Monday, February 23, 2009

Little Gray Men

In the early 1960's, before the Kennedy assassination and Little Rock, before "I have a dream," on a lonesome country road in New Hampshire, a mixed-race couple, him black, her white, encounter a flying saucer, which assails them with its spiraling red and white lights before landing nearby. Before the episode ends, the aliens abduct the couple and perform bizarre examinations on them during the course of which they discover that the man, Bernie, wears false teeth. The aliens, it should go without saying, have big heads and large eyes. Oh--and they happen to be gray.

This is the rudely summarized plot of Peter Ho Davies' short story, "The Hull Case." And it could be read as a blatant and even clumsy metaphor for the anxieties, hopes, delusions and fears of a racially mixed couple living in a still very segregated society, with the gray aliens standing in for the biological children they could not have. But the story turns out to be true: Davies based it on the famous case of a real mixed-race couple and their highly publicized encounter with extra-terrestrials--an encounter which, in those post-Rosewell years, was taken quite seriously by the likes of LIFE magazine and the United States Air Force, who sent an officer to interview the couple at their home. The scene of the couple being questioned by "the colonel" forms the backbone of Davies' tale, with a devoted yet reluctant Bernie forced into the role of unwitting accomplice alongside his overenthusiastic and even evangelistic wife, Bessie, for whom their encounter with aliens is more than freak occurence: it is touched with Destiny and Purpose; it has given meaning not only to their lives, but to life in general.

One of the themes of the story as written by Davies is the very human need to give shape and substance to existence, to find meaning not only in everyday occurences, but in tragedies such that they are mitigated, or at least made bearable. For Bernie and Bessie, the tragedy is their inability to have children. That's Bessie's tragedy, anyway. For Bernie, though, the tragedy runs deeper. For unlike his white and rather innocent wife, Bernie is no innocent. He is all-too aware of the prejudices that divide him from the wider white society around him, and of the fear with which he navigates his way through a "whites only" world. When while driving to Niagara Falls for their second honeymoon they first see the swirling lights in their rearview mirror, Bernie jumps immediately to the conclusion that it must be the police; that they are being pulled over, and dreads what may ensure when the officer shines his flashlight in their mixed faces. Top be kidnapped by aliens would, for Bernie, have been the lesser of evils.

We all, to greater and lesser extents, at least from time to time, yearn to be removed from the gravity of our own circumstances, to be free of the local earth and the tremendous weights and pressures that life imposes on us. Add the pressures of prejudice and bigotry and the existential wound inflicted by childlessness, and you have a recipe for an abduction fantasy. Like the aliens who populate it, the kidnapping fantasy itself becomes a substitute for the child this couple never had, the life that might have served as their emissary into a more tolerable and tolerant society, a world where skin colors wouldn't matter so much; indeed, one where a black man might even be made President of the United States. Of course, space aliens are emissaries. Typically, they bring a wider view of things, of a universe wherein planet earth is but one of many planets with a culture and civilization. And being far wiser than us they bring warnings, dire ones, usually, of imminent self-annihilation. They come in peace to save us from ourselves and to remind us of all that we have to lose.

Children serve that function. They tell us, first of all, that there is more to our lives that just our selves, that there will indeed be a future, and that we have a stake in it. For Bernie and Bessie, that future had been cruelly excised. It was almost as if the mis-matched colors of their skins precluded it, as if all the forces of nature and society--at least the bigoted society that Bernie has embodied within him in the form of primal fear--conspire against their taking root in the world. Bernie wears false teeth; he has lost his "bite." A toothless animal is helpless against its enemies. Bernie is physically and emotionally impotent, powerless to change the world, irrelevant to its plans. For Bessie, this sense of powerlessness is liberating: in being abducted by space aliens she feels a sort of rapture. In what she cannot explain or control she takes solace and even finds a form of salvation. This makes more than a little sense because Bessie is a woman, and a woman's body is made to be "invaded"--first by the man's penis, then by his sperm, and finally by the fetus that occupies and grows in her womb. For a woman this type of surrender is not only natural, but blissful.

For Bernie things are different. To the extent that he must surrender himself (to his impotence, to his powerlessness, to Bessie's will), he feels nothing but shame and guilt. A man's role is not to surrender, but to fight and to fertilize; to defend himself and his family; to push forward into the future, staking claims along the way. But Bernie's only future now, aside from a pension from the post office where he works, is that of a toothless spent warrior whose fighting days have ended before they have even begun, and whose legacy will likely be determined by the degree of credibility assigned to the story that he and his wife tell to the Colonel--a tale that, even as he corroborates it, Bernie knows is absurd, laughable. His life, in other words, is a joke. The one thing he is able to nurture, his only stake in the future, is as a footnote to an absurdity: that will be his legacy.

