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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

no. 4   

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Your Price $11.00
(New - Trade Paper)
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Brideshead Revisited
Your Price $13.95
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The Lecturer's Tale
Your Price $25.00
(New - Hardcover)
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Apparently I shouldn't expect an Employee of the Month nomination any time soon. Recently, while browsing in the stacks, I overheard – accidentally, of course – the following conversation:
NEW EMPLOYEE: "So who's this Carlisle anyway? And, just out of curiosity, why was he chosen as the web site's new columnist?"

TRAINER: "Oh him. Everyone asks the same question. You've seen him around. He's that weedy fellow who lopes awkwardly about the store in outfits. Last month he sported a beret and sailor suit (he'd just seen Querelle for the first time). We were all glad when his obsession with the French ended – he hadn't bathed for several weeks – but his current look is even less successful. The ascot and ill-fitting tweeds make him look less like an English lord, as intended, than a bewildered giraffe in a Sherlock Holmes costume. Frankly, he was "chosen" for the column because he is good for little else. His skills as a bookseller seem to be limited to glaring menacingly at anyone browsing Anne Rivers Siddons, refusing to shelve fitness books, and quoting Derrida to annoyed customers. The column was just the ticket. Carlisle's writing is insufferably pompous, but it takes the semiliterate little bugger the better part of a week to write a paragraph, so – knock on wood – he's more or less out of the way."

Believe it or not, my first thought upon hearing this invidious slander was not how best to parry my partner's thrust (though I can't help adding that people who live in peasant-dress houses shouldn't throw stones). No, my reaction was not anger, but pity. As any third rate writer knows, the first rule of satirical characterization is Get Your Facts Straight. If you'd actually seen Querelle you'd know that Brad Davis never wears a beret. And, come on, Holmes in an ascot? Sherlock and Watson weren't fancy boys.

So, dear colleague, instead of retaliating, I've opted to help you out. You clearly need a few pointers in the demanding art of character assassination. I've therefore gathered a few excellent examples for you to print out and study on your lunch break. Try not to drip wheat gluten on the paper.

Example one: My first example comes from the inimitable Truman Capote. Though Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of the most flawless novellas ever written, most people know the story of enigmatic Holly Golightly from the popular, though mediocre, 1961 vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Pity. Where the film is cute and sentimental, the book is witty and heartfelt, a showcase for Capote's considerable talents. Capote's novella is also very, very funny, containing some of the most deftly executed satirical passages I've read. One of my favorites is this paragraph, a model of imagination and economy, which describes one of Holly Golightly's suitors, millionaire Rusty Trawler:
He was a middle-aged child that had never shed its baby fat, though some gifted tailor had almost succeeded in camouflaging his plump and spankable bottom. There wasn't a suspicion of bone in his body; his face, a zero filled in with pretty miniature features, had an unused, a virginal quality: it was as if he'd been born, then expanded, his skin remaining unlined as a blownup balloon, and his mouth, though ready for squalls and tantrums, a spoiled sweet puckering.

So, my fellow bookseller, if your off-the-cuff attempts at satire pale in comparison to Mr. Capote's, take heart: even Blake Edwards, on occasion, made a mess of his material.

Example two: Moving back in time a few decades, my next example comes from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, possibly the greatest of twentieth-century satirists. Admittedly, though Brideshead is by most accounts Waugh's greatest work, it is on the a whole not as consistently funny as his earlier comic novels such as Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall (you try maintaining 300 pages of witty banter after entering your second world war.) But when Brideshead is funny, it surpasses anything Waugh ever wrote.

The following paragraphs are taken from an extended monologue by effete collegian Anthony Blanche, who's taken his classmate Charles Rider (our hero) to dinner. Blanche, by this point more or less in his cups, recounts a recent incident wherein a group of college boys threw him into the local fountain, Mercury. And though Blanche has clearly doctored the details in hindsight, the reader hardly minds, for here Blanche provides a perfect example of how to take a potentially humiliating situation and turn it in your favor (perhaps, my fellow employee, you could turn the same trick for those blemishes). The boys have just come up to Blanche's room to seize him:
Then they began saying, "Get hold of him. Put him in Mercury." Now as you know I have two sculptures by Brancusi and several pretty things and I did not want them to start getting rough, so I said, pacifically, "Dear sweet clodhoppers, if you knew anything of sexual psychology you would know that nothing could give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys. It would be an ecstasy of the very naughtiest kind. So if any of you wishes to be my partner in joy come and seize me. If, on the other hand, you simply wish to satisfy some obscure and less easily classified libido and see me bathe, come with me quietly, dear louts, to the fountain."

