Saturday, August 02, 2008

Francisco Goldman and novels of the 1980s

Taking a little break here from writing away on my US-UN relations manuscript. Took a stroll over to Stanford Bookstore, where I was suddenly seized by a desire to read a couple of novels that supposedly characterized the 1980s. So I bought Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero.

I never read any of this stuff when it came out. I wasn’t interested - not sure I am now, but got curious because people I knew kept referring to the 1980s in terms of those novels, even though none of the references seemed to have any relation to my life during the period. I think I was the right age - I was 25 in 1980, when I finally got around to starting college at UCLA. I was a somewhat older student who didn’t have any money, had been working for a couple of years as a teamster on a loading dock in the grimy part of downtown LA until it closed in 1979 and moved out to Victorville, had spent a couple of years as a Mormon missionary who hadn’t really been sure about going to college at all ... reading the back covers, I don’t think Less Than Zero had much to do with my experience in LA. No mistake - I loved LA, lived in a gritty, dangerous part of Hollywood for a couple of years, then moved to Venice and Santa Monica when I started in at UCLA - I’ve always loved LA. But I never saw anything of the glamorous, moneyed, fast young LA set when I was young and lived there. Same in NYC a decade later, after law school and the beginning of my adult life on the East Coast.

One reason I thought about these novels was (a shining example of the Anderson coup-de-nonsequitur) thinking about the novels of the Guatemalan-American writer Francisco Goldman, an old friend who most recently published a nonfiction account of the murder - really, the investigation or non-investigation into the murder - of Archbishop Gerardi in Guatemala in the late 1990s, The Art of Political Murder, out September 1 in paperback. It’s a marvelous book, and it made me go back to Frank’s novels and (continuing the weird brain connection saga) think about what Frank said to me in the 1980s about novels and novelists.

He - Frank - said, I don’t want to be like Them. Meaning Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis. Frank, a well regarded rising young writer in 1980s New York, was then working on his first novel, a sprawling marvelous thing called The Long Night of White Chickens, a combination Latin American fabulism combined with a New York Jewish coming of age story. Sound weird? Well, it works, read it. Also, quite apart from anything else, it’s the best riff on what the world of do-gooding, nongovernmental organizations working in bad places in the world is like, even twenty years later.

(Why is it, by the way, that no one has written a decent novel featuring an NGO worker? Besides this one, I mean, something dating from the 1990s and beyond? The ones that are out there are either filled to the brim with sugary, soupy romantic claptrap about the Heroic NGO worker, preferably a handsome French surgeon with MSF, sawing away at the leg bones of landmines victims in an improvised field hospital, Gaulois cig dangling from mouth, or else preternaturally but understatedly beautiful, marathon runner, disciplined bodies of the Good GIrls of the Left, triaging bags of rice and flour, or digging up the bodies of the disappeared, always Grimly Serious ... cf. Michael Ondaatje. How about, for example, a novel in which the MSF French surgeon accidentally, but hilariously, amputates the wrong leg?)

I was a young associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, and Frank used to call me up in the middle of the afternoon and read sections he was writing to me aloud as I stared out into the canyons of Wall Street and didn’t think about international tax law.

Well. Frank had a touch of envy in talking about the glitter writers of the period, Ellis and McInerney - who wouldn’t, fame, fortune, movie deals? But, he said, I want to write prose that is not about glitter, not a form of consumer shorthand. Also, he said, I’m not really interested in chronicling the lives of spoiled rich kids in New York. The Long Night of White Chickens certainly wasn’t that. But afterwards I noted a shift in his prose style. His subsequent novels shifted away, it has always seemed to me, from the exquisite formations of sentences that threatened, unless one was a very attentive reader, to overwhelm at the level of metaphorical detail, the actual narrative, to a simpler, less adorned style that emphasized the story.

It seemed to me right. Much plainer, quieter prose, much more story. It was a brave shift for a novelist looking to make a name, in an era in which glittering, high octane, sparkling surface prose seemed to count for a lot. But The Ordinary Seaman, in particular, simplifies a lot, while the historical The Divine Husband is a kind of combination of the two. And those are wonderful novels.

Frank has had recent tragedy in his life. He married a young woman I never had the privilege of meeting, Aura Estrada, a young Mexican writer studying at Hunter in New York; she died at age 30 in a tragic beach accident in Mexico a year ago. Frank is setting up a memorial writing fund in her name, the Aura Estrada Prize, and there is a fundraising dinner for it in New York in September 2008; Jean-Marie and I are on the dinner committee, but on account of my teaching schedule, Jean-Marie will be there but I won’t, alas. But I certainly wish it all the best in creating a scholarship in her name.