If the "children" of Bernie and Bessie's marriage are gray, it is not only because they have skins of different color. The "mixture" goes further than color. The gray here is that of mixed feelings, the gray of doubts and regrets, of uncertainty and of dubious claims. After all, whether Bernie is indeed the co-creator of the abduction story, of his wife's "child," is questionable: for all he knows that seed may have been planted without him. There, too, his role may be superfluous. The child she carries for them both may have resulted from a virgin birth: a divine, if not an immaculate, conception.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Head Paintings

In my waking life, I've been a figurative painter and illustrator. But in my dreams, or just lying in bed, I was an abstract expressionist.

For years I dreamed paintings—if "dreaming" is the right word, since often the paintings appeared with me still awake, dozing off, sleepy but not yet sleeping. At first the paintings (here, too, the term doesn't quite fit: they weren't paintings at all; they were hallucinations, visions, or a combination of both) came to me unbidden. I would be lying there with my eyes closed in the dark, having just switched off my bed lamp, when suddenly my mind's eye would turn into an art gallery, with image after image presenting itself. But unlike a gallery where you stroll from painting to painting, this mental exhibition consisted of a single fluctuating canvas or screen on which one image gave way seamlessly to another, and another, with colors, shapes, and textures melding, shifting, swirling —like the flames of a fire or chips in a kaleidoscope.

Something similar used to happen to me when I'd go swimming in my favorite lake. Afterwards, I'd lie sunning myself on a flat rock at the shore. With my eyes closed, the combination of sunlight and blood vessels produced the most thrillingly brazen abstract paintings behind my eyelids, works that could have given a run for their money to any by Rothko, Gorky, or Miro. By squeezing my eyes or shifting my head a little this way or that, I could adjust the paintings, alter their shapes, their hues, even their brightness and intensity. I could "conduct" them like Toscanini conducting a symphony.

But the paintings I saw in bed were different. There, no sunlight explained the phenomenon; the room was in complete darkness. Nor did my blood vessels contribute in any way to what I saw (here, too, "saw" is probably the wrong word. Imagined?). Nothing physical accounted for the display. These "paintings" were purely the work of my unconscious, with no collaboration from outside.

And they were good paintings, very good paintings. Describing abstract feelings with words is hard enough; describing abstract paintings is all but impossible. And there were so many, and no two alike. 

But let me try.

Picture lichen or mineral deposits growing in all different colors and patterns on the surface of a perfectly flat, even rock, or flowing, multi-colored lava, swirling and spreading itself across a smooth surface. Sometimes these molten colors arrange themselves within crude geometries of rugged, rough line—as if snared by a net. Others were grouped in geometrical patterns, like the bricks of a wall (I think of Sean Scully’s “brick” paintings; but the bricks is mine were smaller, less rigid, and more crustily textured). Sometimes, out of the colors and textures, faces would emerge—grotesque and likewise crude, as if drawn by a child with a blunt crayon. 

Much of the beauty of these visions lay in their perfect randomness, the sort that painters, who are always hoping for happy accidents, struggle to but rarely achieve, a randomness both arbitrary and inevitable. (The closest thing I’ve ever achieved to it lies on the shelf of my easel, where a coral-like thick crust of paint has accumulated over the years: at this coral-like crust of paint I would gaze admiringly and think, “Why can’t you paint like that on purpose?") If  you’ve ever looked with an artist’s eye at a patch of concrete, or a cracked wall, or the side of a garbage dumpster plastered with torn bill postings, you’ve known the beauty of randomness.

And yet the images I saw night after night for a dozen nights were remarkably consistent—works produced, as it were, by the same hand. The paintings changed; but the "artist" remained the same. More impressive still--at least to me--was the fact that, though entirely unfamiliar, the paintings on display felt like they were mine. I'd never painted anything like them, and yet I felt that I ought to paint them, that no one else would or could. Consciously or not, they were informed by my aims, principles, and desires. Something in me had created them.

But here again the word "created" isn't right. Doesn't creation involve effort? Yet no effort was expended; the paintings simply appeared. It made me question the whole notion of creativity. Supposing I had a magical button the pressing of which would transform my mental paintings into physical works on canvas. Would that be cheating? Could I truly take credit for "creating" them, in that case? If the artist doesn't labor to produce his visions, does that make him less of a visionary? Would it render his visions any less valuable, or valid?

