Every time the annual San Diego convention comes around (July) I always notice I have a pile of stuff from the previous one that I haven't read yet. I do dip into it from time to time. Today I picked up the promotional excerpt from Austin Grossman's Soon I will be Invincible, consisting of the first two chapters. The book was published last June I believe. I found myself talking to the author (he must have been talking in turn to a mutual acquaintance as I walked past or something). I referred to Grossman once before, on June 15 when he was reviewed in the NY Sun. His writing is casually and stunningly intelligent. Almost every paragraph is bejewelled with wit:
Most of them are naturals, superpowered since puberty or before. Powers that came on their own. Naturals are the world talents that form out of the ever-churning soup of the human megapopulace by accident or fate. Once in a hundred million times, a lifetime of factors align, and at the right moment something new coalesces out of high-tech industrial waste, genetic predisposition, and willpower, with a dash of magic or alien invention. It started happening more often in the early 1950s and no one knows why- nuclear power plants, alien contact, chlorinated water, or too many people dancing the Twist.The US edition has a gorgeous cover designed by Chip Kidd while the UK ed. has a hideous illustration that makes it look like a comic book. You can see them both at the Wikipedia page for the title. Visualising Grossman's characters in such a literal way, i.e. they are 'comic book characters', so here's what they'd look like on the front of a comic book, undermines much of the author's work toward making something more of them.
(In the indicia is a note that says "THIS IS AN UNCORRECTED PROOF. IT IS NOT FOR SALE AND SHOULD NOT BE QUOTED WITHOUT COMPARISON WITH THE FINISHED BOOK. I hope they caught the typo on page 29, a simple transposition of 'the' and 'in' that would not have been picked up by spellcheck)
Right about now somebody is going to observe that I'm writing about a book after having read only two chapters. I'm giving Grossman the benefit of the doubt and presuming he continues as well as he starts, all through the plot of his story. My point is that the plot would not interest me as a plot in itself. Truth be told, the plot in Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my favourite book of last year, became less interesting to me the closer it got to resolution. How else can you wrap up a crime story except by solving the mystery? The book was most interesting to me about 45% of the way through. The sophisticated reader knows that the plot in this kind of book is not the heart of the thing. Sure it is what the book is 'about', but it is as much 'about' the plot at 45% as it is at 99%, no more no less. It gets no further from nor closer to its subject. The cumulative tension is never entirely real, in fact the negation of the possibility of 'real' is our postmodern motor. A latent sense of form, and a publisher's need to sell books, demands that we go through the motions and act out the bogus drama if we lack the courage or imagination to do otherwise.
Looking at the Wiki entry linked above. I notice that there are template subject headings, "Plot", "Characters" "Major Themes", "Literary Significance", "Allusions and references", and that the penulitimate of these has no content. It just says:
Literary significance and receptionWhat? Can it be that Grossman was so busy with last minute preparations and looking for that typo on page 29 that he forgot to include the 'Literary significance'? I'm reminded of an old friend of mine, who was a very clever chap with academic accomplishments, but he appeared to think that the composition of a piece of fiction involved thinking about all those things separately, first 'plot', then 'character', 'themes,' etc. and putting the work together in the same order in which scholars conventionally dismantle it.
This short section requires expansion.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.
Meanwhile, Children's book art gains mainstream acclaim
-By Stephanie Reitz -Associated Press- 03/07/2008
They're not the "Mona Lisa" or "Whistler's Mother," but images such as the Cat in the Hat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar and other icons of illustrated children's books are gaining respect in highbrow art circles. Once seen as fun but forgettable, the genre is now being featured in mainstream museums and dissected in college art courses.The 'art world' is inordinately concerned with what, like the proverbial bad smell, is going to hang around. Time has a cumulative and selective intelligence and posterity will have the vantage of hindsight and therefore be more enlightened than the here and now.
"It's undervalued as an art form. The great children's book artists are drawing from art history and the trends of their times," said H. Nichols B. Clark, director of the Carle Museum, which features numerous artists and houses pieces from Carle's decades-long career, including his signature Hungry Caterpillar.
"I can't say we're viewing it quite the way we're viewing Monets, but I do think there's been more attention and focus on this," said Jean Sousa, the Art Institute of Chicago's director of interpretive exhibits and family programs. "It's a distinct entity. It doesn't have to compete with the Monets of the world because it has its own special value as art."
The appeal of some images has lasted over the decades, such as H.A. Rey's "Curious George" and Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit."
But art historians and educators say only time will tell which of today's illustrations become tomorrow's icons. From Caillou to Captain Underpants to Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, the staying power has yet to be seen.
"There are some that are likely to be around forever, but we just can't predict yet which ones they'll be," she said.
And for all I know, the rest of the world thinks it is so.