Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Makes Me Crazy

Like those suicidal moments that can begin with reading about a successful author half one's age and twice one's talent, my latest round of depressing self-discovery started in The New York Times Book Review.

Specifically, in the review of Andrea Lee's "Lost Hearts in Italy." The book shouldn't have attracted my interest; I really know bupkus about her. But as I read the review, Lee's novel sounded suspiciously similar to a short story she'd written 13 years ago.

I knew a single thing about Lee's work, but that was enough: one of her stories, "Winter Barley," appeared in the "O. Henry Best American Short Stories" of 1993, a story that didn't make me want to vomit as much as eat the pages in anger, and then vomit.

So I wasn't too disappointed when the review of Lee's novel, which, like "Winter Barley," was about an affair between a young American woman and an Italian geezer, got slammed.

Often art will upset us, but usually in the manner of drawing attention to injustice, for instance, or in the manner of frustrating our expectations. The former is known as political, the latter is the book or story that we will characterize as "maddening."

Lee's story that I read years ago falls into neither category. No, "Winter Barley" just plain pissed me off. Part of the reason was that I couldn't believe just a piece of crap won any accolades, much less had been published in The New Yorker.

But really, what it boiled down to was a single element: pretense. The whole notion of writing stories is based on pretense, of course, but there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and "Winter Barley" veered way of into the world of stupid long before I finished it. The story was all-knowing, smarter-than-thou, and, worst of all, smarmy. (They're the same reasons that I couldn't stand the "Wings of Desire" and "The Pillow Book." I hated them. Hated hated HATED them.)

The protagonist jet sets around Europe, works for Citibank, and is screwing some old Italian dude as they vacation on the Scottish moors. It was self-indulgent expat tripe. I've traveled throughout Europe, I'm fluent in French, and I even know about finance!

Worth a thousand words

More recently, Anthony Doerr's "The Shell Collector," a recent collection of short stories, is written in a tone that I found about as appealing as green olive ice cream. One story, "The Hunter's Wife," had won some type of award but just made me want to find a shotgun. To shoot the book, not the author. Or me.

I slogged through about a third of "The Shell Collector" before throwing it against the wall. Wife, who enjoyed the book, wondered why it bothered me so.

"Because…because…because…" I stammered.

Rarely do I sit down and ask myself why some fiction drives me to distraction, and to say that such pieces are pretentious isn't enough. The real questions are: are they truly pretentious or is this simply my defensive reaction to them? I am close-minded to certain works of art?

(It's for this same reason I've avoided Jenette Winterston, who has been recommended to me on several occasions. It's only because of her public persona that I've avoided her; she's known as conceited and, yes, pretentious. Worse, she's got a rep for stealing girlfriends. Like from heterosexual men like me.)

My inability to accept such works puts me in fairly rotten company: George W. Bush. The best pithy description of this incurious man was in (again) The New Yorker, which called him a "classic schoolyard bully," intolerant of anything that differs from his narrow view of things and dismissive of (and intimidating) those who dare have different ideas, like maybe protesting doesn't make one a traitor.

Much worse than George Bush finding the truth or the best solution to a problem illuminating his ignorance. At news conference with the French president, an American reporter dared asked Chirac a question in French, and W. flipped out. The reporter was just showing W. up! How dare make the President of the United States look stupid! How dare the reporter be so pretentious.

And this is where I get the sick feeling in the gut, like when I can no longer ignore the fact that I've spent all of my money on a Las Vegas weekend orgy on gambling, hookers, and front-row seats for Wayne Newton.


If there is something that makes me nuts, it's being shown up. Save for masochists, nobody likes public humiliation, of course. But this agony can translate itself into the private realm as well, in which fiction that has the whiff of pretense drives me batty.

Is it that I hate the idea that the writer and a coterie of loyal readers get it and I don't? Is it hatred of the fact that perhaps these writers are operating at a higher level of some sort, and that I cannot hope to emulate them? Is it a mere case of hating what I cannot understand, or hate what I fear becoming?

Am I afraid of being unmasked as a fraud? Wait, I've already done that. I imagine we all have our demons. Might as well admit to mine.

And I haven't even talked about my thing for doughnuts, beer, and demolition derbies. Man, those are awesome.