Discoveries: Franzen, Beachy-Quick, & Baldwin

Dan Beachy-Quick
Wonderful Investigations: Essay, Meditations, Tales
Milkweed Editions, April 3, 2012. 240 pp.

THIS IS A BOOK about reading. It offers the kinds of insights into the act that most of us never stop to indulge in, and for that we are eternally grateful. This is not the first time that I have enjoyed Beachy-Quick’s writing and felt, in reading him, that I was entering the hut or cabin of a hermit. Books would be open on every surface. “Have a cup of tea,” he might say, distracted. Silence. Followed by a simple utterance that might change the way the visitor thought about everything, forever. This is much how Beachy-Quick feels about reading: “Reading is a method of entering; entering is a form of initiation.” Traditionally, he explains, we read a poem, for example, to get to the end, to get the reward. What if we saw a poem as an environment that we enter? A place to ask questions and experience changes? “Reading,” he writes, “is an experience that obscures experience, an experience that mars itself — when we feel we’re reading successfully, that is deeply and vividly, we forget there is a book being read, we forget our hands hold the book, we see with different eyes than the eyes through which we see. It is like a dream, reading.”

The idea that reading offers a dream world, a parallel one, is familiar. But Beachy-Quick takes this a step farther. Reading before sleep, reading books to children before they go to sleep, is a way to slide gently through a middle place and into forgetting, into the little mini-death of sleep. “This sleep does not deny the world but lets the world go, trusts that … another world will appear, reminiscent of the waking one but altered, a world in which every figure is born from the self dreaming.”

You get up, stretch, walk outside, absorb the strange and wonderful things that Beachy-Quick writes. Mirrors within mirrors. He writes, he tells us, to be a better reader, not the other way around! Writing and reading: filling an empty page with words vs. taking in the words of others. The Greek word for forgetting (lethe), he writes, shares a root with the word for truth (alethe). “Truth,” he realizes, “contains within it its own disappearance.” The scholar struggles to remember, but the poet struggles to forget. “Reading is discovering truth,” he writes, “so that truth can return to nothing.”

So a little goes a long way, here, but it does go a very long way. Perhaps you take expensive vacations when you feel out of balance, off-kilter. You might try reading Beachy-Quick, who most certainly delivers perceptual fine-tuning.


Rosecrans Baldwin
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 24, 2012. 304 pp.

Of course the title is irresistible. In a sea of books about the glories of Paris, and why can’t America be more like Paris and oooh the food is so much better in Paris and boohoo all writers should live in Paris, Rosecrans Baldwin (two major boulevards in L.A.?) we think, is going to give us the real story. Paris gets more and more like New York every day. Yes! Another reason to save on plane fare! Let me ruin the ending for you by saying that nostalgia for Paris only increases with every page. Everything Baldwin (whose hipster-ness oozes off the pages) dislikes about Paris looks marvelous from here. The endless meals, the preoccupation with beauty, the gruff exteriors that barely conceal molten cores, the willingness to strike at the slightest provocation, the ostentatious friendliness (kiss, kiss — the bises) of coworkers — all preferable to whatever grey reality drew the reader to yet another book on Paris in the first place.

What’s new and different here is the detailed insight into what it might be like to take a job in Paris with a moderate understanding of French (not to mention how quickly Baldwin morphs from hipster to insufferable French hipster). Baldwin, who had written some marketing materials for luxury products, was given a job as a writer for a Parisian ad agency. He and his girlfriend, Rachel, a writer, found an apartment and settled in. “Basically,” he writes, after explaining the amazing number of off-color and racist jokes and the universal aversion to anything p.c. (pay-say), “Paris office life was an old boys’ club with female lifeguards.”

But the thrill wears off, and you can see it in the very structure of Baldwin’s sentences (which get more wistful as the book progresses, as if, dare we say it, Paris undid him!): “Living abroad pierces your skin until one day you prevent it. You make yourself unshockable. The buildings on the Rue de Rivoli give no new light, and you cease to see things fresh…If I inspected myself honestly, the Paris I knew best was from my commuting hours, before sunrise or during the dark blue winter twilight, and it was difficult not to think of Paris, my Paris, as a hallway in a shopping mall.”

This reader is torn: grateful for the unvarnished view and irritated, too. Time to watch Midnight in Paris.


Jonathan Franzen
Farther Away: Essays
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 24, 2012. 321 pp.

There’s so much raw pain in these gorgeous essays that one understands why many writers rarely leave the house, much less travel to Robinson Crusoe’s island off the coast of central Chile, or to China, or California. Every one of them contains loss — especially the loss of Franzen’s friend David Foster Wallace, whose suicide in 2008 settles like dust in some corner of each essay (Franzen scatters some of DFW’s ashes off the coast of the Chilean island).

Franzen isn’t coy about it — he’s angry that his friend chose to become a legend rather than remain a friend, but mostly you feel how much he misses talking to DFW, trying to make him laugh, trying to convince him to come to parties. Even as Franzen complains about these and other qualities, you can tell how much he misses them and it makes a reader remember how important irritation really is. You scratch things that itch; you make them bleed. This is how Franzen writes — a small itch opens a vein.

For example, the phrase “love you,” with which so many cell phone users end their calls, drives Franzen crazy. (“It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language.”) This leads him to explain how the love of his mother — effusive, sentimental — differed from the love of his father — unspoken, deep: “I feel lucky to have had the dad I did. He loved his kids more than anything. And to know that he felt it and couldn’t say it; to know that he could trust me to know he felt it and never expect him to say it: this was the very core and substance of the love I felt for him. A love that I in turn was careful never to declare out loud to him.”

You get a sense from this passage of how clear and simple much of Franzen’s writing is, but how much weight it carries, how much punch. It looks easy, but is some of the most carefully constructed literature around. He’s careful because he knows firsthand how dangerous the stories we tell about ourselves and the world can be, and how the frames we create become prisons. He treats language with great respect and the reader feels this — manipulated at times but not trifled with. He’s an edge-walker, Franzen, scanning the cultural perimeter and sending out smoke signals. If I were you, I’d pay attention.


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