MAY 10, 2016
THE FACES OF CERTAIN WRITERS should not appear on Barnes & Noble shopping bags, opines Peter LaSalle, one of many off-the-cuff judgments contained by his newly published collection of travel essays, The City at Three P.M. In the essay, “What Plays in France,” the author openly muses about, or indulges in the comedy of openly musing about, the potential of achieving literary renown by way of French valorization, a side-door, in effect, to immortality for writers lacking recognition in the United States. By way of contrast to the French, who seem to have a gift for plucking American unknowns from obscurity, Barnes & Noble has been known to feature the likeness of James Michener, a “blatantly commercially oriented” scribe among its pantheon of supposed greats. Ironically, in light of this opinion, LaSalle holds an endowed professorship from The University of Texas at Austin; there, he has taught classes at the James A. Michener Center For Writers.
So you cannot say the man doesn’t have chutzpah.
Spanning four decades, The City at Three P.M. is a collection of travel essays published mostly in the aughts and early teens, although its scope ranges back to LaSalle’s earliest professional bylines, when he was fresh from the mentorship of Saul Bellow as a grad student at the University of Chicago. These sketches from way back when — the oldest of which is an admiring, Vietnam-era profile of Bellow’s friend, the great Christy Brown, hearty drinker and left-footed Irish virtuoso — are slighter and more tentative than the work to come, while more recent essays take a particular author as their focus; LaSalle travels to geographic settings where that author’s fiction was conceived. The choice to include LaSalle’s earliest work provides a sense of his full life in letters: his opinions, his wanderings, his refined taste in literature, his range of learned allusions, his oft-voiced desire to be honest on the page, his infatuated detours and frank appraisals of the women who cross his path, and how very much he would like to return to writing stories of his own.
In a 2008 interview for Bookslut, Jeff VanderMeer calls LaSalle “one of our most distinguished short fiction writers.” Over the decades, he has published four short story collections and two novels, all with independent presses. One collection, Hockey Sur Glace (Breakaway Books, 1999), seeks to infuse the sport with the sort of mythic centrality Bernard Malamud, W. P. Kinsella, and most recently, Chad Harbach, reserved for baseball. Another, Tell Borges If You See Him (University of Georgia Press, 2007), takes the Argentinean author as its idol; in form and substance, it seems not dissimilar to the digressive essays of The City at Three P.M., exhibiting a parallel fascination with whatever boundary may exist between the longing for movement and the longing to be immersed in great literature. A novel, Mariposa’s Song (Texas Tech University Press, 2012), tracks the upending of an undocumented restaurant worker’s day-to-day by a man with dangerous mystery about him, via a single (long) sentence.
In the essays, LaSalle follows the literal footsteps of Borges, Flaubert, Malcolm Lowry, and Nathanael West, though he has a way of veering off-course. “I know, I’m really wandering, but it will eventually all figure in,” he writes in a piece on Borges’s haunts. But time and again, LaSalle’s tonally sophisticated, intentional meanderings give way to fits of pique that, at least at first, seem delivered in full earnest. What is undoubtedly sincere: LaSalle’s desire to restore a certain sort of awe to the modern apprehension of the literary arts, and especially to its most venerated practitioners.
A few things that rate LaSalle’s displeasure, listed in no specific order:
- The word “colleague”: “I dislike that word, its pomposity.”
- The late Edward Said’s critical approach [in Orientalism] to Flaubert’s Salammbô: “[he] is wrong in even implying that one might take this sort of critical approach.”
- English translations of his favorite paragraph in Flaubert’s Salammbô, “a creation that goes beyond all such, well, babbling difference”: “[they] do no justice whatsoever to the achievement of what is before me, the quintessential power in the original French.”
- The times we live in: “a time of assaults on the printed word itself coming from many directions as we move deeper and deeper into a new, thoroughly electronic and perhaps increasingly frivolous age.”
- The American fiction scene: “the kind of cookie-cutter fare that currently rules the American fiction scene, so much safe realism displaying no real verbal and structural daring, let alone transporting vision.”
- Taking a direct route to membership in academia: “I hate to say it, those who aspire to be academics simply proceed directly to a Ph.D. program, without much artistic sidetracking, for what is a practical, very divergent route with a completely different relationship to the literature they should be in awe of.”
And this only marks the tip of the iceberg: LaSalle does not lack for pointed opinions on subjects ranging from what he deems the un-funny comedy of Jimmy Kimmel to the possible weaknesses of Paul Auster’s literary technique. Is he serious? At times, yes, but it’s tough to know: 40 pages into a 60-page essay, he apologizes for “cheekily bombing” academia some 20-plus pages prior. Given this plethora of opinions and his repeatedly voiced disdain for commercial considerations in fiction, he appears a throwback to another time, in many ways similar to his mentor, Saul Bellow. In fact, Bellow’s conservative shadow looms over The City at Three P.M., and not only because the first essay of the collection, “The Saul Bellow Speeding Ticket,” details LaSalle’s youthful zeal to reach Chicago, introduce himself, and become one of Bellow’s literary disciples: “he wielded a real fullness of personality,” LaSalle writes. “[P]art wisecracker, part clotheshorse, part Big-Hearted Otis, and a giant part keen intellectual.” And in LaSalle’s pooh-poohing of the “P.C.” landscape (“I know that when it comes to Art, the ground rules change, have nothing whatsoever to do with political agenda, really”) and awkward valorizing of absolutely “powerful” classics, a reader catches hints of Bellow’s most notorious utterance, regarding Tolstoy and the Zulus, a statement so provocative and distressing (“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?”) — shorn of context it registers, pretty flagrantly, as provocation — that last year’s critical champion and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Ta-Nehisi Coates, dedicated a substantial portion of his book-length essay, Between the World and Me, to rebuking the decades’ old words.
