Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wright's 'Amalgamation Polka'

Stephen Wright's new novel The Amalgamation Polka was published yesterday by Alfred A. Knopf, which for me made it a great day for American fiction. As I have blogged before on this novel (see my review in the November archives), I found it to be a fascinating take on the Civil War period piece, an interesting hodge-podge of different stories, an eclectic mix of humor, violence, social commentary and lyricism. For over a year now since I first heard from a friend that Wright had finally delivered a new manuscript for publication (both she and I had studied under Wright at The New School in New York), I have been very, very excited about it and have hoped fervently that this book would bring Wright widespread acclaim and, more importantly, new readers.

That is why I was very disappointed to see that the novel was immediately pummeled in a review by the icily cantankerous critic from the New York Times' Book Review, Michiko Kakutani, who has been lambasting books for the Times for years and who seems very difficult to please. Reading her review, which concluded by asserting that Wright had penned a 'mannered and maladroit book', which I am sure would not sit well for a writer who clearly marches to the beat of his own literary drum and whom one look at the photo in the review will tell you would not be described as 'mannered', I am forced to consider a few things about the book world, critics, and indeed, my own response to the novel.

I write that I must re-think my own initial response to the novel because I do not think that Kakutani's review was without its fair points, and I certainly don't think it was poorly argued or particularly nasty. She cites as the major flaw of the novel that it frequently does not seem sure of the kind of story it wants to be. It moves from comic to horrific to episodic. Sometimes it has a Twain-ish feel and sometimes it has a more linear, cinematic feel that less resembles 19th century writing and more resembles modern war stories. I found this quality to be intriguing and one of the things that made the novel seem different from most other books I had read about the period, but I can see how people would read this and think it was jumpy and had tonal shifts. In my reading, the whole novel had a curious feel that made it difficult to nail down, but I didn't necessarily see this as a bad thing. But then again, I didn't really read the whole book as a comic take on the war or the American society of the time, and other reviews I have seen did. Inevitably, you begin to wonder if your own reactions were just off the mark because 'real' reviewers didn't see it the way you did. But I think to some extent one must have some faith in their own gut responses to books. It felt how it felt to you when you read it.

Kakutani writes that these shifts and different tones 'collide' with one another in the novel and make it, more or less, a big undeveloped mess. She accuses Wright of not being sure of 'exactly what story he wants to tell'. Knowing something about Steve Wright, I really doubt that this was the case. Whether he wrote a story that gives that impression is one thing, but it is hard for me to believe that he just wrote along, not knowing what he wanted to do. Wright wrote this book over twelve years. When I worked with him in 2000, he told me he had 150 pages of what became this novel 'done', and that was six years ago. This is a man who must have worked and re-worked every aspect of this novel 'til his fingers bled, and I am convinced that he knew what he was trying to accomplish with this book, which to me seems to be to tell a Civil War story in a style reminiscent of a 'dead' form of American literature (that of the 19th century masters like Melville, Twain, Poe, etc.) in order to illuminate the ridiculousness of war and racism. I think that to imtimate that Wright is groping around for some idea of what he wants to do in this book is not only a disservice to what he accomplished in this novel, but it is also ignoring his previous accomplishments which demonstrate beyond a doubt that he knows what he is doing when he writes a book.

Kakutani writes that Stephen Wright has a 'heat-seeking eye for the weirdness of contemporary life', and she is certainly correct with this well-phrased statement. One might argue that because his three previous novels were so accurate in their portrayal and skewering of our modern times (the last century), his foray into historical ground seems strange and ill-suited to his gifts. You can make a valid case for this, and it obviously feels that way to Kakutani. She has the right to express that opinion. I only wish that her reviews, and perhaps book reviews in general, sometimes paid more attention to the technical points of writing a novel. By that I mean language, sentence structure, prose, vocabulary, etc. I supposed that most people who read book reviews are not very interested in opinions about this aspect of contemporary novels, and I guess I can understand that. I do think, however, that in Wright's case, more should be made out of his prose and his language because it exceeds the great majority of any contemporary fiction that is out there today and it deserves special mention. You can take ANY of Wright's four novels and find extraordinary sentences, poetic flourishes and stunning paragraphs at random throughout each. There are some paragraphs I've read by him that I wanted to read again and again. And given how much time it took him to produce each new book, unless he is just a really lazy guy and of independent means who can just take his time when he writes, this indicates to me that Wright has imposed extremely high standards on his own craftsmanship, and in the end he has always risen to exceed these standards, in my opinion. I know this is a subjective thing, but most critics have always recognized how well he writes sentences, and Kakutani pays little attention to this except to mention his 'gifts' in the outset of the review and his 'electric prose', whatever that means. She should state that this a guy who writes at a very high level and should give him more credit for doing so. It's very, very difficult to write even a few pages of prose that sparkles and cracks like Wright's does.

