On occasion I’ve been known to finish reading entire articles in Harper’s and The New Yorker, although sometimes it takes a while, what with all the Federline and Simpson-watching. Anyway, I finally finished two articles in separate issues of Harper’s, one from the current one I mentioned a while back by Ben Marcus, and one from the August issue about how Christianity in America gets it wrong. I strongly recommend both. The Marcus essay is pretty interesting to me because I have such a hard time with Marcus’ fiction, but I have tended to agree with what he has to say about fiction that I’ve read so far. His introduction to The Anchor Book of New American Short Fiction is right on in my book, and he repeats some of his tenets in this essay while also disputing Franzen’s claim that experimental fiction is I guess, well, bad, according to Marcus. I haven’t read any of Franzen’s recent comments on this, but apparently he’s made them. One of the things I took away from Marcus’ piece was that difficult writing – and perhaps this is solely my interpretation – but that in the event that you don’t understand it (as with Marcus’ writing) it can still have value. And it kind of reminded me of when I was in sixth grade and they had us read Pinter. I had ZERO idea what it was really about – but I recall being quite enthralled with the rhythm of the language and the unreal realness of it. I had the same experience reading Vonnegut that same year. Personally, these days, I’d rather read stuff I can understand – and I’m happy to say I can understand, at least on some level, some pretty smart stuff. And like Marcus, I’d always rather read something engagingly, uniquely, creatively written than something – well that someone says I’m supposed to read. Something tidy. I liked The Corrections, and I just didn’t get The Age of Wire and String, so take that for what it’s worth. But I also liked both House of Leaves (which, as my friend Bob says, requires turning the book upside down at times, and some people, like him, “Just don’t want to get physically involved when they’re reading”) and Henderson the Rain King, the latter of which is much more readable and, pleasingly so, not in any way ironic. Anyway, I recommend reading it less as an attack on Franzen than as an interesting discussion of what fiction is.
The other article, by a guy named Bill McKibben, a Christian, is also worth reading. Without ire, it more or less comes down to this – for a nation that calls itself predominantly Christian, our Christian values are seriously wack. Not that many people aren’t aware of this, since for one example, that elected dude calls himself a Christian, which is, you know, horrifying to think that he represents any religion, but just one of the Christian values McKibben discusses – helping the poor/loving your neighbor as yourself – is one we are seriously weak on personally and as a nation, statistically speaking, and that many of the current Christian books are promoting a very self-oriented brand of Christianity to go along with our very self-oriented culture. It gave me a lot of food for thought, and although I don’t know what I’d call myself, spiritually, I grow more and more weary of thinking about myself, remarkably. I thought he was pretty right on.