For Christmas, I got a copy of George Saunders' The Braindead Megaphone. I also was in a car accident, and that was pretty brutal, but I think I can skip over that. But the Saunders book now sits finished, so I might as well review it.
It is too bad, the way the book world works. The main problem with The Braindead Megaphone is the insertion of things that are clearly humor pieces, in a book labeled "essays," where the essays are really great and make a lot of smart arguments that seem to condemn the more simplistic humor pieces, such as "Ask The Optimist" or "Woof." In Persuasion Nation was similarly split between serious short stories and pieces of glib comedy. At the time, I wished he could reconcile these two sides. Now, I just think that the books need to be more carefully edited. The pieces that are weak here- well, they would've been weak if they had been in In Persuasion Nation, but they would've fit in better. Especially if the more serious pieces had been held off for another book. The book world wants what it wants, and doing what I propose would mean three books released at some point in the undefined future, rather than the one-book-every-two-years schedule which is preferable to book companies and customers. Authors too, probably: Having these sides pressed up against each other forces you to engage the scope of the author's vision, rather than just specific facets of their voice.
The reportage in The Braindead Megaphone is pretty great. Some of it was viewable on the internet- Stuff that kind of bridges the line between the straight journalism and the more humorous stuff by choosing a selectively ironic tone- This would be "A brief study of the British" I'm referring to, although "Nostalgia" which follows it in the book I would consider kin, even as it gets closer to humor writing. It's still in the vein of an essay. The piece about Dubai, or the "Buddha Boy" essay, written for GQ, are straightforward journalism, and great. The title essay makes a decent argument and would be a fine opening statement for a book of essays, and is the kind of thing that really makes me think the lesser pieces should not be included.
Then there's four parts of literary criticism: One for Johnny Tremain, one for Slaughterhouse Five, one for a Donald Bartheleme short story, and one introduction to an edition of Huckleberry Finn. These are great pieces, inspiring pieces, that make a person want to write, even as they teach lessons. They are not grouped together in the book, but they do appear in the sequence I list them in, and each brings with it a lesson. Johnny Tremain, read early, taught a lesson about the importance of language sculpting. Slaughterhouse Five is read later, and teaches a number of lessons, but one of the things sort of addressed but not brought up is how in the time since Johnny Tremain, views about how language should be sculpted had become calcified into unusable and foolish shapes. Vonnegut taught Saunders a lot. The lessons Saunders gleaned from Vonnegut and Esther Rhodes are ones I've already learned. The things Saunders talks about in relation to Bartheleme and Twain aren't as instinctual, at least not to me. Great pieces, and why have I not read Donald Bartheleme?
I didn't like Huck Finn when I read it in high school and haven't tried since. But reading these pieces and then going back to write these things I'm writing, I got mad at the way my own highly specific tastes have fucked my voice.
Oh wait: This is the only book I've read this year that came out this year. I also got a copy of Steve Erickson's Zeroville, which is an example of the problem: Both Erickson and Saunders have all their books emblazoned with a Pynchon quote extolling their respective virtues, and then I go about, mining similar vibes. Recognizing the caliber of a gun, looking down its barrel, not really able to get out of the way.
Oh yeah, car crash: First Christmas in years my mom spends Christmas morning with her two sons, and then, leaving the house to go to another family member's house, we are hit in an incident that I didn't quite witness the cause of. Suffice it to say: The car what did the crashing (oh by the way: other people completely at fault) smashed into me, backseat on the driver's side, more than anyone else in the car, although it mostly just hit the wheel on that side, popping tires and breaking an axle completely in a way that requires the car (bought my mom I think a month or two ago) to be replaced. I made fun of my mom for getting a world-fucking gashuffing behemoth, but then I didn't die after getting hit by a car. I do hope for the vehicle to be replaced by something that's less of a terrible beast, but my mom, being very uptight even after no one is hurt and is taking the way time progresses in stride, was very shook up and will probably buy an even more ridiculous thing with whatever insurance money she can muster.