Book Stuff

*Brooklyn Books of Wonder

Melvin Jules Bukiet, in the August ’07 issue of The American Scholar, defines BBoW’s (Brooklyn Books of Wonder):

Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness. The only thing that’s more wondrous than the BBoW narratives themselves is the vanity of the authors who deliver their epistles from Fort Greene with mock-naïve astonishment.

Among the authors of BBoW’s are Alice Sebold, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers. While reading Bukiet’s take on them, I’ve been nodding, shaking my head, laughing, furious, in total agreement and total disagreement by turns.

Let me start with where I agree. This is what he has to say about The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold:

Generally speaking, the sex-murder of an adolescent offers little that’s good. But in The Lovely Bones, mom and pop hook up and so do Ray and Ruth, whose body Susie is allowed to occupy just long enough to have real, true, beautiful sex for once in her afterlife. “I had never been touched like this,” she tells us. “I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness. But spreading out into my heaven after death had been a moonbeam that swirled and blinked on and off. . . . Inside my head I said the word gentle.” The book ends with a glow.

Every impulse in every sane reader must shriek No! at this pabulum. It’s not lovely that Susie’s been slaughtered, hacked, and dumped in a pit. It’s not lovely that icy Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance by a conveniently dropped icicle as the pit containing Susie’s body parts is being drained, leading us to assume that her remains will be found and that she will finally get a lovely stone.

That is exactly why I didn’t read The Lovely Bones. My reaction to the quoted excerpt above is “Gaak!” I can speak to it from personal experience, having lived through almost every form of abuse that can be meted out to a kid (though obviously I wasn’t murdered), and the writing is so awful, I can’t even be offended by it. I agree with Bukiet’s assessment that these authors “mistake sincerity for authenticity,” a pithy summation.

Bread and circuses, ie popular culture, have always been around. I think that Bukiet probably objects to what is essentially bread and circuses being treated as art, which has also been around as long as there have been people, and I agree that pabulum should be recognized for what it is.

However, I would like to congratulate all of those authors for making a decent living and I hope that they are smiling all the way to the bank. While Bukiet identifies BBoW’s (accurately I’d say) as genre fiction, because they’re essentially escapist works, he seems to be offended that the authors have turned their considerable literary gifts to that. Do writers have an obligation to take on serious subjects seriously even if they can’t make a living at it?

Bukiet writes of Nicole Krauss that her

career so far has been a curious one. Her first novel, Man Walks into a Room, was a chilling tale of amnesia that explored cutting-edge cognitive theories about the role that memory plays in consciousness. Unfortunately, the book suffered, as least as far as the market was concerned, from being “too cerebral.” Yet Krauss apparently took this idiotic criticism to heart and said, “Oh, you want soft. Here’s soft.” It’s astounding that she can hit any note that she wants and sad that she wants to hit this note, which sentimentally implies that trauma may be overcome by a young girl’s pluck.

I’m sure it wasn’t simply a matter of taking idiotic criticism to heart. Writers have bills and egos like other human beings. Who doesn’t want to be popular and rich? I’d like to be popular, rich, and a great writer, but I’m thinking that a lot of writers would agree that two out of three ain’t bad, and with those two you can even be convinced you’ve got all three.

Bukiet considers these books dangerous:

[W]hat’s so terribly wrong with all this? BBoWs are benign and smart and claim important antecedents… and some are stunning prose stylists (Eggers and Chabon and Krauss) who clearly have literary talent to spare. That’s precisely why their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma.

In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it.

Here’s where I disagree with Bukiet, to the point of wanting to have him face to face so I can yell at him, or at least give him a piece of my mind.

The problem with BBoW’s, for me, is not that trauma is never overcome, nor that redemption is unrealistic, but that achieving these is a long and hard road. Not only do these authors gloss over the trauma, but they minimize the difficulty of the road. That, to me, is disrespectful. To walk barefoot on a slow, twisting, gravelly path while working, raising a family, and maintaining an ordinary life is heroic and requires faith, whether that faith is simply in the possibility of feeling better or in God or in the oneness of life.

Bukiet objects to the BBoW’s “pristine vision of the deep oneness of things”:

Along with mothy, soft-core sex, BBoWs feature pallid soft-core religion—aka spirituality—faith without frenzy, without animal sacrifice.

But having personally experienced a lot of early trauma and knowing a lot of people who have, I can tell him that for many of us a spiritual connection is an integral part of our journey. He would probably scoff at the word “journey;” it smacks too much of faith without frenzy. But without that faith I and many others would have given up and died long ago. We’d have died by suicide, by alcohol, by carelessness, by seeking out dangerous places. Instead we have lived.

