March 1, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | March 1, 2007 |


I wouldn’t kid you folks: Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came to the End is downright fantastic, a poignant, amusing — but not side-splittingly so — look at the everyday petty squabbles, tedium, politics, and clock-staring that takes place in an office atmosphere. It’s “Seinfeld” in corporate America, or a novelized version of “The Office” without the Michael Scott shenanigans — it’s as though Ferris has taken all of the minor characters and transplanted them into an ad agency. It also captures the feeling of office life better than any other novel I’ve ever read — it made me both fondly nostalgic for those days and happy to be away from them. There are a few dramatic flourishes, just to keep it interesting, but for the most part, Then We Came to the End focuses its attention on the small details that preoccupy our time in offices: the useless shit in our cubicles, the drama that underlies taking a former co-worker’s chair, the silly inconsequential pranks that blow up in our faces, the humorless dicks, the gossip, the petty jealousies, the intra-office crushes and ill-advised relationships, and the irrational, paranoid fear that a terminated co-worker might return with firearms. And there are a lot of former employees involved, as the novel takes place during the late 1990s, after the bubble had burst. It was so weird, though; Then We Came to the End forced me, at times, to relive my office days, particularly the feeling that I could define myself by how I decorated my cubicle and later, my office, which was just an absurd notion. At times, in fact, if the novel weren’t so irreverent, it would’ve been depressing as hell, just for its ability to make us look at the way so many of us spend our days hovered over a computer screen, either marking or wasting time.

I can’t resist, either. Here’s a sample passage:

How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with our two minds.
There seemed to be only one electric pencil sharpener in the whole damn place.

I also read Jake Halpern’s Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truth Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, a decent but not really fascinating examination of why we are obsessed with celebrity culture. Halpern (an NPR commentator) breaks it down into three sections, first examining the International Modeling and Talent Association (Fame School), one of those programs for which parents spend tens of thousands of dollars with the dim hope that their child will become a star; second, he explores why and how people get jobs as personal assistants to celebrities (with particular focus on Tiffani Thiessen’s PA); and finally, he looks at what motivates a person to become a hardcore fan, using as a case study a middle-aged woman with an unnatural obsession, complete with a shrine, for Rod Stewart [Mom? You didn’t tell me you were gonna be in a book. - JCF].

Halpern also interviews a number of cultural critics, psychologists, agents, and other industry insiders. He offers statistics, too, as well as lot of his own speculation, mounting a ton of evidence that we are obsessed with celebrity culture, but he doesn’t really draw any concrete theories as to why. It seems to have something do with the growing number of openings in the celebrity world (thanks to reality TV) and a whole lot to do with children’s television watching habits, in which kids increasingly fill the voids in their lives with “para-social relationships,” or the “illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer.” It’s a somewhat interesting read (and easy, at only 200 pages), but mostly I was just hoping he’d have some cool insights not into celebrity obsession, but into celebrities themselves. What can I say? It fills the void. — Dustin Rowles

Books by standup comedians tend to come in two flavors: the ones that are basically just written forms of the comedian’s act, and the ones that offer something more. There’s nothing wrong with either variety, and each can be done well or poorly. George Carlin has been one of the best at putting together the former variety, and Al Franken has done quite well with the latter. Lewis Black’s now two-year-old book, Nothing’s Sacred, treads between both of these types, and does so rather well. Black is pretty well known these days for his politically charged rants, be they on “The Daily Show” or as part of his own standup routine. But with Nothing’s Sacred, Black chose to turn down the political angst to instead give us some insight into his origins. The memoir provides many short chapters detailing his life, mostly from his youth in the suburbs of D.C. through his early career as a playwright. While it is moving at times (particularly the chapter where he talks about his clearly loved and missed brother), it’s not of the modern memoir trend, i.e., “My life was absolutely miserable and you must feel my pain.” Instead, he’s simply turned his sarcastic and biting approach onto his own past, giving the reader an insight into who Lewis Black was as well as passing on some of the valuable life lessons he’s learned (e.g., while in Paris in his late teens, he discovered that “[o]ne doesn’t shit in the bidet, because one has to clean it up”). Of course, you can’t change who Lewis Black is, so there are certainly some political asides (“The only thing dumber than a Democrat or a Republican is when those pricks work together”). But they are only asides, and even if you’re not a Leftie inclined to agree with Black’s politics, there’s plenty here for you to find entertaining. I mean, where else can you learn that Martha Stewart’s vagina goes with every decor?

