introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 21, 2004

One of the Best Books I've Read All Year...

by Ron Hogan

...although it must be pointed out that on the subject of Ren Weschler I have zero objectivity, as I've been a rabid fan of his for more than a decade now, such that he's the one author I really make an effort to get other people to read.

weschler.jpgAnyway, Weschler gave a group of fans a guided tour through his career-spanning collection, Vermeer in Bosnia, last night at Coliseum Books. Actually, he began by reading Vijay Seshadri's poem "Superman Agonistes," just because he liked it so much (judge for yourself, and even hear it read by Seshadri). Then he read what he'd written "in lieu of a preface," a witty essay explaining why he could never write fiction, followed by the first page or so of the opening chapter, and additional excerpts from each of the book's major sections.

One of the first questions from the audience was something along the lines of "what does Vermeer have to do with Bosnia, anyway?"--which, really, takes the entire chapter, if not the entire book, to answer, but Weschler spoke eloquently about how the perpetrators of the atrocities in Bosnia and other horrific acts like the attacks on the World Trade Center or the school massacre in Chechnya do not see their victims as fully human, even though they themselves may possess a deep enough well of feeling to see the beauty in the work of masters like Vermeer and Shakespeare, and how we eventually have to address the fact of their humanity. I can't really do what he said justice by summarizing it, but I was instantly reminded of a passage in Richard Rorty's Truth and Progress that has stayed with me when I read it more than half a decade ago:

Plato set things up so that moral philosophers think they have failed unless they convince the rational egotist that he should not be an egotist--convince him by telling him about his true, unfortunately neglected self. But the rational egotist is not the problem. The problem is the gallant and honorable Serb who sees Muslims as circumcised dogs. It is the brave soldier and good comrade who loves and is loved by his mates, but who thinks of women as dangerous, malevolent whores and bitches.

Another question from the audience brought up the matter of Weschler's sheer unclassifaibility as a writer, since individual books from his oeuvre can be, and have been, filed in just about every nonfiction section of the bookstore. The answer he gave was so similar to what he said to me earlier this year when I interviewed him for Publishers Weekly that I'm just going to run with that:

The kind of writing I'm interested in, and aspire to be a part of, is a personal grappling with the complexity of the world. At the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller. A connector of widly disparate sorts of particulars, finding form and pattern, but an idiosyncratic and personal pattern that has persisted across all my writing. If I were a fiction writer, this would be obvious to everybody. And again, I'm not talking about my own writing. I'm talking about Ian Frazier, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling--those people should be in alphabetical order under literature, the same place you put Larry McMurtry...

It's natural, looking at a painting, to have thoughts about other things which are provoked by the painting, and to be mindful of those other thoughts. But the sluices and conduits of contemporary book capitalism make it difficult to do that. I keep hitting my head against that wall--well, I've had a lovely time doing it, anway, and I don't seem capable of doing it any other way.

Carol Friedman



Posted by: birnbaum at October 21, 2004 11:57 AM
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