Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fiction, FOMO, and the male ego (at least this one)

Sometime recently, my contemporary Liesl Schillinger made a comment on Facebook about guys of a certain age not reading muc fiction anymore, and I said to myself "Hmmmmm."  I fall into that bucket myself.

For the last little bit of my life, I've been reading predominantly if not exclusively nonfiction, and for the last year or so it has been dominated by biography.  Admittedly, not just any biography, ones by Robert Caro.  I just got to the end of the 2nd volume on LBJ, and not a minute too soon, because I'm about ready to shoot the guy.  And when I've not been reading nonfiction or bios, I've been cleansing my palate with mysteries and post-espionage fiction, mostly Ruth Rendell, Alan Furst, and Olen Steinhauer. Admittedly, I did somewhere slip in Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, which was quite good, until she started writing in the 2nd person, which I just have limited tolerance for.

But, by and large, for the last couple of years, I've had a hard time biting into serious fiction and chewing, preferring (to extend the Francis Bacon metaphor) those that are predigested by their genres.  And I have to wonder:  what's up with that?  For me, at least, there's an odd utilitarianism at work. Given my limited time to read non-professional books (nights, a little during the the weekend), I find myself nonetheless grasping for ways to explain things to myself, and if when I was younger I worked more in a speculative, abstract vein, pondering the evolution of society, the psyche, etc., by now I'm just trying to get a handle on shit.  What's up with China?  How does power work?

The younguns have the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out), and I remember it well.  When I was in my 20s, any weekend night when I was single, I was desperate to figure out where the party was at, lest I might miss meeting the One. Or, failing that, an opportunity to tie one on.  Now I'm experiencing an adult form of FOMO.  What if the world passes me by and I don't get diddly done by the time I get carted off?  And so, the focus on the concrete, history, deeds of the great and grand, as a yardstick for myself.  I reckon.

But of course, as I say it, I realize how silly it is.  Comparing my insides to other peoples' outsides, as they say...

At least, in the case of Caro's second volume, we have LBJ set off against Coke Stephenson, from whom Johnson stole the 1948 Texas Senate race.  Stephenson is a great figure, an utterly mythic self-made guy, stoic cowboy who rises in politics because he is serially called by the citizenry to ever-higher office, but maintains his love for his self-built ranch with a river running through it, and who returns to his ranch when defeated by Johnson to dig post holes, fall in love again, try cases in court, swim in the river, and drink whiskey by the fire.  It is, no doubt, a romantic portrait if perhaps not exaggerated, and it is set off against the manic amoral efficacy of LBJ by Caro, who is posing a very clear question about the ends of life.

But for now, I'm on to some fiction.  Haven Kimmel's The Solace of Leaving Early.  Am liking it.


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