to the blog powerhouse, BIG OTHER, alongside other year-end lists by Andrew Borgstrom, Eugene Lim, Kevin Prufer, Cooper Renner, and David Shields.
I ended last week’s Internet/Franzen smackdown post with a bit about James Robison’s The Illustrator, knowing already I wanted to talk about the book outside the context of “good books that don’t get as much attention as The Corrections.” Which is really almost any good book. So let’s back up.
A few weeks ago, I had my first visit to the fiction stacks of the downtown Nashville Public Library, a big impressive room where Dawn Raffel graces the new releases shelf and where people actually seem to be reading stuff. I hit the R’s looking to see if they had the new Mary Robison (they didn’t), but they did have The Illustrator (1988).
And I thought, “James Robison, that guy who said a something nice about one of my pieces on Fictionaut?” (I have a special talent for remembering people who compliment me.) The full-sized author photo on the jacket’s back proved it was the same guy, just younger and with more hair. In a blurb, Donald Barthelme called the novel “a brilliant piece of work” and “a remarkable achievement.” I was sold enough to check it out. I just didn’t expect for it to be so good.
The Illustrator follows Ash, a middle-aged artist who falls for an almost-legal high schooler named Q (whose actual name is Erin, whose actual-actual name is Pauline). He takes a job in South America and tortures himself with thoughts of Q, then returns to Boston and remembers what she’s actually like and kinda loses interest. And starts painting big weird anti-paintings. And his ex-wife, Lucia, shows up. Then Lucia, Q, and Ash form a weird little pseudo-family based mostly on Q and Lucia trash-talking Ash. Then they all go to Vermont and he rides his motorcycle too recklessly.
The plotting is loose and natural while each short scene is a like tightly constructed flash, ready for Quick Fiction, often complete with punchy/mysterious last lines. Examples, ripped from context: “Fuck the hotel bill.” “You still have all your teeth?” “I like the void. I do.” The looseness and Ash’s obliquely cool temperament gel nicely. At any point in the book, it feels both as if anything might happen next and as if Ash doesn’t care one way or the other what will happen. And yet the difference between this book and slackery “the point is that not much happens” books is that his actions do affect him, again and again, and usually for the worse. If Ash had a stake in himself, he might save himself, but doesn’t, so won’t.
One of the book’s enormous pleasures is its dialogue, and it’s never better than when Q is talking or letter-writing. Young and eager-to-impress and language-lax, but smart, too smart to dismiss, Q’s voice gives me the zap of recognition that goes, “Sometimes pop culture makes me forget that teenagers in the late 80’s basically sounded exactly like teenagers today and like teenagers always will until the end of time.”
Lucia, too, is one of the book’s big surprises. She’s barely mentioned in the book’s first half, but when she shows up (“Hello, Ash. You could hug me, I guess.”), she arrives with so much nuance and emotional baggage that Ash has to be reconsidered in the light of her arrival.
“Look at your oeuvre,” she says in the same scene, looking over his paintings for the first time. “My, my. Aren’t you weird. You know, I never minded that we both had sex with so many others while we were married–I thought that was fine. But what I minded, minded purple, was that you didn’t love me, Ash.”
“I minded that too,” Ash says, “but you were terrible, just terrible awful. You’re not awful anymore probably, isn’t that so?”
All the language feels real and fun: This is the kind of minimalism that uses telling and concise details to point outward to the big lived-in world. By the end of the book, so much ground has been covered that it makes for a jarring return to the opening pages after a first read.
James Robison’s only other book, Rumor and Other Stories, came out two years before The Illustrator. I bought it on Amazon for $.01 + $4 shipping and haven’t finished it yet, but here’s a preview: it’s good too. The opening story, The Line, pushes the observational people-watching story as far as it will go, waiting until the last minute to point to any sort of meaning, a neat trick he later repeats to even greater effect in “The Indian Gardens.” Even with its subversive touches, Rumor is more of a classic book than Illustrator, less of its time, still minimal but working closer to the tradition. My favorites so far are, “Envy,” “Eleven,” and the title track, “Rumor,” all of which slow-build their loss and longing and end pretty hopefully.
Eventually, the web helped me put this together: James was married to Mary Robison, hence hence hence. (Pretty perfect, then, that I found him while looking for his wife.) The Illustrator is dedicated to Mary. They’re now divorced. If you go looking for stylistic parallels, the book has more in common with Mary Robison’s more-recent Why Did I Ever than with the stories she was writing when The Illustrator came out.
