Portraits of Rage and Mortality [Two Month Review: The Invented Part]
On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the third part (“A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing”) of The Invented Part . As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.
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As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.
This week’s podcast with special guest Jonathan Lethem is one of the best yet, and really digs into the meat of this chapter (mortality and creation). So, rather than try and frame this section as specifically and in as deep a detailed fashion as I have in weeks past, I think I’ll just focus on an aspect of this section (and the book as a whole) that I can very much relate to: anger at the contemporary world. Especially the contemporary world as it relates to books and literature.
I wrote a book last summer during a residency in Marfa, TX that was more or less a litany of all the shit about book culture and the way we talk about books that bugs me on a near daily basis. Lists in place of reviews. “Literary Twitter” in general. Lit Hub’s Book Marks thing. Using algorithms to determine what to publish. Using algorithms to determine what to read. Instaread and its imitators. The fact that almost all book organizations are poorly named and include a reference to “book,” “lit,” a combination of the two. (BookLamp, Jelly Books, Lit Hub, BookGrabbr, Litbreaker, Readgeek, Whichbook, BookRiot, Bookperks, BookBub, BookJetty, etc., etc., etc., etc. etc.)
The book was half-screed against the current trends in book culture; half-lament that none of this matters since we’re all going to die anyway. And although the latter can make you more zen about the former (“does it really matter if 85% of BuzzFeed’s books content is about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter given the current state of the world?”), it’s still very easy to get wrapped up in all the frustrating things the come along with dedicating one’s life to the promotion and cultivation of real literature. (Not agented ideas for bookish-like objects. The fetishization of the book industry will never not piss me off.)
All of which is to say, I feel this on a near daily basis:
Could it be because of things like this—so stupid, but that he feels so passionately about—that it seems like his chest is parting in two to reveal the reddest of seas? Is that the reason for this pain? And, obviously, this wasn’t the only literary rant that he found himself—between fascinated and worried—going off on these days. The Lonely Man, who’d always considered himself a kind of evangelist of his vocation and all his colleagues, in conversation with the dumbest or wildest of animals, promoting the pleasures of reading, and always publishing highly favorable reviews, because, he explained with a question: “Why malign something when there’re so many good things to recommend?”; some time ago, he’d found himself possessed by a new and unknown and almost Hulk-green fury. A euphoric thirst for vengeance and an exhilarating longing for destruction that, who knows, might’ve had something to do, once again, with the arrival of that pain in his chest and that made him so much like certain characters of Jewish American literature. Saul Bellow’s Von Humboldt Fleisher, Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Harry Towns, Phillip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath. People who, howling with rage and joy, laid waste to everything in their paths: families, jobs, and even hospitals. Homo Catastrophicos, their genesis the apocalypse of everyone else.
There was a time, thinks The Lonely Man, when people related to books like that. 2 × 1. What the writer gave you and what you did with it inside your own head. Now, not so much, less and less: it’s not the content that matters, it’s the packaging. The device. The latest model. Little mirrors and colored glass. Reading on it all the time, more than ever, but in homeopathic doses. And writing more than ever but, also, writing more about nothing and, the truth is, The Lonely Man couldn’t care less about these issues, which he thought and wrote about a great deal in another era, another dimension, just yesterday, in the days when he was healthy or at least felt healthy.
I also like how this chapter opens with the idea of a portrait. If the first part opens with a near metafictional reflection on the medium of writing (“How to begin. Or better: How to begin?” [Adding the question mark that—nothing happens by chance—has the shape of a fish or meat hook.”]), and the second is all about video (“The first thing they film, of course, is the library. Close-ups and wide shots and zoom-ins and zoom-outs where they can read titles but not names.”), this section opens in a more museum-like fashion (“Don’t touch.”), focusing on the idea of a portrait:
The name of his creator doesn’t matter, the name of the portrayed man either. Anonymous author, yes. And one of those neutral titles, simple and simply descriptive. The kind of prosthetic title (the true title was amputated by the passing of years and the movement of forgotten things) applied when anything is better than nothing. Anything, as long as it isn’t that, for him, oh so irritating Untitled trailed by a number, an attempt to cover up the author’s lack of will, or the lack of expertise of the experts in his work. Something helpful when the time comes to present it at the hour of the catalogue and the auction. And that’s it. And moving right along. And next! and look to the future.
So, now, Portrait of a Lonely Man. And done. Period and new sentence. A simple descriptive title. And period and new paragraph.
The last thing I want to note about this part is the quality of the stories it contains within. The set-up is pretty simple: The Writer has chest pains and goes to the emergency room expecting the worst. While there, his mind goes into overdrive and he comes up with story idea after story idea after story idea. So much that he could write—were he still healthy—all of which he’s willing to abandon in exchange for more life.
A lot of these stories revolve around death and being a parent, and they’re all pretty amazing. Any number could be expanded into more full-length pieces although, to be honest, I think they’re maybe even better in these abbreviated versions that act like a seed, pointing toward the potential of the idea.
My favorite is actually a non-death, non-parent one (and don’t worry, ideas about parenting and death and inheritance and family will be back in force in the not too distant future), which is also one of the funniest.
The title “The Little Dwarf” [. . .] seems, at first, a redundancy, a joke as bad as it is cruel and wrong. But no. Or yes. It depends on how you look at that boy, about four years old, who appears in its opening lines, on a street in the city of B, so that two friends, taking a walk to their favorite bookstore, encounter him and watch and discuss him with barely hidden fascination. The two friends are writers and have been resigned for a while now to the fact that everything they see on this side can end up being useful in the other part, a place they refuse to call “their work,” but, really, what else can they call it? So better, yes, to call it “The Other Part.” As mentioned, the boy must be three or four or five years old. But even though, for his age, he’s the “right” and “normal” height (note: find better adjectives), the boy is already, also, a dwarf. The short arms, the short legs, the big head. The boy is, for the two writer friends, a curious organism: a being living in two times at the same time. His present as a boy of the appropriate height already coexisting with his increasingly near future as a dwarf. The two writer friends watch him walk by, give a slight shudder, change the subject: neither of them can stop thinking about the little dwarf and, now in the bookstore, leafing through books, they can barely contain the desire to run out of there. To head home at full velocity, to their desks, to their computers, to see how and where they can insert that little dwarf into what they’re writing. He’ll fit somewhere, in the other part.
Tune in Thursday to hear more about this section, along with stories from Jonathan Lethem’s own hospital experiences and some talk about whether to blurb or not to blurb.