As someone who has worked with computer applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, I am fascinated by the whole concept of a "virtual image," one that exists not as paint or some other substance on a ground or in any tactile form, but only as a series of pixels whose colors, in turn, are determined by binary values. With a computer, the artist doesn't actually "paint" anything; he simply assigns those values to an array of pixels; there is no "painting," per se. And yet effort is expended; work is done. Hard work, as a matter of fact. And a product is achieved; an image that can be shared with others is produced.

My head paintings were different. They were shared with no one but me. In fact the only proof you have of their existence is my word. If I say they were beautiful, if I call them masterpieces, you have every right and reason to doubt me. And yet I swear it's true. But before you write me off (and accuse me of immodesty, to boot), let me repeat that I didn't make the paintings; they were made for me out of a mixture of memory, experience, and desire.

And sometimes with a little prodding from me. For as with my eyelid paintings, I taught myself to "conduct" them. And so, for a dozen or so nights, night after night, in collaboration with my unconscious, I "head painted" thousands of head paintings—an output surpassing even that of Picasso in its abundance and variety.

At first I welcomed this abundance; in fact I couldn't believe my luck and even felt blessed. But after four or five days I also felt exhausted, since along with whatever pleasures they offered, each of these thousands of head paintings came with an obligation to go to the easel and produce the real thing. For a while I kept a sketchpad on my night stand, and tried to reproduce, in rough outlines and color notes, the best of the best of these offerings, switching the light on every five or so minutes, with notes accumulating, displacing sleep. I was reminded of that episode of the Lucy show, the one where she's working on a cake assembly line that keeps going faster and faster. And anyway my task would have been impossible: the only way to do justice to paintings isn't with a pad and pencil, but with paint on canvas. After ten nights I felt like shouting, "Enough, already!"

At last, the images stopped coming. I made them stop. I forced myself to think of other things. If a "painting" popped into my mind I mentally batted it away. I needed my sleep.

* * *
Like a fawning grandparent, the unconscious gives us more goodies than we can ever need or use. In his book Musicophelia, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Berlioz' "lost symphony," how the composer supposedly woke up twice with the same symphony fully formed in his mind, only to put it out of the same mind, his situation at the time being such that he could scarcely take the time to write down a symphony, even one "pre-composed." It happened again, and again Berlioz put it out of his mind, but this time with the remorse a parent feels for an aborted child. Thereafter, night after night, Berlioz awaited the return of his dream symphony, but it never came back. He never forgave himself.

On the other hand, some "masterpieces" may best be left to the imagination. That may be their natural medium, the soil in which they flourish. They don't belong in the real world, exposed to harsh daylight and the even harsher scrutiny of audiences and critics. They are too personal, too private, to delicate. Like those bodies perfectly preserved in peat bogs, once exposed to oxygen they disintegrate into mud.

I was going to attach an image to this post, but then I realized there's no point. No actual image, my own or anyone else's, can do justice to my "head paintings." In this they have something in common with most if not all fantasies:

They're better left in the mind.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Songs That Have Hummed Me

Some time ago I stopped being able to listen to music when writing. First I had to cut out music with words, then strong rhythms, then all forms of percussion. For a while I listened to movie scores, but soon they, too, took over, dragging me away from my own stories and into the movies whose scenes they orchestrated, ditching me in sweltering, neon-stained New Orleans, or dangling me from Lincoln’s Beard on Mount Rushmore. That left me with lullabies, etudes, and chamber music, a Debussy nocturne, a Mozart quartet. Like one of those people with horrible autoimmune dysfunction, I found I could no longer listen to anything while working but an occasional Brandenburg concerto or two—a diet of pure salade frisée. Then the concerti, too, wore out their welcome. And the rest was silence. 

But not quite. For I don’t mean to suggest that music hasn’t been very much a part of my writing. It always has been. It’s that the music hasn’t always been playing except virtually, as a sort of aural hallucination, a CD spinning around in the back of my brain. One way or another, always, in writing, I’ve had music somewhere on my mind.

But there were days when I worked to real music. My first unbearably bad unpublished novel I wrote to strains of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody played over and over again—to the displeasure of my college roommates, who suffered it continuously despite attempts to drown George out with the Boss and Steely Dan. What did Gershwin or his rhapsodies have to do with the novel I wrote? Nothing, really, except that the novel was set in New York City, and no music reminds me more of New York—or at any rate of the New York of my (and perhaps everyone’s) dreams—than Gershwin’s (think of that opening clarinet glissando in Rhapsody in Blue rising up, up, up into the stratosphere—like those stainless steel vaults crowning the Chrysler Building; music to build skyscrapers by).

