’s a long, lovely line to nowhere, a beautiful surface. The language doesn’t exist to take us inside the characters; it’s just so many daubs of paint, utterly its own end.

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