Geoffrey Wolff’s review of Kurt Andersen’s historical novel Heyday on the cover of this week’s New York Times Book Review is a pretentious and embarrassing mess. I read this thing twice and I really just don’t know what Geoffrey Wolff is going on about. Here’s how the thrill-ride begins:
It perhaps strikes anyone who has read an ambitious historical novel — and certainly strikes anyone who has had the audacity to try to write one — that the enterprise represents the triumph of hope over experience, a suspension of hard-won, armoring caution, a Peter-Pannish faith in … well, faith. How daunting it must be to get it right: facts and artifacts, syntax and slang, costumes and customs, fads and prices, conventional wisdoms and bright ideas. And if such a novel were to aspire to be a bulging monster, teeming with extravagantly vivid characters going about their coincidentally intersecting lives with amplified voices, wearing garish clothes, committing melodramatic vices, loving (and hating) with the fervor of characters from a comic opera, then such fiction would seem perfectly ill-suited to a writer and observer known heretofore as the wised-up, sardonic, founding co-editor of the late Spy magazine. As a columnist (for New York magazine) and a radio commentator, Kurt Andersen should react to the emotions described by gee whiz like a fox to a bunny wabbit.
Wha-wha-what? Peter Pan is an examplar of faith? The phrase “the emotions described by gee whiz” is being used in a sentence? I’m not sure if Geoffrey Wolff is trying to froth himself up into a Joycean swoon to illustrate his excitement over this novel or if he’s just a terrible prose stylist, but I fear it’s the latter.
We’re told that the novel’s protaganist is “connected to every subordinate character by sometimes flimsy networks of chance.” That sounds impressive but it’s actually a completely meaningless and useless blip of information, since the same could be said of just about every fictional character (or real life person) in the world. It also tells us absolutely nothing about Kurt Andersen’s book. It seems to me like the kind of sentence you write when you have nothing to say and need to fill up space.
The critic is all over the place: “I was once asked by a grade-school kid whether toilet paper had been invented when I was a little boy; in much the same spirit of wonder, Andersen — generally through Benjamin or Timothy Skaggs — is besotted with the products of research masking as observation”. I guess we’re supposed to read into this that Wolff is old as dirt and wants to make fun of himself for it, but again this tells us nothing about Heyday. I want to know whether or not to read this book, and it doesn’t help me to know that the author is “besotted with products of research masking as observation”.
Even humble sentences get overcooked. “Darwin walks on as a character, and Engels enjoys the enthusiasm of Benjamin.” But can it core a apple? “Heyday” is “a terrific title, with its multiple exclamatory suggestions dominated by an exhortation”. I studied the six-letter title for several minutes trying to find multiple exclamatory suggestions, and then I gave up. Maybe it’s all connected by a flimsy network of chance, or maybe by the enthusiasm of Benjamin. Bad, bad, bad.
Luckily, today’s NYTBR has bright spots. Geoffrey Wolff needs to take an expository writing class taught by Patricia T. O’Conner, whose review of Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It and David Crystal’s The Fight For English is useful and enjoyable. O’Conner lays out the battleground between language-theory camps, chides Ben Yagoda for advocating “they”, “them” and “their” as singular pronouns but refusing to use them himself, name-checks Beat poet Lew Welch, and reminds us that linguistic correctness is not, despite popular misconception, a class issue: “The worst crimes against English are committed not by the underprivileged but by bureaucrats in academia, government and business.” I believe it, but let’s not forget pretentious book critics.
The one must-read piece in this week’s NYTBR is poetry critic David Orr’s entree into the controversy between various poetry critics (especially Dana Goodyear of the New Yorker) and the wealthy Poetry Foundation, which has been accused of squandering its endowment on unworthy efforts. David Orr senses hypocrisy here, and flips the argument around to examine whether or not the New Yorker is treating poetry any better than the Poetry Foundation. It’s a sharp piece that will definitely stir things up.
Elsewhere, Ron Powers is amusingly dismissive of Jon Clinch’s Twain-spinoff Finn, which attempts to paint the story of Huck’s rotten father. David Kirby is fine as always on Brad Leithauser’s Curves and Angles and Tom Barbash makes me want to read Sara Pritchard’s collection of linked stories Lately immediately, though he doesn’t like Michael Parker’s Don’t Make Me Stop Now nearly as much.
Finally, there’s an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about the birth trauma that inspired the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Wicked was a good book, much better than the popular but simplistic Broadway musical based on it, and I appreciated this unusual piece.