Mentioning Martha Stewart’s vagina seems like the perfect way to transition to horror, which brings us to Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel, the recent debut novel by Joe Hill, son to some dude named Stephen King. I picked up Heart-Shaped Box because I had read several good reviews, saying the book wasn’t simply published out of nepotism, and I found the plot intriguing. In a nutshell, it’s about an aging death-metal-type rock star who’s got a collection of bizarrely macabre items (such as a used gallows noose and a snuff film). When he finds out about a ghost being sold on an eBay-type site, in the form of a dead man’s suit, he can’t resist purchasing it. The ghost turns out to be real, of course, and things start going poorly rather quickly. I can’t tell you a whole lot more about the book than this, not because I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but because I stopped reading it about a quarter of the way through. And I wish I could tear into it, saying I quit the book because it was an absolute steaming pile of crap. But the truth is, it wasn’t too bad. The writing is basic, without being simple, easily projecting the action and emotion of what’s going on. And it has the kind of slow pace, without being boring, that’s reminiscent of his pop’s better works. Nevertheless, for some reason I found myself simply not caring about the lead character or about what was going on. And since I’ve recently turned over a new leaf, allowing myself to quit a book that isn’t working for me instead of forcing myself through it, I put Heart-Shaped Box aside. Truth be told, I may pick it back up some day down the road and give it a second chance with fresh eyes, but for now, I think I’m going to move on to Mamet’s new book about movies. A book that I suspect Mamet himself would be willing to classify as horror. — Seth Freilich

Steven Millhauser’s ‘97 Pulitzer-winner, American Dreamer felt like an ordinary entry into the template of “American Dream” novels that seem to be as old as American literature itself. As the title suggests, it’s the archetypal American story: What happens when the “Dream” is fulfilled (or undone), a story we’ve seen in both literature and film since the beginning of both. Here, in turn-of-the-century New York City, Martin Dressler rises from an inauspicious beginning to become a capitalist mogul whose designs grow exponentially in tandem with his wealth. Martin’s personal desires and worldly ambitions are conveniently symbolized by his love affairs with two sisters, a heartfelt kindred spirit and a beautiful but emotionally-detached woman whom he marries (of course). Like I said, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before — the allegory is old and familiar, and Millhauser seems to be emulating the very time of the novel in his slow, obtuse writing style. This was the kind of work that deigned to be Literature (with a capital “L”) and succeeds, but seems so immersed in symbolism and mythology that I found it was neither affecting nor particularly interesting.

Having read plenty of Richard Ford’s work in The New Yorker I figured I had him pegged as an Updike-lite, especially since his Frank Bascombe seemed really (really) similar to Harry Angstrom, and was thus not that interested in drudging through a whole novel full of his introspective prose. But as it happened, I picked up a discarded copy of Independence Day and decided to give it a go. As I expected, it was grindingly slow, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it a month after finishing it. Ford’s leisurely exploration of Frank’s life, measuring only a few days, drags at an unbelievable pace, the events almost turn into dreams, with incidents merely floating by and not assuming any perceivable importance in the plot (if the book even has a plot). But the sum of the novel’s parts, the banal conversations and mundane devastations that make up Frank’s life, make it a disturbing and meaningful glance at middle-age, a feat few authors have the depth to produce.

I had been a fan of Haruki Murakami’s novels before reading many of his short stories; The Elephant Vanishes is a career-spanning collection and a gives a similar impression of the rest of his work. In stories ranging from the quotidian to the surreal (with both intersecting frequently), Murakami can somehow make narratives that are somehow about nothing, but a nothing with limitless metaphorical power. Though his stories often turn into severely warped and tangential meditations, Murakami is equally skilled at creating personal empathy, as in “A Family Affair,” easily the best story in the collection. Anyone looking to get a feel for his work should absolutely start here — “The Elephant Vanishes” offers a bit of everything. — Phillip Stephens

My schedule lately is such that, aside from my weekly cover-to-cover reading of The New Yorker (yes, I’m that guy), I rarely get to read anything that isn’t movie related, so it’s a real treat when performing my critical due diligence leads me to a great book I might not have otherwise picked up. That’s just what happened with Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (soon to be released as a movie starring Kumar!), a ridiculously moving account of two generations of Indians living in the United States. It’s a typical immigrants’ story in many ways — the first generation never quite feels at home here and adheres to Bengali customs and Bengali acquaintances as much as possible, while their offspring want nothing more than total assimilation into American culture — but also tackles more universal themes of being embarrassed by your parents, being ambivalent about your heritage, and bridging the gaps between parents’ expectations, society’s expectations, and your own desires. But perhaps the best thing about the book is Lahiri’s plainspoken, unassuming prose, which sneaks right up on you every few pages with small, perfect observations about the characters and makes you get teary on the subway and not even care. Now I’m really worried about the movie — it’s been adapted by Sooni Taraporevala and directed by Mira Nair (who collaborated on Mississippi Masala and Salaam Bombay!), so I’m cautiously optimistic, but it’s got to be hard as hell to capture Lahiri’s tone, wistful and no-nonsense at the same time. Best of luck, ladies. — Jeremy C. Fox

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Heart-Shaped Fame Junkies: Lewis Black, Richard Ford, Joshua Ferris, and more

What Pajiba's Reading / The Pajiba Staff

Books | March 1, 2007 | Comments ()



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