Monday, October 29, 2012

Literature in Literature: Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories & Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time

Sherman Alexie's stories are always a delight. I spent a day engrossed in Alexie's brilliant new book, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Alexie, a Native American writer of fiction, poetry, and screenplays, has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Award.   In these transcendent stories, he writes about lost cats, marriage, racism, growing up on the Spokane reservation, growing up Native American in the city without the Spokane traditions, shopping at the 7-11, cancer, alcoholism, absent fathers, obituaries, and playing basketball at midnight. His lyricism illuminates difficult moments in the difficult lives of his Native American characters, but he also deftly balances their sorrow with humor.

In the first story, "Cry Cry Cry," Alexie's narrator inserts witty observations into his sad account of his cousin Junior's desolate life . Junior, a meth addict, dealer, and a war dancer,  was chosen as Head Man Dancer at the powwow "because he was charming and popular.  Powwow is like high school, except with more feather and beads." But Junior is a criminal, charged with possession after he stops dealing on the reservation and branches out to a white farming community.  When he gets out of prison, the narrator watches him go down again.

In "War Dances,"a bold, comical story divided into short chapters, interviews, and lists, the narrator goes deaf in one ear while he is caring for his sons and his wife is away.  Terrified of the health care system, he remembers the experiences of his late father in the hospital.  The narrator had trouble getting the attention of a nurse when his father needed an extra blanket; finally he was given a too-thin hospital blanket. A comical encounter with an affable Native American family in the hospital provides the warmth the nurse will not.  Alexie's sharp, realistic descriptions of family and the health care system sometimes made me laugh, sometimes gave me chills.

In my favorite story, "The Search Engine," a college student, Corliss, who grew up on the Spokane Reservation, discovers the poetry of Harlan Atwater, a Native American.  It is the first literature she has ever seen by a member of the Spokane tribe.  When she takes it to the check-out desk, the librarian says it has never been checked out, and Corliss, who loves books, wonders if it can be called a book if no one reads it.  

She loves the library, and many of you will identify with the following passage:

"The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she'd been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf.  An impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death.  She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks."

(Are you putting asterisks and exclamation points next to it?)

When Corliss tracks down Harlan Atwater, he is fat, old, and unromantic.  But she gets to hear the story of his brief life as a poet, his self-publication of his poems, and his brief career as a rock star among local poets at readings. 

This book is a delight overall: most of these stories are powerful.  The only one I didn't care for was "Idolatry," a sort of prose poem about American Idol.  And it is pretty good, too.

HOWARD JACOBSON'S ZOO TIME.  I recently read and enjoyed Howard Jacobson's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question.  He is an exuberant comic writer, and possibly a great writer, as he points out humorously in those English newspaper literary-gossip interviews which make almost everybody sound terrible.  I decided to read Zoo Time not because of the interview, but because I perused the first chapter in a bookstore and thought it funny.  The hero, Guy Ableman, a novelist, is furious about the state of publishing:  book groups don't approve of him, his books aren't suitable for "three-for-twos," and his publisher commits suicide because he is supposed to tell his writers to "twit" and "blag."

"Do you know what I am expected to require of you?" he suddenly looked me in the eyes and said.  "That you twit."
"Twit, tweet, I don't know."

Then he wants to know if Guy "blags."

"Blog?  No."
"The blog's the end of everything," [Merton] said.

But Guy wants to tell Merton "the blog is yesterday," and that the blame lies on "myBlank and shitFace and whatever else was persuading the unRead to believe everybody had a right to his opinion."

The blog is yesterday! Yes.  I agree.  I hope that all will realize we are not the barbarians plundering publishing.  Our readers have gone to"myBlank and shitFace," though I don't have a clear idea of what those are.

 Guy also implies that marketers are tracking social media to discover what people like in books--vampires and the Tudors--and that is atrocious, if true, but not our fault.

And by the way, there is much more to Jacobson's book.  Guy is in love with his mother-in-law, and he's writing a novel about Little Gid, who is in love his mother-in-law.  I'll write more about this mother-in-law another time.


Anonymous said...

I love the story "War Dances," the title story of Alexie's magnificent PENFaulner-winning colleection. I rmust get this new book. Hadn't heard a thing about it.

Sherry Jones said...

I love Sherman Alexie! He's from my neck of the woods, too. He is an absolute scream in person, and quite handsome. I gave his new book to my best friend as a birthday gift and his face lit up with pleasure. I hope he finishes it soon so I can borrow it!

Frisbee said...

Sherry, this is indeed the way to do it: give it to a friend so you can share! I'm sure this will come in handy for a Christmas gift...though I want to keep it for myself.