But really, James Robison’s style (circa Illustrator) is closer to Frederick Barthelme’s than to his then-wife’s. And surprise! They went to grad school together. In Barthelme’s famous & fun article “On Being Wrong,” there’s a great long paragraph in which Barthelme characterizes the “beyond irony” writer scene of the John Hopkins MFA, 1976, in which Barthelme and his colleagues grew to suspect that “a plain sentence, drab as it may seem, might be more powerful by and large than the then standard-issue clever sentence.” He characterizes the teachers: John Barth, Charles Newman. Then continues: “And the students were good too. Mary and Jim Robison were there; everything in Mary’s stories ‘snicked’ -any time any object hit any other object it ‘snicked.'”
It’ll be a shame, though, if this passing mention is going to be James Robison’s legacy: A good writer who was present for a scene in which his then-wife had a starring role. Mary Robison herself, in an interview with BOMB, praised her ex-husband’s prose while simultaneously burying him: “[Being labeled a minimalist] did a lot for me (laughter) in that I received some attention other deserving writers did not. Patricia Geary, Moira Crone, Liz Inness-Brown, Steve Barthelme, or even my late husband, James Robison. Joke, my little joke.” Ha?
One exciting thing about my time in an MFA was getting to be in a community of readers who passed books around like secrets. Noy Holland taught The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine to a class I wasn’t even in, and in a couple years we’d all read it and Stanley Crawford was guest-teaching a workshop, just riding the wave of Western Mass enthusiasm for his beautiful strange book.
Not that I need to cite examples of ways word can spread. Just saying it’s exciting when it does, and that a smart friend’s recommendation has a better batting average that playing the Nashville Public Library Stacks Lotto, and that it’s easier to beef up somebody’s “critical standing” than it used to be, and that it’s easier and cheaper to get semi-obscure books than it used to be, and that it’s fun to do the open node thing.
And that’s the flip side to my attempt to approach Jonathan Franzen’s writing openly EVEN THOUGH he’s really popular–in many ways, it’s just not as fun to champion a dude who’s getting so much love from The New York Times that they’re sending a personal sushi chef over to his house to express their praise via Rainbow Roll. The NYT sushi chef would be a wedge between me and Freedom, going, “Isn’t this a succulent scene? Aren’t you having an enormously well-wrought time?” The clamor isn’t conducive to immersed reading.
Beginning a book like The Illustrator only noise in my head is the blurbed praise of a dead master. But then the voice crops up that goes, “If this book is as good as I think, won’t it be fun to tell people about it?” and then, “Maybe you just like this for its obscurity,” and then, “Won’t it be embarrassing when you get behind this book on only the strength of your own taste and then other people hate it?” Which is maybe not so conducive either.
The lucky part is: if either book is doing its job, those voices tend to fade away as the book takes over.
One sunny happy day one time, I was walking down the street doin my thing (probably whistling!) when I was accosted by the internet. Or not accosted, exactly. I guess I was the one who initiated. But it was so easy to do, less decision than a part of my day, so you maybe could say it was LIKE the internet had accosted me. With its ubiquity. I was also not on a street, nor was I walking, nor have I been able to whistle ever since the accident.
“Well…” I said. “He’s got a reputation for being a crusty guy, but lots of writers don’t do well in the spotlight. But he admits the public stuff isn’t his strong suit. I chalk him up to being one of those Jonathan Safran Foer writers who I can read and enjoy but don’t necessarily want to meet.”
The internet barfed all over the place. “Him?”
“What, Foer? Well I mean he’s pretty playful, and did you read that story in the 20 under 40 issue of N-”
The internet interrupted me to barf everywhere once more.
“You okay?” I said.
He shrugged. “I’ve got a hyperbolic stomach. But back to Franzen. I guess when I say, ‘What a dick,’ I’m talking more about his books and sentences and his stupid face. I mean, Time Magazine? You know who should be on the cover of Time Magazine?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Exactly,” the internet said. “You know why you’ve never heard of Rhett Faber? Because dick-ass pretentious dicks like Jonathan Franzen are taking up all the oxygen.”
“What’s he written? What’s a good starting place?”
“Nothing! He sucks! He-“
“No, I mean your guy. Faber.”
“Oh, I made him up. He’s like a symbol for all the unsung risk-takers out there shaking things up unnoticed.”
“Isn’t it good that a writer of fully engaged character-based kinda-challenging novels is getting all this attention? Instead of Dan Brown or Paolo Coelho or the guy who wrote The Shack?”
