I had escaped to California to write a novel. New York is too noisy for continuous thinking. It is a machine that grinds the mind to powder. It is a battlefield. But I soon discovered that California was a hospital. Take your choice; the subway or the bedpan… Everyone is predetermined by glands, Mr. Older says. This man was once a hard-boiled fighter who exulted in political battles and reform. Now he has been licked, not by glands, but by California.As I was leaving Russia, I was treated to a couple of archetypal moments: a short conversation on Kantian ethics with my Muscovite cab driver who was protesting his girlfriend’s execution of the family of cockroaches in his kitchen and then some early New Year’s tidings from the customs officials who approved of my bringing the joys of Russian candies to America, but questioned whether I was the same man as pictured in my passport photo. It is hard to believe that 48 hours after these moments, I was at Serendipity Books on University Avenue in Berkeley, looking for old Mike Gold novels and short stories for one of my many side projects. Alas, the codger at Serendipity had nothing for me other than a lecture on the fate of the proletarian novel, so I went on to Walden Pond Books on Grand in Oakland and procured Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology. This, along with the New Yorker Winter Fiction issue, kept me busy during my breaks between playing with my nephews and cooking food (sweet potato enchiladas, chili and cilantro chutney) for my exhausted sister and brother-in-law.
“In Foggy California,” Mike Gold (1928)
I am convalescing now; I am swimming, sunbathing, walking, eating, fishing, etc., getting back to shape. One can not expect thoughts on politics of literature from a man living this way. He is a sort of happy bonehead to whom nothing matters…”
“A Letter From a Clam Digger,” Mike Gold (1929)
The odd contrast of Gold’s early-twentieth-century muscular prose and the New Yorker fare was not as pronounced as the internal contradiction of finding Grace Paley's lyrical ode to Paul Goodman’s “The Lordly Hudson” wedged alongside Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. (I can’t even comment on Sasha Frere-Jones’s review of Led Zeppelin that will likely continue to feed the stupidity of David Brooks’s take on the American canon.)
I will admit from the outset that I am no lover of contemporary American “ethnic literature,” and especially not the inanity that Diaz has come to embrace in his steady search for the next retainer. The sprinkling of pop culture references, a vulgar moment or two, and some obvious tawdriness laced with foreign accents—it’s doesn’t quite cut the mustard for me. Lahiri, on the other hand, is completely dissatisfying for more personal reasons, as her Bengali-American balance of ethnic particularism and human universals just seems banal and trite—considerations of the death of one’s mother over a plate full of luchi. Yawn. The bother isn’t that it rings untrue, but rather that it rings obvious.
While part of me wishes to enjoy Junot and Jhumpa, the other part of me recognizes that they are crass hawkers of ethnicity who force me into pointless and annoying awkward conversations with white people in Brooklyn. In the back of my head as I read, I whisper to them, “C’mon now, please stop it. I'll have to pay for this.”
Paley, in contrast, is delicate and restrained, to the point where I wonder if most New Yorker readers miss the layerings of secular Jewish New York in her quiet poem “Suddenly There’s Poughkeepsie.”
except for its spelling
an ordinary town but
the great heaving
ocean sixty miles away is
determined to reach
that town every day
…look it has
become our Lordly Hudson
and we are
now in a poem by the poet
Paul Goodman be quiet heart
then the sea
At first, the thrust of the poem appears to be just some witty aside on the name Poughkeepsie and the curious natural bodies that flow by New York. But for those of who have read Paul Goodman, or at least Hayden Carruth’s interpretation of “The Lordly Hudson” in Suicides and Jazzers, it calls to mind a community and a world gone by. A community of poets that tried to summon a different new world of peace and pacifism—that world of Paleys and Goodmans, lost somewhere in the past quarter century. (Taylor Stoehr, please finish the Goodman bio you have been promising since the 1970s!)
If only Lahiri and Diaz would gather the courage to make their ethnicities speak more to our contemporary conundrums and not just to the next paycheck from the New Yorker. It's possible, if not profitable. They just need to pay more attention to thinking and less to the conventions of present-day MFA creative writing programs. I know that Lahiri at least should have already heard this.
Now, in the meantime, lizzie b is calling me to my next drink and a step toward Californian bone-headism at the Catherine Hotel.
[p.s. I know this is my own just desserts for reading the New Yorker. No need to admonish, dear readers.
p.p.s. Blogger messes up the spacing on Paley's poem. You can read the whole work with proper format here.]