Is the Times Book Review experiencing some sort of cranky Groundhog's Day? We have to ask, given that they've allowed reviewers to make impossibly unfair comparisons of their subjects to HRH Joan Didion for two weeks in a row. Of course nobody's Joan fucking Didion — is it really necessary to deliver an extra slap in an already unfavorable review by name-dropping? Yeah, we're talking to you, Kurt Andersen. Intern Alexis tackles that, plus the formal fellating of Gary Shteyngart, in her weekly guide to sounding halfway literate.
Really intense cover this week, guys. We were greeted on Sunday morning with Gary Shteyngart's huge, stubbly, frowny grill all up in our business, which was a little much for our pre-coffee state. But, more importantly, why the long face, Gary?
Walter Kirn loves you! Kirn opens his review of "Absurdistan" with a flourishing "Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself."
And then, more!
This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway's clean sentences wouldn't do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery. Which Shteyngart operates with a light touch as his story gains speed, leaving behind the rubble of the past for the about-to-be rubble of the near-future.
One thing, though. Kirn keeps talking about how young Shteyngart is: "The young writer supplying the lines is Gary Shteyngart..." and "Compared with most young novelists his age, who tend toward cutesy involution, Shteyngart is a giant mounted on horseback..." We did some maths, and boyfriend is 33 years old! Wait, what's that noise? Oh yes! It's the sound of his literary biological clock ticking. We guess you could say Kirn's review is the equivalent of a miracle birth following months of hormonal butt shots for Shteyngart!
David Lehman takes on William Logan's cruel, cruel review of "The Oxford Book of American Poetry," which he edited, suggesting that Logan might be a little b to the itter:
Logan objects to the inclusion of all the eligible guest editors of 'The Best American Poetry' (those born prior to 1950). This objection may have something to do with the fact that none of the editors have picked a poem by Logan since the series began in 1988. This means that his work was not considered good enough by John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gl ck, A. R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich, James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Creeley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Muldoon and Billy Collins.
Hotcha! Logan replies haughtily: "As for his cranky remark about my absence from 'Best American Poetry,' why, I hadn't really noticed." Oh this is catty and fun and all, but we can't help but wishing that David Lehman were actually Lexi Lehman:
William Logan: Poetry sucks blah blah blah.
Lexi Lehman: How's this for poetry? Shut up and pass the Bacardi.
William Logan: Now we're talking!
Kurt Anderson doesn't so much care for Gay Talese's 14-years-in-the-making memoir, "A Writer's Life." Perhaps taking cues from Ron Powers, Anderson holds Talese's memoir up to Joan Didion's recent memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," and, obviously, concludes that Talese's just doesn't measure up. He writes:
His dead ends and dry holes might have been usefully deconstructed and illuminated with careful, tough-minded, craftsmanlike introspection — something akin to the way, for instance, that Joan Didion created a masterpiece last year out of the death of her husband. But instead he has simply recapitulated and redoubled his botches by aggregating old notes and manuscript pages and interlarding them with bits of autobiography and self-abasement.
The whole is less than the sum of its mostly arbitrary parts. It's a saga of serial professional failures that is itself a failure.
Anderson then goes on to compare Talese to another crumbling and slightly faded Upper East Side anachronism, Sir Woody Allen. But while Allen had his glorious "Match Point" to resurrect him, Talese, well, didn't.
Like Talese, Woody Allen did his career-making work in the 1960's and 70's, maintained a high standard in the 80's — but then seemed to lose his touch. Allen recovered his mojo last year with "Match Point" — a film unlike any he'd made before, set and shot thousands of miles away from his standard Manhattan mise-en-sc ne. So one sympathizes with Talese's rash expedition to China. For him, alas, the gambit didn't pan out.
Kurt, that's really not not fair. Talese tried to work that close to Scarlett Johansson, but Nan wouldn't let him.