Reviewing the Review: August 13 2006

First-time novelist Marisha Pessl gets a rave review from Liesl Schillinger on the cover of today’s New York Times Book Review, a refreshing start for a lively issue.

Liesl Schillinger is, in my opinion, the best writer among the Book Review’s regular critics, but this article about Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is uncharacteristically breathless and frenetic. I guess even a critic as skillful as Schillinger can get foxed trying to explain this many characters and levels of reality in fifteen paragraphs or less. It doesn’t help that Schillinger weirdly manages to shout out to no less than, let’s see: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Vladimir Nabokov, The O. C., Alan Bennett, Louis B. Mayer, Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, Paper Moon, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Alfred Hitchcock, Blue Lagoon, Lauren Bacall, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, From Here to Eternity, Raymond Chandler, Othello, The Woman in White and Deliverance.

At first I thought Liesl Schillinger had lost her mind, but in fact this hyper-pop-conscious meta-referentiality seems to reflect the sensibility of Pessl’s book, in which each chapter is titled for a work of literature. I’m going to take Schillinger’s recommendation and read this book, and I have a feeling I’ll like it.

(Schillinger also sneaks a sweet sideswipe at the literary blog scene into her review, which I’ll discuss at the end of this article).

There’s lots of good stuff in today’s Book Review. Orhan Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely provides an informative endpaper on the status of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who is facing trial for writing about the Armenian genocide. Hillary Frey provides the good news that Bobbie Ann Mason has produced a new volume of interlinked stories, Nancy Culpepper. Claire Messum reviews A. B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem, which I also believe I’ll have to throw onto my must-read pile (as if there’s room). Stacey D’Erasmo compares and contrasts Lori Lansens’ The Girls and Shelley Jackson’s Half Life, both of them novels about interconnected twins, and gives us sentences like this:

Shelly Jackson’s “Half Life” is the textual equivalent of an installation, a multivocal, polymorphous, dialogic, dystopian satire wrapped around a murder mystery wrapped around a bildungsroman.

Two articles pleased me slightly less. Kathryn Harrison’s review of The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma by Annie G. Rogers is a bit clinical. The book describes the latest findings involving silent children and other scenarios of victimization, which is an interesting topic, but Harrison’s review is blandly written, and fails to mention the obvious music/film reference, Tommy by the Who (Liesl Schillinger would certainly have caught this).

But that’s a minor crime, whereas Hugo Lindgren’s review of Toby Young’s The Sound of No Hand Clapping is an abomination. I wish Lindgren had reviewed the book instead of telling us that he goes to the same parties as Toby Young and prattling on as if he were writing a hazy Sunday-morning email to a few friends. After reading this review, I have absolutely no idea what Toby Young’s book is.

* * * * *

Now, about Liesl Schillinger’s small backhand towards the lovable litblog community — here is what Schillinger wrote:

“When the news came out that a distractingly pretty actress, playwright and Barnard College graduate named Marisha Pessl, only 27, had sold her first book (which she also illustrated) – a ‘Nabokovian’ thriller about an intellectual widower and his precocious daughter – for a substantial sum, the pick-a-little, talk-a-little publishing blog brigade went into conniptions. ‘She’s the latest in a long, long line to suffer from “Hot Young Author Chick” Syndrome,’one blogger grumbled; another wrote in a headline, ‘It’s Not About Marisha Pessl’s Looks and Money — Is It?’ and asked if the book would have been snapped up so quickly if Pessl hadn’t had such a ‘drool-worthy author photo.’

I wonder if Schillinger knows that ‘Pick-a-little Talk-a-little’, the song from Meredith Willson’s brilliant 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man, is loaded with literary references. A group of women are gossiping about the local librarian, Marian Paroo (the heroine of the play), who has stocked their small town library with “dirty books”. In one verse the women even intone the authors Marian is promoting: “Chaucer … Rabelais … Balzac”. The last name is sung slowly and with great emphasis on both syllables (and if you don’t think audiences got the dirty joke that emerges when you say this name slowly, you are underestimating the Broadway audiences of 1957).

So this song is a great choice for a literary putdown; however, I think Schillinger misses her target. As others have already remarked, dismissiveness towards the blogosphere only reflects a parochial attitude. It’s also unseemly that Schillinger fails to name the two bloggers she quotes, Jessa Crispin and Sarah Weinman. I’ve been reading Jessa Crispin and Sarah Weinman about as long as I’ve been reading Liesl Schillinger, and as far as I can see all three uphold the same high standards in their work, so why would Schillinger speak of them so dismissively? Pick a little, talk a little, indeed …

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