Inside Baseball

‘The life that produces writing can’t be written about,’ writes Tobias Wolff in his novel Old School, about a young man who grows up to become a writer and who bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Wolff himself. Which is more or less to say that the accumulated weight of the book – an awfully good one – bends and breaks the logic of that one sentence, which itself falls near the end.

That the narrator of Old School goes unnamed is coy, as his c.v. fits easily alongside Wolff’s own: enrolled at a tony Eastern prep school but feeling very much an outsider; made hungry by literature and starving, even as a teenager, for recognition in that arena; sent reeling at a young age into the grip of an uncertain life, including a tour of duty in war; and finally claiming the exact success he once dreamt of. One wonders if Wolff, after two serious and quite literary memoirs and upon the contemplation a third, decided instead that the more interesting choice for this particular story – a story in which the narrator writes fiction and lies about the fiction he writes – was a porous osmotic tension between what happened and what might have happened.

I have always loved fiction about writers. (That statement ought to be qualified to the extent that I don’t mean metafiction – which is to say fiction that is self-aware of its fictionality, and which more often than not quickly becomes tiresome – but rather fiction that explores the interior and exterior lives of writers.) A loose, broken-in authenticity inhabits the best stories and novels of the genre – Old School and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys come immediately to mind, as does ‘Spirits’, the old Richard Bausch story most recently reprinted in Wives and Lovers. These stories have the snap and creak of a well-used catcher’s mitt.

(My affection for this sort of inside baseball isn’t limited to fiction. In almost any artistic medium there’s a great pleasure when the masters of the field immerse themselves in their own trade – think of John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night, from 1977, about the tribulations of stage actors; or Matisse’s painting The Red Studio, in which the eponymously suffused painter’s studio suggests the obsessive temperament required to make any art; or even Tina Fey’s television sitcom 30 Rock, about a sketch comedy show, and the semiautobiographical bar-band songs of The Hold Steady. These works are bathed in the deep vivid humanity which comes from knowing one’s subject with a rich intimacy and immediacy.)

Writers who appear in fiction are easily taken for alter egos of the writers of those fictions; and almost as often they indeed represent some variety of counterlife, the enactment of what-ifs. Such is certainly the case with the unnamed narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival; the close fit of life and fiction adds new, inviting contours and textures to the experience of reading the novel. Naipaul interrogates the ways in which we nurture our identities – the ways in which we either have them handed to us or invent them for ourselves – while reenacting the process of his own self-invention. The Enigma of Arrival is a beguiling, frustrating, seductive fictional organism: it keeps slipping tantalizingly out of your grasp.

The most famous and most successful writer alter ego is probably Nathan Zuckerman, whose lengthy fictional tenure serves as the nuclear core powering Philip Roth’s entire oeuvre: Zuckerman manages to seem present even in the books where he has no role. Roth, without quite melting the boundaries of realism into the stickier grounds of metafiction, nevertheless composed the early Zuckerman books with a vivid awareness of the history of fiction about writers. The Ghost Writer, from 1979, marked Zuckerman’s first full-fledged appearance, and it takes as one obvious cue Henry James’s novella The Lesson of the Master. Both tell the story of a young writer in the heat of early success and supplicating at the feet of an older, established figure; both chart the temperature of admiration as it curdles into competitiveness, emulation as it swells into usurpation; in each book the men, despite a long gap in their levels of accomplishment, cook with longing for the same woman. But where James rendered a fairly simple – yet nonetheless ironical and unsentimental – fable about the roots of creative accomplishment, Roth flooded the same basic geography with the brackish tides of culture, history, religion, sex, and existential dread. The dueling figures of The Lesson of the Master have a porcelain, platonic distance – they are representations – whereas Zuckerman and the subject of his reverence (but especially Zuckerman) stand firmly potted in the fertile dirt of idiosyncrasy.

A greed for fictions about writers has, in a writer, the unavoidable air of narcissism (or, perhaps, envious aspiration); but not all such fictions are equally successful. I wasn’t as impressed as some others were by a couple of recent examples: Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men and Nam Le’s short story ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, from his collection The Boat. Each hangs lightly on the thin frame of a single idea, and comes with one too many gossipy, incestuous asides about Harvard, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and certain other writers and aspects of publishing. They replace the warmth of good inside baseball with the cold locks of an inside joke; they feel closed and ingrown. Le, for instance, makes a few veiled and somewhat catty allusions to contemporary young writers, but in his story and in Gessen’s novel many of those allusions have the brittle quality of, say, the references to Prada and Bergdorf in the Shopaholic series: they are signifiers, little bells ringing out a thin music. In Old School, Wolff also uses real-world literary figures, but, as A. O. Scott pointed out, in his review of the novel for the NYTBR, those writers ‘serve as panels in an allegorical triptych on the varieties of literary self-regard and the follies of literary hero worship.’ In other words, Wolff, in his use of actual writers, is doing several interesting things at once, and he does them in a formally interesting way.

What makes Old School and the original Zuckerman trilogy such profound, satisfying novels is their deep, complex engagement with the ethical and personal hazards of writing fiction, an engagement that can only come from a sustained and involved study of those hazards. One who’s made such a study has contemplated not just fiction, but life.

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~ by mackenz on June 8, 2009.

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