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August 13, 2004

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» Review? Check! (Point, That Is) from Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant
Forget Wiseltier's bombast. Mark's got a sizable and thoughtful review up (to the point where he's blown his limit by 1,500 words).... [Read More]

» Review? Check! (Point, That Is) from Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant
Forget Wiseltier's bombast. Mark's got a sizable and thoughtful review up (to the point where he's blown his limit by 1,500 words).... [Read More]

Comments

Dan Wickett

Well done Mark. Still sounds enough like Baker's past works that I'll pass on it, I've yet to enjoy anything by him, but at least now I can pass based on verification of that reasoning and not hysteria!

Enjoy,

Walter Biggins

Thanks, Mark, for a well-written and thoughtful commentary on the AESTHETIC merits and problems of "Checkpoint." (I hope you can find someone to publish this for money--it's a shame that this is a free review, while Leon Wieseltier got paid for his tripe.) I'm a Baker fan, but I had severe reservations about reading this one, and it's nice to finally see someone write an honest-to-goodness review of the novel in question. I'll wait till paperback.

birnbaum

The Hofstadter essay is a great get, Mark.

My suggestion is that people who are upset with the NYTBR, not buy the NYT on Sunday and send Mark that money.

Jimmy Beck

Exemplary, as usual: The Triumph of the Deranged Blogger.

For me, the thing that resonates is the whole issue of a story told exclusively in dialogue. My own fiction tends to be dialogue-heavy and I'm constantly fretting that it's too much--it's at the cost of the interior lives of the characters, as you say. But are there examples where it's worked?

paul terwelp

I second the notion of sending Mark my newspaper money. His review is entertaining, thoughtful, and should be compensable.

tito

You can always buy some "stuff"
http://www.cafeshops.com/elegvar.9316879

Dan Green

"The problem, however, is that the limitations imposed by the dialogue form Baker has chosen ultimately shut out the reader from the characters’ interior lives."

Would you say, Mark, that these "limitations" will always prevent a more full-bodied sense of character, or could Baker have made the characters more interesting if he'd been more careful with the dialogue form? Would you agree with Jimmy Beck that dialogue by its nature shuts off our view of the "interior"?

TEV

I’m thinking out loud now, so please don’t hold me to the same standard as the work above, but the logical answer would seem to be that sure, it could work, with the requisite skill and care. Certainly Shakespeare has created some of our most enduring characters in this fashion. Of course, those are plays, and one gets into what is perhaps a semantic question about the function (and form) of the novel versus the function (and form) of the play. And I suppose my own bias prompts me to ask what is the point of the novel-as-dialogue? What differentiates it from a bound play? Other than the intent of performance. As an exercise it can have interest and value but it’s not a sufficiently broad canvas to offer what I look for in novels.

As I said, I’m thinking out loud but yes, of course, characters could certainly be effectively and resonantly rendered through dialogue only – Padgett Powell comes close to doing this, although he’s not strictly dialogue only. I think perhaps if Baker had focused less on the roll call of Bush evils and more on examining their psychic results – how they damage and unhinge and wound his protagonists – then it would have been more emotionally involving (the referenced chicken speech being an oddly poignant example).

Michael Patrick Hughes

Mark:

Thoughtful, provocative, consideration of the novel on its merits as a novel, rather than as a political stance. I agree with some of the other comments--it doesn't make me want to read the book. Hofstadter's essay is very germaine, and raises as many issues about the current nature of contemporary politics as when it was published in 1964. Paranoia is rife in this election, on both sides.

And who cares how many words you use to consider this book. Is that a self-imposed restriction? I hope you sent a copy of this to the NY Times.

Max (from Cal Arts)

Mark -

I just sat in on your CAL ARTS reading, and I was very much impressed. Inspired. Enthused to check out your blog. So much so in fact - here I am.

Here's my thing. I'm a huge fan of Stewart Home and Kathy Acker, and after reading your review of Nicholson Baker's CHECKPOINT: A NOVEL - it occured to me. Home's and Acker's 'novels' aren't really novels at all. You and I talked a bit about James Wood and his belief (and your belief) that the novel is best-suited for character-studies. Assuming this is the case - CHECKPOINT is not valuable as a 'novel' - as you so rightly point out - it's most valuable as a cultural artifact.

In similar fashion - Stewart Home's 69 THINGS TO DO WITH A DEAD PRINCESS and Kathy Acker's GREAT EXPECTATIONS - are really fun cultural artifacts. I understand now - that I value them NOT as novelists - but as brilliant servants of that thing we call culture. Hail the cultural artifact-makers!!!

Hopefully, this doesn't come off to Acker's ghost and the very much alive Home as a back-handed compliment.


Look forward to hearing from you.

Max in wet Valencia

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."