Sunday, January 23, 2011

J.C. Hallman's "The Story Within the Story": Book Review

How do writers react to other writers? Here's thirty responses. They capture what their collator calls "creative criticism," and while "this temporal splatter of essays" stays messy in its seeming refusal to order the selections in an always logical order, their "inconvenient realities" may better address the elusive but identifiable craft (or lack) inherent. For, this volume convenes the studies of experts who lack tenure worries. They also largely ignore academic stodginess. They use their personal stories to address what they like and don't like in their predecessors' fictional works.

It begins with Charles D'Ambrosio's juxtaposition of his brother's suicide with Salinger's "Catcher on the Rye." After this, Virginia Woolf expounds on Hemingway's "Men Without Women." The essays go on, rearing up against each other, and Hallman's arrangement while eluding my easy grasp does challenge the reader to puzzle out his strategy. Like a mix-tape composed by one fan for another, Hallman as a writer may be hinting at subtler connections eluding my more distant attention. Rushdie on "The Wizard of Oz," Heaney on T.S. Eliot, Nabokov laboriously correcting etymological blunders by critics of "The Metamorphosis" exemplify the masters who weigh in.

But, mingling we find Dagoberto Gilb reflecting on his own Mexican mother's relationships with stepfathers and other men in light of Cormac McCarthy's similar portrayals in his Border Trilogy. Hallman advances what ticked him off years ago about how critics misread "The Turn of the Screw," and we get related and impassioned essays by such as D.H. Lawrence on "Moby Dick" and, for once, following it, Geoff Dyer's inspired rant on D.H. from his "Out of Sheer Rage." On the other hand, Phyllis Rose and Alain de Botton share their readings of Proust separated by nine entries. Camus on Melville nears the end of the collection, far away from D.H.L.

For one, don't trust the title. Susan Sontag's "Loving Dostoevsky" turns out to be about Leonid Tsypkin's novel "Summer in Baden-Baden." David Lodge in fine form surveys "Waugh's Comic Wasteland" but stopped short of the later works; Milan Kundera on Kafka wanders about as much as he narrows in, a delightful quality shared by E.B. White on "Walden."

I'll end with what many readers might do themselves, a short list of a few favorite quotations. Here's my three. Walter Kirn happens to be my age more or less; he and I read "Catcher in the Rye" the same year of high school; his was by assignment, mine by choice. Both of us felt the same: "The learning, sophistication, and experience that Holden threw away in a few days would have lit up my small-town high school for a year." (305)

Lodge in Waugh defines their shared genre (for Lodge too is a bit underrated but for me one of the leading novelists today, light in touch but weighty in meaning): "Satire in any era is a kind of writing that draws its energy and fuels its imagination from an essentially critical and subversive view of the world, seizing with delight on absurdities, anomalies, and contradictions in human conduct. It is not the disposable wrapping around a set of positive moral precepts." (368) While Lodge's essay dispensed with the personal touch early on, it remained for me a highlight, clarifying as it happens some difficulties with Waugh that I had when recently tackling "Vile Bodies."

Finally, Kundera uses his own experience of Prague under totalitarian rule to delve into Kafka. Life without secrets may appeal to party hacks or State functionaries. "One big family" becomes the mythic ideal for society. I wondered as today we wonder about the reach of Google or Facebook, identity theft and corporate control, or the exchange of data for discounts from franchises and retailers, how much more rather than less applicable Kundera's warnings might be. How might Hallman's colleagues-- academics and critics enamored of the reach of globalization and online media, 24/7 openness, always being wired and tapped into and on call-- react to this?

"Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you'll be taken unawares in your bed. They'll come just as your mother and father used to." (391-2)

Not the volume I'd have expected when opening it to find such a topical observation, but it proves the efficacy of many insights gathered here under literary criticism. As we humanists insist to our dwindling enrollments, these perspectives on life as well as letters demand attention. This volume fills a gap in the shelf, where students of life and of literature find a connection and a challenge to the status quo in a time where the demands of profit and commodity overwhelm the sensitive and the skeptical voices insisting upon introspection, ideals, and intellectual power.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-26-10; there I have reviewed also "The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe" and "The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game" and "In Utopia". Also, see my review of his recent story debut, "The Hospital for Bad Poets".

The last two reviews are also at PopMatters: "The Hospital" and "Utopia". Visit his website:

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