Human beings need meaning. It’s why we tell stories at all, ordering words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a beginning, middle and end. One of my favourite books on spirituality is I Asked For Wonder by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Another is Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. Both these books express quiet faith, respectfulness, and wonder. Both of these authors have walked rough roads and I hope that in my own way, I walk with them.

I think we all need hope. And when we can’t hold onto hope for ourselves, we need others to hold it for us. My own life went from bad to worse early on and since then has been a slow climb from worse to better. I know what evil is like. Been there, kissed it. Unlike Suzie, the narrator of Lovely Bones, and unlike others I cared for deeply, I survived the kisses and have gone on to have a life right here on earth where any day of the week and every day of the week I get to be kissed by love. Insofar as I am able to value truth above popularity, it is because of that, because in those kisses is light, is wonder, is the source of all Being as it is in the falling leaf. I don’t take it for granted.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air,but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.-Thich Nhat Hanh

Thank you Verbivore for providing the link to this article in your comment on yesterday’s post.

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9 thoughts on “*Brooklyn Books of Wonder”

  1. I love what you’ve written here, and I’m so glad you found the article interesting. I read it two years ago, almost exactly, and was very struck by Bukiet’s thoughts. Like you, I felt he went a bit too far and he attacks what are essentially young novelists. Highly-acclaimed for their relative youth, yes, but still quite young and most likely to develop as their careers deepen. On the other hand, I did find myself agreeing with him in condemning a certain preference for “eluding” reality (his terms, if I remember correctly) instead of “sharpening” it. Truly good fiction can sharpen reality, explore trauma and somehow find its way to a realistic happy ending. (Some of the books he mentions do not put the work in to actually do this, instead they go for quirky, eccentric behavior which somehow “transforms” their characters). You choose the word journey and I think this is exactly right. The journey is not easy but a good book can depict that journey in all its difficulty and still bring a character out on higher ground. I’m thinking of Lovely Green Eyes by Arnost Lustig as a perfect example of this…

  2. I completely agree that trauma can be overcome, but only by working at it for years and years, by careful consideration of the past, by opening oneself up to the terrible feelings it left behind, by creating, over time, a life that is good and real. There is huge heartbreak on that journey out of trauma, it’s a ghastly route to have to travel, particularly when the person who’s suffered seems to have been through enough already. So no, I don’t much appreciate the quick-fix implausble, even glib, solutions some authors give to it.

    But I think that may at times be precisely why such books sell – there’s that hope that the grim might be easily overcome, and this is as tempting to those who have suffered, as to those who have been careless and cruel in their lives. Fairy tales reassure parents that children can survive them and their (often unconsciously, sometimes, horribly consciously dealt) damage as much as they reassure children as to their own resources.

    And don’t get me started on training montages! You may imagine how I grind my teeth to see the painfully slow business of learning compressed into a five-minute slot…..

  3. Verbivore and Litlove, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. This is the best of blogging, to have conversation, dialogue, and consideration spurred by links, posts, and comments.

    Verbivore, ironically Lustig’s last name means “merrily” in German and Yiddish, given that his subject matter is the holocaust and its after-effects. I’m tempted to read Lovely Green Eyes though it’s been many years since I’ve read a holocaust novel. It hits so very close to home on many levels.

    Litlove, I’ve never seen a training montage, but I can imagine what you mean! I think fairy tales, though magical, are truer than the glibness of BBoW’s. Fairy tales, in the original, are grim and gritty and the magical resolution occurs only after passing through betrayal, trials and loneliness. The heroine/hero has to employ wit and compassion to do so, and either has or comes to have an ability to look beyond the surface of things.

  4. I had no interest in the Sebold book in any case, but that excerpt is absolutely appalling. “Gaak!” is right.

    Along with mothy, soft-core sex, BBoWs feature pallid soft-core religion—aka spirituality—faith without frenzy, without animal sacrifice.

    It almost sounds as though Bukiet is mistaking “authenticity” for sincerity. Some of the criticisms here are sound, but this prattling about “frenzy”—this implied connoisseurship of “real” faith— is as shallow and self-congratulatory as any of the tendencies Bukiet condemns.

  5. Lilian, I didn’t read “The Lovely Bones either” – I simply could not bring myself to do it. Thank you so much for this post.

    “But without that faith I and many others would have given up and died long ago. We’d have died by suicide, by alcohol, by carelessness, by seeking out dangerous places. Instead we have lived.”

    That says it all. Like you, I have kissed evil, survived, journeyed beyond it and lived to embrace love and wonder. Every day is a gift.

    Thank you

  6. Oh, I love that end quote and completely concur – the real miracle is definitely walking the earth, and it’s amazing that so many people miss it when it’s there for the taking.

    Such an interesting, thought-provoking post, Lilian.

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