Though less egregiously, LaSalle himself performs a sort of Bellovian solipsism on the page, especially in his collection’s most galling essay, “Plasticize Your Documents.” The piece tracks his wanderings in Tunisia, mostly through Carthage, after the geographic sources of one of Flaubert’s lesser-known novels, a long-in-coming follow-up to Madame Bovary. Salammbô was Flaubert’s plunge into reimagining the history of a nation fated to become a French colony. Critically speaking, its reputation has been mixed from the start.
The premise of “Plasticize Your Documents” — LaSalle’s retracing of Flaubert’s own expedition of discovery, a meditation on the themes of Time and Power and rien (nothingness) — registers, without a doubt, as interesting; it’s the execution that dumbfounds a reader, the way LaSalle leads the way through a maze of inquiry that gives out, time and again, on bluster and wearying asides, a game of literary Three-card Monte, where the prize lies always just ahead. Meantime, the reader is implored, at one point, to accompany LaSalle to the bank (“I argue … I argue in French some more”). Then, as if to flout the charge of susceptibility to Said’s “Orientalizing” impulse, LaSalle singles out a disabled Tunisian street child selling jasmine in the street, oblivious to the fate LaSalle imagines for him:
The kid was having no luck selling, and he … ran limpingly in meaningless circles, smiling and gazing up at that star he waved, maybe at all the brighter stars of the indigo Tunisian night sky above, too, the kid contentedly playing, even singing to himself. Yes, for a minute, anyway, he was merely a happy kid and not somebody shackled to a life in the street and a physical disability that will make that life so hard for him, as in his innocence he didn’t know such consequences and all of that yet. To witness it broke my heart …
Does the boy have a life outside the author’s use for him here? LaSalle’s recorded understanding of that life goes no further than this paragraph. And yes — he may be genuine in his sentimentality. Yet it is difficult to stomach a postmodern essay in which the demonstrated consciousness of its author’s projections comes up so short. Only rarely (in the essay’s most engaging passages) do we read about Tunisia or Salammbô; what’s featured mostly is LaSalle looking out on Tunisia and reading Salammbô. There is, to be sure, no offense in that. It’s the way the essay aims to undermine Said’s thesis, while, to a certain extent, perpetuating the troubling dynamic Said describes, that is so galling, almost as if LaSalle intended to document his failure to see past the tips of his toes. No matter if this way of being in the world resonates with the postmodern ethos (not to mention the stereotype of the American tourist). LaSalle praises Said’s work as “elegantly expressive,” while brushing off the substance of his scholarly argument: “there’s little important coming from those academics” — all while making a pretense of doing otherwise. It risks playing as patronizing, and patronizing attitudes from Westerners reinforce Said’s thesis.
Nothing whatsoever to do with political agenda, really? Well. Yes and no.
From Bellow at the outset to “Plasticize Your Documents” in the middle to the endgame: the collection’s latter half includes two of LaSalle’s best essays — one on Malcolm Lowry and another on Nathanael West, for which he visited Los Angeles and a number of West’s former haunts. In the latter piece, first published in Memoir Journal, LaSalle imagines himself starring in a movie, a bad one, about a wandering oddball encountering so many strange “types” along his way. This is, again, a mode of depicting self-absorption and of nearly, but not quite, spoofing that self-absorption: the conceit brings to mind a song by Stars, a Canadian indie band, called “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending,” which culminates:
Life was supposed to be a film / Was supposed to be a thriller / Was supposed to end in fire. / But life … turns out it’s nothing but a dream / And that I’ll miss it when it’s gone / I want the story to go on and on and on and on …
The song’s lyrics mirror the animating impulse of LaSalle’s expeditions. To read a novel is not enough; accompanied by his readers, he dramatizes his yearning to immerse himself in the geography of a story’s conception. Indeed, for many readers, the line between living and writing becomes blurred with the consumption of literature. Which doesn’t justify the desire of those in seats of cultural authority — old guard writers and teachers like Peter LaSalle — to mandate relevance for a strictly defined canon, as it were, to scold serious readers with “literature they should be in awe of,” a stance that can only ever play as comedy outside the classroom, intentionally or not.
Regarding the life and work of Lowry, LaSalle finally asks a question that illuminates the career-spanning arc of The City at Three P.M.: “Is it, in fact, the living or the writing that matters? Is it worth sacrificing the former for the latter?” It’s here, and in his thoughts about Lowry and West, that LaSalle finds his most poignant register, for the sense on the page is of a well-established, mid-to-late career author grappling with that most human of questions regarding the lives we choose: was it worth it? All else aside, this at least merits a dedicated reader’s serious consideration, a moment of respectful silence, an intake of breath.
J. T. Price’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere. He has published nonfiction and reviews with BOMB Magazine, The Scofield, and The Millions. More at www.jt-price.com.