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Little Brown And Company (#110 of 3)

Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

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Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures
Review: Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures

While teaching her undergraduates at Georgetown, Maureen Corrigan often points to her own family name, wedged between Russel Betty and the Kellehers, “in that long, screwball, pages long-list of all the people who went to Gatsby’s parties.” The introduction to her new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, includes this anecdote, as she suggests a “personal excursion into the novel [she] loves more than any other.” Despite the minor solipsism, her close reading displays a poignancy and humor that’s otherwise absent in the rest of her unfocused work. Corrigan’s main problem, even in the opening, is that she can’t quite decide on the scope of her project. Her own experiences, coupled with several disassociated analyses, muddle what could be a convincing cultural assertion about why, now, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby thrives, when it flopped at the time of its publication.

Though not anything revolutionary, her deconstruction of the novel in the context of noir, or “hard-boiled” detective fiction, offers a refreshing perspective, a well addressed and easy-to-understand alternative to reading The Great Gatsby as a love story, or as a comment on the American dream. As does, too, her understanding of Fitzgerald’s narrative as steeped, inherently, in “New York,” a city where “roughly 80 percent” of her college students hope to move after graduation. Yet this thorough account also doesn’t award anything wholly original. New York isn’t alien to Fitzgerald. Although it’s often attributed to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” one of Fitzgerald’s most well-known essays, “My Lost City,” essentially starts the tradition of writing about loving and leaving Manhattan. And framing a discussion around the city isn’t a stretch, since whole collections, like those of Henry James or Edith Wharton, immediate predecessors to Fitzgerald, are organized around the borough. Even at her best, when Corrigan provides deft literary criticism and research, either after combing through artifacts at Princeton or leafing through archives in the Library of Congress, she unearths interesting points without nearing adequate conclusions. While she might dwell too long on the motif of water, or Fitzgerald’s view of class, the effect World War II and paperbacks had on The Great Gatsby, and its appearances on high school syllabus, are important trends to note. However, Corrigan doesn’t dedicate enough space to wondering what those things might imply.

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and the Art of the Narrative Confine

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Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and the Art of the Narrative Confine
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and the Art of the Narrative Confine

In retrospect, college is an experience defined by its comforts. The responsibilities of young adulthood are often largely confined to academics and social maturation before they yield to the expenses incurred over four years, which are then exacerbated by new demands: meeting rent and converting one’s new expertise into gainful employment.

The petri dish of college, and its invitation to unfettered self-enhancement and self-discovery, make a convenient, insulated setting for a novel, one where human drama can play out with relatively minor consequences and characters can seem witty and idealistic without raising any eyebrows. Chad Harbach’s winning debut novel, The Art of Fielding, takes great advantage of its cozy narrative confines, though its final pages are perhaps too enamored of them.

Harbach’s appealing cast of characters is led by Henry Skrimshander, a “scrawny novelty of a shortstop” who turns out to be an impeccable defensive presence on the field. Skrimmer, as he comes to be known, is recruited to tiny Westish College—which sits on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan—by Mike Schwartz, the baseball team’s captain and hulking spiritual leader.

Henry arrives at Westish with little but for his personal bible, a book called The Art of Fielding, written by his idol, Aparicio Rodriguez (modeled closely after Ozzie Smith). The book imparts a Zen wisdom and awareness Henry attempts to master on the baseball field, and more clumsily adopts off the field as well. (Snippets offered include “The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense” and “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.”) Henry’s clumsy stoicism is well remarked upon by Harbach, in lines like “Henry nodded in a way he hoped was appropriate.”

The Pale King Is a Heady Conundrum

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The Pale King Is a Heady Conundrum
The Pale King Is a Heady Conundrum

It’s easy to dislike an author. A lot of people think Charles Bukowski bit one hell of a hole in the literary scene back in the latter half of the 20th century, but watching his relationship antics on YouTube is just a little disgusting. Others say the same thing about Hunter S. Thompson: love the books, can’t stand the author’s carefully orchestrated über-gonzo ways. And David Foster Wallace’s inclination toward elitist sentiments have often been a cause for readers to eschew the author, though it’s more difficult to find something to hate in his work. Today, no matter how one feels about the man himself, it will be hard to ignore his impact on the book world with the release of his incomplete, posthumous novel.

The Pale King brings readers on a trip through the lives of those who clock in with the Internal Revenue Service. Wallace himself plays a role in the story, a fact that has led to unending attention in publishing circles and in the media. Throughout his writing, The Pale King included, one has to marvel at Wallace’s surgical ability to manhandle the thoughts of average folk. For most, those thoughts have never been so genuinely plotted as they are when filtered through the analytical fortune cookie found in Wallace’s soul. Even in the novel’s incomplete form, Wallace proves his ability to hijack rambling streams of vague, while-you-load-the-dishwasher realizations and chisel them into lettered works of art.