Forgotten Lives

This Week’s Hot Reads: Dec. 24, 2012

For the holidays, a biography of the quintessential American playwright Thornton Wilder to the newly translated, wild novel of the new Nobel laureate Mo Yan.

Thornton Wilder By Penelope Niven

A biography of the private man whom many consider the best American playwright of his day, a great writer hidden in plain sight.

If we bump into Thornton Wilder at all in our lives, it is probably in high school, where his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is still taught because it has “themes” and raises philosophical and theological questions that can be discussed in exams and term papers. Or we witness and perhaps take a role in Our Town, a mainstay of high- school drama clubs because it has enough parts for just about the whole club. After that, sadly, we may never give this fine writer another thought. We certainly never think of him as part of the literary generation that included Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson, all of whom were his friends and admirers. Nor do we usually regard him as the greatest American playwright in the period between Eugene O’Neill’s heyday and Tennessee Williams’ ascendancy. So don’t feel too bad if you open Penelope Niven’s lucid, elegantly written biography and find yourself slightly shocked by Edward Albee’s foreword, in which he says, “If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town.” So maybe we have some reassessing to do. Niven’s biography—admiring but never fawning and precisely the sort of scrupulous life her subject deserves— certainly gives us good reason to think so. Her portrait of this amiable loner who belonged to no literary school or style is packed with colorful detail (one weekend with the Fitzgerald’s, the next with heavyweight champion [and Shakespeare quoting] Gene Tunney, then off to teach at the University of Chicago or out to Hollywood to write film scripts). And there is just enough shrewd literary analysis to make us understand why this prodigally gifted writer (is there another American author who wrote excellent plays and excellent novels?) so richly deserves an audience beyond the 12th grade. The Library of America has just finished publishing three volumes of Wilder’s fiction and drama; together with the Niven biography, they make a wonderful introduction to a great writer who’s been hiding in plain sight for far too long.

—Malcolm Jones

Panorama City By Antoine Wilson

A modern Odyssey of a mentally disabled man searching for ways to become a father in a messy world.

Oppen Porter, 28, six-and-a-half-feet tall and mentally different in an unspecified way, is not “a man of the world.” But, having heard that such a distinction might be desirable and lacking much else to do after the death of his father, he decides that he may as well endeavor to become one. Oppen was born with the terrible flaws of being kind, trusting, and open-hearted, and so his quest consists mostly in doing as other people (con men, evangelists, and fortune-tellers among them) instruct him, and he bounces from ethos to ethos while attempting to learn how a person should be. In his second novel, Wilson has created a modern Odyssey of an unclaimed spirit, a story of “becoming” in a world with so many different things to become, and so many of them sad. The book is funny without playing Oppen’s condition for laughs, and Wilson handles the issue with grace and care. The effect is one of elucidation; rather than writing Oppen’s mental state as a disability to be inspiringly overcome, Wilson treats it as a unique and beautiful thing, a different lens with which to view the messy world. Before Oppen, all cosmic jokes are laid out for the absurdities that they are, punch lines as obvious as the premises.

—Nicholas Mancusi

Accelerated By Bronwen Hruska The debut novel of the publisher of Soho Press makes an indictment on parents and institutions who engineer and medicate children to be Ivy Leaguers.The question of how obligated we are to fiddle with our biology in the pursuit of “excellence” may seem like science fiction, but Accelerated, the first novel from Bronwen Hruska (publisher of the venerable Indie house Soho Press) makes it clear that it’s an issue being dealt with already, in the blurring of the line between agency and Adderall. Sean Benning is a separated father whose son nearly dies after a bad reaction to the psychotropic medication that is all but forced on him by his elite private school, (memorably drawn by Hruska as something like a yuppified version of the school in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only with the goal of churning out “well-rounded” future Ivy Leaguers rather than marching hammers.) With the help of a teacher at the school turned love interest, Benning learns that what seemed at first like a mere misdiagnosis might point to something far more sinister going on at the school. There are wonderful elements of comedy and satire here, but the book also feels like an important “New York novel” in the way that it reports on two spheres of the city under-represented in fiction: the children who are buffeted through the halls of these expensive institutions, and the parents who wield them like well-groomed status symbols.


