All I had were words, but I had no warmth to infuse them with. I felt I had nowhere else to go but satire. Satire shares something with empathy, but it’s a contorted relationship. Maybe they’re stepsiblings. They’re forced to live together, but satire spends all its time bullying empathy. The first version of Class had a big satire problem. Since all I felt was sadness and loneliness, and guilt about the pleasures of traveling and partying, and also about the way literature had provided a way away from my family and that specific church across that specific street, I retreated to my French literature gods—Proust, Maupassant, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert—and chose to make fun of society. Fucking society! I crushed those characters and their mannerisms. I didn’t know what else I could do.
People at Iowa love to love Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore. In Prairie Lights I found myself overwhelmed by the literature of the senses and the literature of the quirky sensing voice. I wanted heavy books from a bunch of different disciplines; on hermeneutics, on monetary policy, on string theory, on psychoanalysis, on the Gospels, on the strange war between analytic and continental philosophers, on sexual pathology. I was twenty-three. I knew I wanted to write a novel of ideas, a novel of systems, but one also with characters, and also heart—a novel comprising everything, not just how icicles broken from church eaves on winter afternoons taste of asphalt (but that, too). James Wood did not yet loom over everything, but I wanted to make James Wood barf. At Prairie Lights, I would have felt much better buying the work of Nathan Englander (alum) if it had been next to that of Friedrich Engels. I felt there how I feel in bars that serve only wine and beer.
When I was at Iowa, Frank Conroy, Engle’s longest-running successor, did not name the acceptable categories. Instead, he shot down projects by shooting down their influences. He loathed Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme. He had a thing against J. D. Salinger that was hard to explain. To go anywhere near Melville or Nabokov was to ingest the fatal microbes of the obnoxious. Of David Foster Wallace he growled, with a wave of his hand, “He has his thing that he does.”
Conroy hated what he called “cute stuff,” unless it worked, but it tended never to work. Trying to get cute stuff to work before a sneering audience is like trying to get an erection to work before a sneering audience. Conroy’s arsenal of pejoratives was his one indulgence in lavish style. “Cockamamie,” he’d snarl. “Poppycock.” Or “bunk,” “bunkum,” “balderdash.” He could deliver these quaint execrations in tones that made H. L. Mencken sound like Regis Philbin.
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