Do you know, they all looked a little foolish at that? I walked down with them and not one came within a yard of me. Then I got into the fountain and, you know, it was really most refreshing, so I sported there a little and struck some attitudes, until they turned about and walked sulkily home, and heard Boy Mulchaster saying, "Anyway, we did put him in Mercury." You know, Charles, that is just what they'll be saying in thirty years' time. When they're all married to scraggy little women like hens and have cretinous, porcine sons like themselves, getting drunk at the same club dinner in the same coloured coats, they'll still say, when my name is mentioned, "We put him in Mercury one night," and their barn-yard daughters will snigger and think their father was quite a dog in his day, and what a pity he's grown so dull. Oh, la fatigue du Nord!

Yes, what a pity to grow dull. And since there's nothing more boring than a poorly conceived insult, I hope, my puca shell-wearing coworker, you're taking notes.

Example three: For my final example I've chosen a less prominent figure. But though James Hynes may not be as well known as Capote or Waugh, give him time. The Lecturer's Tale is as sophisticated and witty a satire as any of recent years. Like his previous collection of three novellas, Publish and Perish, The Lecturer's Tale is a take no prisoners assault on the (allegedly) sorry state of contemporary literary scholarship.

I know, I know. Not another academic satire? It's true. Recent years have produced more parodies of gruesome academics than reality based TV shows. Some might argue this signals a marked lack of original inspiration in our fiction writers. But it's just as plausible that for this particular generation of writers, the environments richest in the satirist's raw materials – pomposity, stupidity, pretension, vice, etc. – can be found within the ivied edifices of our universities.

Anyone who reads The Lecturer's Tale will undoubtedly conclude the latter, for the academics in Hynes's fictional university, Midwestern, are as barbaric a lot as any that has been portrayed in literature. Fortunately for readers, Hynes eviscerates his despicable subjects in hilarious style. And though the excessive climax stretched this readers tolerance uncomfortably, rarely, if ever, have I read a more entertaining book. And I have never read a book with more hilarious caricatures. Take for example this description of literary theorist Lester Antilles, who has just arrived at Midwestern to apply for a recently vacated chair in the department.
In a discipline where scholarly heft was defined by being more postcolonial than thou, Lester Antilles was the heftiest of the lot. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school he had announced to his dissertation committee that doctoral theses at major Western universities were a primary locus of the objectifying colonialist gaze on native subjects, and he refused on principle to participate in the marginalization of indigenous voices or to become complicit with the hegemonic discourse of Western postcolonial cultural imperialism. In practice, this meant that for six years he refused to take classes, attend seminars, or write a dissertation. As a result of this ideologically engaged nonparticipation, he was offered tenured positions even before he had his Ph.D., but by refusing to write a book or any articles on his topic – publishing with major university presses being even more complicit with imperialism than writing dissertations – he provoked a fierce bidding war. Columbia won by offering him an endowed chair and a full professorship, and on Morningside Heights he courageously continued his principled refusal to teach any classes, hold any office hours, publish any books, serve on any committees, or supervise any dissertations. For this demanding and theoretically sophisticated subaltern intervention in the dominant discourse, Antilles made well into the six figures, more money than the President of the United States.

So, dear colleague, now that I'm through presenting models for your literary edification, I would respectfully suggest that this third example demonstrates something even more important than linguistic panache. Though Lester Antilles is no doubt intended as an unsavory character, he clearly understands how to achieve his goals efficiently. I might humbly submit myself as another example of the wisdom of this philosophy. As you yourself pointed out, I got what I wanted – this column – because of all the things I did not do. Surely, even people who wear Birkenstocks aspire to something; why not give it a try? You might begin, like Mr. Antilles, by refusing to speak.


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