“At least people are reading…”
“At least they’re reading,” the internet imitated me in this dumb voice. “The Harry Potter Defense.”
“Oh, Harry Potter’s not so-“
The internet took out a gun and shot himself sixty times in the face. Then got up. “Sorry. One populist admission too many. I literally had to.”
“Here’s what I try to do with popularity,” I said. “I ignore it. If someone whose taste I respect tells me I need to check something out, I try to do it. Friend or reviewer or whoever. And then, since there’s lots to read and since I read slowly, I hold all fiction to the same high standard. If it’s good, I read it. If it isn’t, I stop reading.”
“By the way, this is shaping up to be your all-time worst short story, Durham. Didactic, blunt…”
“This isn’t a short story.”
“I see quotes. I see saids.”
This is a blog post.
“Fourth wall-breaking and writing yourself in: pretty postmodern for the president of the Nashville chapter of the Twilight Fan Club. And by postmodern, I mean it dings a couple boxes on the postmodern checklist, like that awful-awful scene at the beginning of ‘Whatever Works’ where Larry David starts talking to the camera.”
“Yes!” I said. “I hated that scene!”
“‘Wink wink, the joke is that this is a movie. But if a guy did this in real life, he’d be crazy!’ Woody Allen, making the moderately intelligent person feel smart since 1776. Where was I? No, it’s not better that they’re reading. It’s not independent thinking. The American sheeple will follow Mr. Anti-Intellectualism around anywhere…”
“The Gaddis thing?” I said. “Yeah, I’ll grant that was kind of an annoying article…”
“…but Marcus didn’t come out of it looking so good either. Corrections? Awesome. Notable American Women? Awesome. Two guys who can’t see far enough past their own great projects to appreciate how fun and accommodating the Big Tent is. The joy of the varied diet. In the end, what a boring flame war that was.”
“Sorry? While you were talking, I was thinking of how sexist it is to like Jonathan Franzen. And racist, maybe. Hey, let me asked you something,” the internet said. “You happy with your penis size?”
“I’ve got a friend who sells these… forget it. Here’s the rule. Pay attention. If a very famous someone produces something good-not-masterpiece, you can’t praise it because they are too famous and your job as a talented-yet-unfamous person, when reading their stuff, is not to go, ‘Is this good? Am I enjoying this?’ but instead to say, ‘Is this as incredible as that one guy said? Is their fame deserved? Can I think of people who deserve their fame more?'”
“Yeah, absolutely,” the internet said.
“Quick story,” I said. “Summer after freshman year of college. Not an awful summer, not a great summer. I’m working full-time at coffee shop with this neurotic assistant manager who puts everybody on edge. Sometimes I get to man the espresso bar, but mostly I’m tethered to the cash register all day. But. My sister has enjoyed The Corrections so much that she bought me a copy. On my fifteen-minute breaks, too short to do much, I’m running off and reading this book in my car, getting my nineteen-year-old mind blown. Reading it and thinking, ‘Fiction can feel this real?’ and then scrubbing the toilet and restocking the sweeteners. It didn’t ‘get me into writing’ but it was sure as hell one of the rungs.”
“But would it hold up now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I suspect it would but I don’t know.”
“Just think how much Rhett Faber would have blown your mind while reading in the car that summer.”
“If he existed?”
”If he existed.”
“Well you’ll like this then. I’ve got a Rhett Faber for you. The other day, I was at Nashville Public Library, the downtown one. The good one. And I found this book called The Illustrator by James Robison.”
But I was starting to lose the internet’s attention, I could tell. “Rick Moody is a pretentious asshole!” he said.
“Well this Robison book is really something,” I said. “Frederick Barthelme-style minimalism, which is so hard to do well. This guy nails it scene after scene. I’m almost done with it. I guess it was a big deal when it came out. It won some award. In a blurb, Donald Barthelme calls it profound.”
“I have strong opinions about Tao Lin and would like to voice them!” the internet said.
“And since I love this book and think it’s so under-appreciated,” I said, “I thought maybe you’d be interested in helping me get the word out about it.”
He didn’t hear me. He saw Billy Collins walking by and pushed him into oncoming traffic. “Sorry,” he said, big smile on his face. “You were saying something I don’t care about?”
“You’re a sadist,” I said.
“When do you want to hang out again?” he said.
“Two hours tonight,” I said, “and then again first thing in the morning.”