Reviewing the Review: July 30 2006

Book Review, what’s with the mixed metaphors today? I trust you all took basic English in college? Witness:

Boyle depicts his whirling, pestilential world like an amused, not unaffectionate Hieronymous Bosch, graphically detailing the 31 flavors of greed.
— Will Blythe on T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Talk Talk

Egan constructs a prism that refracts themes of power, knowledge, confinement and escape through the multiple levels of her story.
— Madison Smartt Bell on Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

I was not aware that Bosch ever depicted Baskin-Robbins ice cream. And, Mr. Bell, we may refract through lenses, or we may climb through levels, but we really can’t refract through levels.

Okay, enough of that grammatical nonsense (I’m just riffin’ here). Infractions involving refractions aside, I am satisfied and intrigued by Bell’s cover article on Jennifer Egan’s ambitious new novel about betrayal and reconnection in the modern age. One character “has a physical sixth sense for the presence of wireless networks” while his former best friend attempts to build “a retreat where Dungeons and Dragons, Grand Theft Auto and the pseudocommunities of the internet may all be replaced by a much older magic”. I want to read this book.

But Will Blythe’s ponderous musings on the career of T. Coraghessan Boyle are a turn-off, especially when he compares the author to a great punk-rock vocalist:

… it was as if Johnny Rotten — safety pinned and leering — had stepped up to the mike, hocked a loogie into the crowd and started singing like Frank Sinatra.

Uh, no. I’ve seen the Sex Pistols in concert and I’ve been to a T. Coraghessan Boyle reading. If Boyle were that exciting, he’d be a lot more exciting than he is. Will Blythe spends too little time describing the new novel and way too much time ruminating on the legend that supposedly surrounds this author (personally, I always thought of T. C. Boyle as an underachiever, promising greatness and consistently failing to deliver).

Other notable moments in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review include Gary Kamiya’s amused introduction to Scott Smith’s new thriller, The Ruins, in which two young couples face horror and danger in the Yucatan peninsula. The fact that I find myself wanting to read this book is a tribute to the critic’s skill for description, since I never read books like this and rarely find myself wanting to.

Nick Gillespie’s explication of John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience is a bit sludgy, but I’m glad to see the Book Review continuing to pay attention to John Dean, a once-disgraced former Nixon White House lawyer who found himself at the center of the Watergate cover-up 34 years ago and is now working hard to build a new name for himself as a critic of contemporary conservative politics. I admire Dean’s energetic self-renewal, and I respect his previous book, Worse Than Watergate, in which he unfavorably compared George W. Bush’s presidency to Richard Nixon’s.

Rachel Donadio’s endpaper on the economics of backlist publishing has some useful information, though Donadio’s voice is unimaginative and pedantic.

“It only works if you’re employing some kind of print-on-demand,” she [Susan Meldow of Scribner] said, referring to a techonology that allows publishers to print a few books at a time, as they are ordered.

Actually, Rachel, I think just about everybody knows what “print-on-demand” means already.

3 Responses

  1. Boyled AliveI used to think
    Boyled Alive

    I used to think TCB was an underachiever, too, Levi, until I read Tooth and Claw. I think with one or two exceptions, every story in the collection delivers. To me, his regular presence in The New Yorker alone is enough to redeem the otherwise fatuous tenure of Tina Brown.

  2. This is hardly a thoughtful
    This is hardly a thoughtful critique, but for me Boyle will always stand above criticism after I took his creative writing class. He was the worst kind of phone-in teacher, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that having Boyle call one of my typical-19-year-old DeLillo-wannabe stories “pretty good” helped get me through a lot of rejection later on.

    And, objectively speaking, I thought the title story from After the Plague was a genius take on a seemingly hackneyed premise.

  3. That’s interesting — thanks
    That’s interesting — thanks for the tips. I definitely would never think the jury is out on T. C. B. I read his Battle Creek book (can’t even remember the name, which says something right there!), part of Drop City and a few short stories. They all had something going for them, but I haven’t found the one that works for me yet.

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