Other writers, or I should say other novelists, have a greater appreciation than some critics do for what he has accomplished. Russell Banks wrote of his second novel, "M31: A Family Romance" that 'his sentences buzz like high tension wires'. Toni Morrison called "Going Native" 'an astonishing novel. Even Thomas Pynchon, the recluse, wrote of this new novel that Wright 'writes in the tradition of heartbreaking humor which America's lapses of faith in its own promise has always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place'. I know that in the book world some of this is just back-scratching, but when was the last time you saw a blurb from Thomas Pynchon on anything? And Morrison and Russell Banks are hardly lightweights.

It is interesting to consider the power that a reviewer like Michiko Kakutani holds. If she reviews a book well it almost always shows up as a blurb on a book; if she pans something, it's like it missed the mark somehow. She frequently lambastes books written by white men. Makes me wonder how much pandering has to be done to her by publishers or even authors, but I wouldn't want to know. I think they could use some new blood at the Times, but that's neither here nor there.

Finally, some personal thoughts about Wright and this book. There's no doubt that I want this book to do well because I studied with him and know that he's had a long and hard road. So I have some emotional involvement I guess you could say, and that certainly effects my disappointment at this negative review. But obviously she felt that it didn't deserve high marks, and there's nothing I can do about that. Steve Wright was the whole reason I WENT to the New School; I read one of his novels when I was in my decision process for graduate school, and I knew that he was a great writer and I wanted to try to study under him. Not that this made me a great writer myself, it didn't, but I relished the experience, and I am still trying. His books have had a profound effect on my thoughts about the American novel and writing in general, and I think they have been a great influence. I hope that Stephen Wright will gain some exposure and success with this new novel, despite the negative review from the biggest paper in America. But if he doesn't, he will still be a great writer as far as I am concerned, and I hope this is not the last we have heard from him.


Duke Altum said...

As I haven't yet (emphasis on "yet") read The Amalgamation Polka, the extent to which I can comment on much of what is eloquently stated here is limited... however, Mutt, you raise some excellent points with regard to book reviewing in general, and Kakutani's "power" in particular. (Side note: I've often wondered, how does one get to be where Kakutani is anyway? How does one who does not (as far as I know) write fiction get to be the lead reviewer of fiction in the nation's most influential (unfortunately) daily newspaper? What qualifies somebody for the position? What makes somebody a "better reader," or at least a "more trustworthy" one, than others?)

The whole idea you put forth about Wright's previous body of work is interesting too... I am not sure if I totally agree with what you're saying or not. Essentially what you're saying is, Wright should be given some benefit of the doubt, or "spotted some points," on the strength of his previous work. But if this is granted, are you really looking at the work in question objectively? There's a part of me, the human side, that wants to agree with you because it's true that his previous work is stellar, and that his talents as one of the best fiction writers working today ought to be acknowledged and respected. But there's another part of me that thinks a reviewer ought to look at each book almost in a vacuum, without considering previous accomplishments or work. Every work of art ought to be judged solely on its own merits, or lack thereof.

I am sure that you would agree with what I'm saying... and I know that you were mostly emphasizing the merits of his prose in this book, and that Kakutani wasn't giving Wright enough credit for his technical achievements in writing it. But still I thought the point ought to be emphasized.

At any rate, thanks for providing some interesting food for thought, and furthering the discussion about what makes great books great, and why they matter to all of us.

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, I guess you're pretty much right. It is hard for me to detach myself from wanting Wright to do well, it seems, but I agree that novels should each be taken on their own merits (as should any work of art). When you brought this point up, I thought to myself, "I'd want that for each one of my books, if I were publishing books." So you make a pretty good point. It seems that this novel may not be the outstanding literary work I was hoping it would be, but I did still enjoy it and I found it far beyond most of the drivel that is being put out there by other contemporary novelists. It's a hard thing to have some idea of just how hard a book came to a writer, only to watch reviewers blast it out of the water as soon as it shows up. On the other hand it's a good lesson for me to learn, that this happens, that critics do their job as they see fit no matter how long it took the artist to make the art. I still believe that Kakutani is old hat and seems to like only certain types of books; they should farm her out to pasture. But for all that she made some solid points about Wright's novel, as I tried to admit in my comments.