Monday, March 22, 2010

Wetting yourself

But times have changed, and manhood is an even trickier proposition than it used to be; only Philip Roth still believes in the ol' saved-by-the-booty formula anymore. Younger writers know that won't wash, and as a result the literature of the masculine midlife crisis feels at once richer and riskier than ever before.

Knowing, self-deprecating humor is the default approach these days. Take Sam Lipsyte's satire about a failed artist turned academic fundraiser, "The Ask," a novel so caustic you might want slip on a pair of safety gloves before turning its pages. Milo Burke, Lipsyte's narrator, is emasculated both at home and abroad, from the wife who withholds sex and casually cheats on him to the third-rate university that keeps him on only at the insistence of an old friend turned philanthropist intent on jerking his chain.

[. . .]

Which brings us to this week's choice, Thomas Kennedy's "In the Company of Angels," definitely not a satire. The gravely injured 50-something man at the center of this novel has infinitely better reasons for losing faith than Lipsyte's and Hynes' narrators do. [. . .] Such impotence is utterly incompatible with his previous understanding of manhood; therefore, he must be unmanned. The urge to cancel out a shaming weakness with some act of force is a temptation that all the men in Kennedy's novel face. If they succumb, they will only perpetuate the contagion, but to transcend violence requires an imaginative courage difficult to muster.

[. . .]

"In the Company of Angels" is a novel about grown-ups, people battered and dinged by life, painfully aware of their own responsibility, whose understanding of their past never stops evolving. It's the dignity of their adulthood — the elusive prize at stake in any midlife crisis — that makes them so admirable and, above all, so moving. (Laura Miller, “In the Company of Angels,” Salon, 14 March 2010)

She'll wet herself

Re: "Younger writers know that won't wash, and as a result the literature of the masculine midlife crisis feels at once richer and riskier than ever before."

Knowing, self-deprecating humor is the default approach these days.”

So it FEELS riskier, but it clearly isn't -- after all, we all know that being Letterman/Clooney self-deprecating, pretending to think you're heavily compromised and surely inadequate -- even clownish -- pretty much is the only way to get a free-pass these days. Risky would probably be to write, "hanging around young women actually can do the trick," and to take yourself seriously as a man -- even if you know this won't wash.

Re: '"In the Company of Angels" is a novel about grown-ups, people battered and dinged by life, painfully aware of their own responsibility, whose understanding of their past never stops evolving."

(some version of) Lester Bangs: "You're flipping out. That's good. Alright. This is how you blow their minds. She's going to ask you -- this is Laura Miller, right? -- she'll ask you how the novel's going. Here's what you do: Tell her, 'it's a think piece about a mid-lifer struggling with his own limitations in the harsh face of changing times.' She'll wet herself."

Fascinating litmus test

I must say that I'm finding the comments to this column revealing. The novel I wound up recommending is about a refugee who was imprisoned and tortured for over a year by the Pinochet regime, and the people in his life who are participating in his recovery. I find it hard to see how this material constitutes "boomer navel-gazing" or "whining" or what Elizabeth Gilbert's memoirs have to do with it. (And confidential to ropty: none of the novels I mention are about people who teach at universities.)

I confess that I've sometimes wondered whether the people who post comments even bother to read the article in question; some seem to be responding to the headlines alone. I think I've got my answer. (Laura Miller, response to post)


John, I can't tell you why the crop of novels I looked at this month were mostly about middle-aged men, just coincidence I suspect. But I guess I disagree with many of the commenters here because I do think that it's a worthwhile subject if the writer handles it well. I didn't like the Lipsyte novel that much, but the Hynes book is great and obviously I'm a big fan of the Kennedy novel.

Why not the Shapiro or the dominatrix memoirs? Because this week I was looking at fiction, not memoirs.

Bebe, perhaps I'm naive in hoping that comments added to a story are about the contents of the story. I like to think that this column demonstrates that not all novels about middle-aged men are "whiny" and that the story of someone surviving trauma and violence has significance even to those of us who have never had to suffer such ordeals. Most people experience loss as they age, and this has been a theme of much great literature -- "King Lear" for one. Most of all, I just don't see why there's such an outpouring of contempt for middle-aged men here! (Laura Miller, response to post)

By modesty loose immodesty "out"

I read your bit, Laura, and I didn't get how being self-deprecating COULDN'T amount to working STRONGLY against any effort by an author to take risks. Without reading the works, as soon as I hear we're going to be escorted along by self-deprecating narration, I assume the effort's likely mostly all about, as they say, "self-fashioning": an effort (in this case) primarily intended to establish the author as sufficiently clownish enough, unpresuming enough, not to be harassed if in his own life he continues to proper, or aims to prosper, while so many now are being downed for their immodest assumptions, their selfishness, their hubris. If this is the case, we shouldn't participate in hiding away this self-lie by making its cover seem so true, brave, and emboldened.

You scold and hope to cower, by bringing up a Lear-terary giant and his (eternal) truths-in-aging, when surely you know what giant-killing New Historicism -- what Stephen Greenblat -- must have made of this "ploy," this particular Renaissance self-fashioner.

- - - - -

A pack of hounds... what the "letters" bunch remind me of. I actually feel that Ms. Miller's reviews were spot on, and showed a great deal of insight. (yekdeli, response to post)


We're not hounds, we're Post-Whips. We're not here to rip apart the posts; we're here to offer helpful correction -- to challenge the writers. And we don't bite the hand that feeds us -- just little-nips, and that's it.

Link: In the Company of Angels (Salon)

No comments:

Post a Comment

My books at

Essays on the Lord of the Rings Draining the Amazon's Swamp Wendy and Lucy, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings (and free at scribd...