Pow! by Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt (translator) The newly-crowned Nobel laureate’s 2003 novel about a meat-obsessed Chinese village in the 1990s gets its English release.Does Mo Yan deserve the Nobel Prize? Answering the demand for readers to play armchair Nobel judges, Mo’s 2003 novel cannonballs into English readers’ laps, bearing the title Pow! A 19-year-old named Luo Xiaotong, who sounds like a bratty version of Yann Martel’s Pi Patel, sits in a rotting temple in perhaps the year 2000 (this stream of Luo’s narration is rendered in italics) telling an old, silent monk the story of his and his parents’ lives during the economic reforms of the 1990s (the flashback tales represent the second flow). Luo is exuberant about meat, whether it be the pork, beef, ostrich, or dog variety, as does everyone else in the despicable Slaughterhouse Village—except for Luo’s mother, who cuts him off cold turkey from the ruddy stuff as a response to her husband running off with a mistress named Aunt Wild Mule, which, as any drug addict knows, only intensifies the desire. There are many of them, since the villagers make their fortune from injecting formaldehyde and pressurized water into the meat they sell. Eventually the butchers build a temple dedicated to meat, and one man even believes his cow is the reincarnation of his wife and treats it accordingly. Of course, every reviewer thus far has dutifully recognized this as an allegory on corrupt, capitalist China, calling Pow! a veiled punch. (One has to be clueless not to see that, although whether a veiled punch actually hurts is another matter.) They have also pointed out the magical realism in the work. (Chinese reviewers are particularly proud of noticing the “Latin” influence and invariably label it so.) Yet anyone who’s been to a food fair or the Maine Lobster Festival will consider Mo’s Meat Parade commonplace—less magical and more realism, Mo having captured a loud spectacle rather than listening to quieter beauties of real creativity and imagination. Mo’s magic tricks flash and burn in the way he contrives his plot twists like an action movie—for example, Luo kills his nemesis with the last mortar shell he fires, which happens to be the 41st one, after which we witness 41 women mount 41 bulls in front of the monk’s crumbling temple, all of which happens in the 41st chapter of the book. (The original Chinese title of the book is 41 Mortars, “pao” being the Chinese word for mortar or cannon. Powboys also refer to young, feisty little punks.) That’s rich, and sits in your stomach after a big, meaty meal, but there’s no denying that Mo fulfills and stuffs you with entertainment. Read it, by all means, and marvel at the fun of it all. But I wonder if the Nobel has gone to a writer of populist, middle-brow fiction, and that John Banville is right to grimace that, surely, “there should be one decent prize for … real books.”

—Jimmy So

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Freedom National by James Oakes A history of emancipation that tries not to ignore the efforts of the runaway slaves, but also adds to the legend of Lincoln still.As you sit in the cinema this holiday watching Steven Spielberg fawn to Lincoln the ultimate hero of the Great White Man Theory, will you wonder why this myopic view of history must be projected forth once again, why there’s barely a mention of black men or women in a movie overflowing with the urgency and glory of their struggle? It’s enough to suggest that African Americans couldn’t give a damn about their own fate, or that they were powerless in that fight. Watch, instead, the Saturday Night Live short with Louis C. K., who has the critique down pat: if Lincoln singlehandedly freed the slaves, he shouldn’t ever have to pay for a drink, not if there’s a brother in the bar. But he didn’t, and we don’t seem to notice. In this story of emancipation, Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, includes in his narrative the efforts of some runaway slaves, but the drama still centers mostly on Lincoln. In fact, Freedom National places even more importance on The Great Man and The Great War, refuting the idea that the Civil War's objective was first and foremost to preserve the nation and not to end slavery. It might be true, and there’s no diminishing the credit due the bearded one. But it also must be true that black men and women took great interest in the cause of their destiny. Such a history is difficult to write, what with the lack of surviving primary sources among slaves and runaway slaves. But I long to read that story of emancipation.