Sunday, February 27, 2005
Actually, now that I think about it, the problem I had with Humboldt's Gift was much the same as my problem with Ravelstein: a narrator I didn't care enough about who cared too much about himself. Roth, Ozick, Bellow, Singer: here's a bunch of writers with not too much in common. Three men and one woman; three natives and one immigrant (writing in an immigrant tongue); three Easterners and one Midwesterner; two conservatives, one liberal (Roth - I suppose that's what you'd have to call him 'cause he clearly wasn't on the right and clearly wasn't a committed Progressive) and one who-knows-what (Singer). What they have in common is that they're all American Jews of the latter half of the twentieth century. And they all (well, I haven't read enough Ozick to make the generalization, but on the basis of Puttermesser I bet I'm right) make frequent recourse to narrators who sound too much like themselves and are too solopsistic. What is up with that? And why do they bore me?
Not all solopsists bore me. Joyce and Kafka were great solopsists, and I adore them both. Kazuo Ishiguro is a contemporary novelist I like a lot, also a solopsist. Going back a bit further, so was Melville. For that matter, Dante and Milton were pretty deep into themselves, and if they bore you something's gone seriously wrong. That's not to say I'm especially partial to solopsists. Shakespeare absolutely wasn't. Cervantes absolutely wasn't (the Don is, but the Don is *not* Cervantes, that dreadful musical's assertion to the contrary). Twain most assuredly wasn't. And I don't think you could fairly accuse Tolstoy either, who was indeed a titanic egotist, of making his own little world in which he could be God (it would be fairer to say that he had the audacity to pose as akin to God in *this* world, in *our* world).
But somehow this batch is really annoying me all of a sudden.
Maybe I'm being too tough. I liked Goodbye, Columbus, and I thought I might like (but haven't yet read) American Pastoral. I liked Henderson the Rain King. I like many of Singer's short stories (and Satan in Goray, which is an overgrown short story; and The Slave, just because it's so romantic - in the Harlequin sense). But I'm not sure. Maybe it's a generational thing?
So here's a request for recommendations: American Jewish novelists (or short story writers) who are not going to annoy me, particularly if they have that rare knack for creating convincing characters not themselves. As I run through a mental list, I'm coming up alarmingly short. (Grace Paley? guilty as charged. E. L. Doctorow? Massively overrated and deeply mendacious. Allegra Goodman? Very sweet, but not top drawer. Mark Helprin? The first 200 pages of Winter's Tale are wonderful. I think it would have made a great 300 page book. Unfortunately, it's 800 pages long. Stanley Elkin? Haven't tried since just after college, when I was more receptive to his kind of weirdness, and somehow it didn't take. But perhaps I should try again. Jonathan Safran Foer? Oh, I've been dreading reading him. And I'm sure you can guess why.)
How about it? Anyone have any helpful suggestions?