“A Fan’s Notes” and Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford had something of a legendary life, and his death reminds me of Frederic Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, published 47 years ago and still ranked #211 in contemporary literature on Amazon.

Here is the novel’s synopsis from Wikipedia:

A Fan’s Notes is a sardonic account of mental illness, alcoholism, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, and the black hole of sports fandom. Its central preoccupation with a failure to measure up to the American dream has earned the novel comparisons to Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby. Beginning with his childhood in Watertown, New York, growing up under a sports-obsessed father and following his college years at the USC, where he first came to know his hero Frank Gifford, Exley recounts years of intermittent stints at psychiatric institutions, his failed marriage to a woman named Patience, successive unfulfilling jobs teaching English literature to high school students, and working for a Manhattan public relations firm under contract to a weapons company, and, by way of Gifford, his obsession with the New York Giants.

Exley’s introspective “fictional memoir”, a tragicomic indictment of 1950s American culture, examines in lucid prose themes of celebrity, masculinity, self-absorption, and addiction, morbidly charting his failures in life against the electrifying successes of his football hero and former classmate. The title comes from Exley’s fear that he is doomed to be a spectator in life as well as in sports.

The novel made so deep an impression on me when I read it that I’m afraid to reread it and risk being disappointed (the way I was disappointed by Pynchon’s V when I re-read it a few years ago).  Today Slate reprinted an article about it from 1997:

First published in 1968, the book has been kept alive by zealous readers who feel compelled to promote it, Amway-style, to everyone they meet. Read a chapter or two and you’ll know why. Written by a self-pitying autodidact for consumption by self-pitying autodidacts, A Fan’s Notes divides the world into two camps: tortured, bewildered misfits (Exleys) and serene, fair-haired conformists (Giffords). In America, Exley implies—indeed, he shouts it—a person is either a suffering poet or a cheerful drone.

In the years after A Fan’s Notes I kept hoping that Exley would come up with something to rival it.  But he never did.  His other two novels/memoirs were pale imitations, and in real life he was, of course, slowly drinking himself to death (he died in 1992 at the age of 63).  Gifford outlasted him by 23 years, but he didn’t quite manage to age with the dignity befitting his glory days as a football hero.  I wonder if Exley’s one great book will ultimately be what we remember about Gifford.

Is this the greatest novel in the English language?

Middlemarch, I mean.  Wikipedia tells me that this is the opinion of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.  It also quotes Virginia Woolf, who calls it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

I first read it back in high school or college, when I read pretty much everything.  I doubt that it was assigned reading — it’s about a billion pages long.  So I probably spent a chunk of my spare time devouring it one summer.  This time around, almost out  of the blue, I decided to have my hero Walter Sands read it in the course of Where All the Ladders Start (coming soon to an ebook store near you!), and I decided I’d better take another look at it myself, to make sure the things I said about it were true.

It surely is a novel for grown-ups.  I can’t imagine subjecting a middle schooler to it, the way we make them read Oliver Twist.  I can’t imagine what I would have made of the book in high school.  A few more thoughts:

  • Middlemarch has its moments of rustic humor, but Eliot is never as funny with her rude mechanicals as Dickens is with his working-class folks.  And she even doesn’t try to be as funny as Jane Austen when it comes to relations between men and women.  That is serious business.
  • There’s a bit of social commentary in the novel.  I didn’t recall this from my first reading, but it’s actually a historical novel — written in the 1870s but taking place in the 1830s.  So we see the railroad about to make an appearance in the area, for example, and the Reform Bill is in the air.  But that material seemed fairly bland to me.
  • Where Eliot is great — and maybe unequaled — is when she deals with love and marriage, and the complexities of serious relationships in a serious world.  Dorothea and Casaubon, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, Rosamond and Lydgate — by the end of the book, we are so deeply inside these characters’ heads that we seem to know them as well as we know ourselves.  That’s a pretty impressive achievement.

That is to say, I re-read the whole damn thing, which used up a large chunk of my reading time for the year.  It was worth it.

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (also, the cutest kitten photos ever!!)

OK, I’m lying about the kitten photos.  It’s just that the title of the post seemed a wee bit abstruse without throwing in some kittens.

The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes was a bestseller when it was published in 1976.  Its thesis, briefly, is that consciousness as we know it arose very recently in human history — around 3000 years ago.  Before that, human beings were more like zombies, lacking introspection, and responding to auditory hallucinations coming from the right side of their brains — hallucinations that they typically interpreted as being the voices of gods.  This “bicameral mind” started to break down during the second millennium BCE in the face of the stresses of migrations, natural disasters, the development of writing, and so on.

Julian Jaynes

When I read the book, the evidence I found most interesting was Jaynes’s comparison between the Iliad and the OdysseyNone of the characters in the Iliad show any introspection — they are the playthings of the gods.  In the Odyssey, on the other hand, Odysseus is supremely introspective; the gods are still integral to the story, but Odysseus is his own master.  (Of course, the dating of both epics is pretty conjectural, since they had they origins in oral performance, probably hundreds of years before they were written down.)

Anyway, the book disappeared from my consciousness after I read it, and I never noticed any other books by Jaynes.  Was he just another scientific crank like Velikovsky?

The answer, it seems, is (pretty much) no.  The first time I encountered a reference to Jaynes in recent years was in a footnote to Dawkins’s The God Delusion, where he says, “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.”  That sounds about right to me.  The book does, of course, offer an intriguing explanation of sorts for the origin of religion, but Dawkins just mentions it in passing.

I was more surprised last week when Jaynes came up in a UC Berkeley course I was listening to called “Scientific Approaches to Consciousness.”  The professor devoted his final lecture to Jaynes’s theory, without offering any criticism of it — apparently it is worthy of being taught, more or less uncritically, to Berkeley undergrads.

The Wikipedia articles suggest that Jaynes’s theory is not quite in the scientific mainstream, but lots of interesting people (like Daniel Dennett) continue to have good things to say about it.  There is a Julian Jaynes Society, the existence of which strikes me as rather culty.  Here is a recent critique of the theory.  Time to reread the book itself, I guess.

And OK, here is a cute kitten:

Rereading your own stuff

Life is too short to reread stuff you wrote yourself. Once I’ve completed a novel, I never look at it again.

But the e-book process forces you down this path, if only to check for glitches in the conversion process.  So that’s what I’ve been doing for Summit.  Of course, my main worry was that I’d find myself thinking: How could I have written this crap? Luckily, this didn’t happen. There were sentences I felt like tweaking, but the novel continued to work for me.

What was most interesting about the experience was how much I had forgotten about the novel.  These were characters and events that inhabited my brain for a long time, and now some of what happened seemed totally new to me.  Did I really write that?

As a spy thriller, Summit is legally obligated to have a certain number of plot twists. They have to be prepared for in such a way that they are surprising when they happen, but sufficiently plausible that they don’t seem arbitrary, that the reader doesn’t think the author is just messing with him.  When I reread the novel, the first plot twist took me completely by surprise.  So much so that, when the twist started (somewhat mysteriously, with someone being in a place she wasn’t supposed to be), I thought I had screwed up, so I went back and changed a paragraph a couple of chapters earlier in the novel.   Then I continued reading, and I realized the clever author had tricked his credulous future self.  I should have trusted the author more — now I had to find the paragraph I’d changed and put it back to the way it was supposed to be.

Personalities persist, but memories decay.  I’m the same person that I was back then, but that doesn’t mean I can’t surprise myself.