It takes a long darn time to read a book. And there’s so frickin’ many of ’em. And wouldn’t you much rather just pick up your PSP and play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for thirty minutes? And you have eight hours’ worth of of Ghosthunters episodes clogging your DVR’s hard drive. And maybe you should check Facebook one more time to see if someone responded to your ‘At Magnolia Bakery-mmmm’ thread.
Considering the unbelievable amount of competition for our attention, choosing which book you’re going to actually pick up and concentrate on for six to eight hours is a momentous decision (for anyone who’s still interested in that sort of thing.)
Two novels I’ve read in the past three weeks, and how I came to them:
Kapitoil is a first novel by Teddy Wayne, a New York native and Harvard grad. Wayne is not famous. He is a humorist who’s been published a few times in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and McSweeney’s. I met him at a reading which was being conducted by the school I’m attending, Brooklyn College. There were two other novelists doing readings with him, and one of them was Jonathan Ames, who is probably not familiar to the average person but is a literary celebrity in New York. Ames is also the executive producer of a show on HBO called Bored to Death.
Wayne’s mom is the head of the English Department at Brooklyn College (which happens to be the department I’m currently working towards a Master’s in). He probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to read alongside someone as famous as Ames if his mom wasn’t the head of the English Department.
I would never have heard of Wayne or his book if it wasn’t for that reading. I met him afterwards, and he seemed like a cool guy—really laid back, and genuinely humble and self-effacing. Getting published in the New Yorker is a big deal for any writer, but Wayne seemed embarrassed when he was credited for it—he actually blushed when the moderator said he was a “contributor” to the magazine, and protested that he didn’t know if getting one 600-word humor piece published in the magazine qualified him for that designation. (Of course it does!) I was at the reading with a group of fellow aspiring writers, and one of them– a fairly attractive girl–made a beeline straight for Ames when the reading ended. As did a bunch of other people. I’m guessing most of them were wannabe writers too, or maybe actors, or maybe just looking for some kind of way to connect with a guy producing a show for HBO.
The girl was super-friendly to Ames, mentioned how much she loved his work, she was a writer herself, etc., etc…..and she didn’t really get anywhere. There’s an awkward vibe to these kinds of things. How many thousands of “aspiring” artists do people like Ames come across every day at events like this? It must get pretty tiring after a while. And it looked like Ames had seen it all before and was on autopilot.
But Wayne, with a much smaller crowd to deal with, looked like he was totally into it. When asked about breaking into the business and being successful, he actually thought about it and tried to give good answers.
So the point of all this is…a couple of months later I was at the bookstore, saw Wayne’s novel, bought it, and read it in a day. All because he was a cool guy, and his mom happens to be the head of the department I’m in. I don’t think I would have ever heard of him or his book otherwise. I have no idea how many copies Kapitoil will sell. It has 16 reviews on Amazon, which indicates to me it probably hasn’t gone totally viral yet. Tens of thousands of first novels are published every year. The vast majority are ignored and disappear into the void of our collective non-attention.
It’s a good book. It’s a comic novel, which is incredibly difficult to pull off (we are spoiled by the amount of comedy we get from television, where dedicated performers have honed every facet of the process of joke delivery—timing, inflection, mood, physicality—to a razor-sharp edge. Attempting to make someone laugh simply with ink on a page is an Herculean task). The conceit is that the first-person narrator is a non-native English speaker from Qatar, who uses odd but correct substitutions for everyday words—e.g., “elongate” for “stretch,” and stilted, but still technically correct, grammar. The device was also used by Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated, and if you’ve read that book the first few pages of this one will seem like a disconcertingly similar experience. But that feeling doesn’t last long. Wayne quashes the déjà vu by establishing a strong, consistent personality for the main character which overcomes any doubt that he might just be a gimmick. The device is a lot funnier in Illuminated, but it achieves a lyrical quality in this novel that Foer’s flashy wordplay never does.
Kapitoil zips along a straightforward, engaging plot, never overstressing the comedic elements (never overstressing anything, really) and building suspense in a classic, understated, moment-to-moment way. Nothing overly surprising happens. The final thirty pages are a little disappointing—they feel like they roll off the conveyer belt of the Bittersweet Ending Factory. But Wayne is an economical writer who understands both natural human longings and the natural shape of a story.
The book I read just prior Wayne’s is called Gilead. It is written by Marilynne Robinson, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Robinson is a gifted writer. I’ve heard passages of her writing which caused movements inside my body which I believe are referred to as ‘stirrings.’ Gilead is a dreadful bore to get through. It doesn’t really have a plot, and it deals endlessly with religious motifs, the same way a chicken farmer deals endlessly with chopping off heads. Unfortunately, the vast majority of prize-winning books I get to end up feeling somewhat like Gilead as I wade through them.
Should I quit reading Pulitzer-Prize winning novels? Should I just tramp around book readings (there’s like a thousand a week in Brooklyn) and read the books of whatever authors I happen to find are decent bros? Ever since I was young I’ve made a concerted effort to approach and digest those works of art that our culture has collectively decided are great. The Modern Library names the 100 Greatest Books of the Century? Rolling Stone has the 100 Best Albums Ever Made? AFI has a 100 Best Movies list? I start slogging away at them, bit by bit. But maybe this approach is dead, in 2011. Maybe it should die. Maybe our culture will digest art through Facebook—making bands famous by scattering links to their MP3 across the internet like confetti. Don’t know. But if I was on the Pulitzer committee in 2005, and the only books I had to choose from were Kapitoil and Gilead, I would’ve voted for Kapitoil, hands-down.