My second (and slightly less bad) novel I wrote almost exclusively to George Winston’s Thanksgiving. Titled The Sidewalk Artist, it was the story of a successful Madison Avenue advertising executive who quits to become a chalk gypsy or screever, someone who draws on sidewalks with colored chalk. Here, too, the relevance of the music was unknown to me then. But in hindsight Winston’s spare, deliberately melancholy composition (played in bare feet) perfectly suited a melodramatic tearjerker set during a harsh New York winter, wherein my protagonist finds himself living among urchins in an abandoned rail tunnel under Grand Central Station. It was music to feel sorry for your protagonists to.

Sometimes the connections between songs and stories are obvious; other times they need a Freud to rout them. When I wrote “The Girl in the Story,” one of the stories in Drowning Lessons, why did Ruby Tuesday keep flitting through my brain? Easy: because the real-life prototype of Stephen O’Shan (a.k.a. Colin David McDoogle)—the luckless leprechaun of an Irishman whose girl the narrator sleeps with—and I dropped acid together once in his garage loft, and spent most of our subsequent trip “digging” that song (a fine song, by the way, to dig to on acid; by five in the morning I was convinced that I had written it).

And does Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor go with “My Search for Red and Grey Wide-Striped Pajamas” because the tune was written into the plot of the story, or was the tune written into the plot of the story because it was in my head at the time when I wrote it?

Honestly, I don’t remember.

Other cases offer more mystery. Why, when writing “The Wolf House,” a story about a gathering of old high school chums for a comrade’s funeral, did I play the score to Bridge on the River Kwai? No idea, but today I can’t read or even contemplate that work without hacking my way through a sodden Burmese jungle en route to destroy a bridge built by a fanatical British Colonel (Alec Guinness) for the Japanese army he despises.

And what does The Blue Danube have to do with a story about an African-American caretaker in charge of the last remaining survivor of the Titanic disaster (“The Sinking Ship Man”)? Oh, yes, now I see: In the 1958 film A Night to Remember as the gloriously illuminated ship (actually a large model) steams past the camera we hear strains of Strauss’ most famous waltz as played by the ship’s band—the same band that, hours later, in the movie and according to legend, would play ‘Nearer My God to Thee as the doomed liner nosed under).

You see that movie score music plays a big part in my writing life, maybe because what I mainly ask of music is what I demand of my work: that it take me places: not just to physical places, but that it transport me in and out of various moods, something movie scores are designed implicitly to do. And so when I wrote Life Goes to the Movies, my forthcoming novel about a Vietnam Veteran-turned filmmaker who goes over the brink of madness, I listened continually to Alex North’s jazz-inspired theme for A Streetcar Named Desire—logically, because the book is about movies, but specifically because the novel’s antagonist, Dwaine Fitzgibbon, puts the narrator in mind of a young brooding Marlon.

I will end on this note: that music—songs especially—can be dangerous, especially if and when we ignore their implications. For better or worse, there are usually reasons why they are there, in our heads or on our CD players or ipods. Two summers ago, at a writer’s colony in western Massachusetts, while drafting a novel I played two songs over and over again —not while I wrote, but mostly in my Honda Civic while rolling around the countryside, enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. Both songs were by the Beatles. One was Ticket to Ride, the other Yesterday. I came home to learn that my wife of twenty years had decided that she didn’t want to be a wife anymore.

More recently, on another fellowship at another colony (where I steered clear of love songs, thanks very much), I listened obsessively to The Moldau, Bedrich Smetena’s tone poem tracing the course of the Volga river in Czechoslovakia from its humble origin as a series of sparkling streams merging, past a hunt in the woods and peasants celebrating at a wedding along its banks, through a moonlit night and thunderous rapids leading it towards its own triumphant wedding with the open sea. The first time I heard The Moldau I was five years old. In his ratty laboratory at the bottom of our driveway my inventor papa kept a small turntable and a short stack of records, including some Maurice Chevalier recordings and a ten-inch, 78 rpm Decca recording of Alfred Wallenstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 1952 rendition of Smetena’s masterpiece. That the record was full of cracks only added to its appeal. Five years old and smitten with Smetena! But for me it wasn’t Smetena’s music as much as it was my father’s, belonging to him as much as the smells of solder flux, orange rind and scorched metal from the sanding machine and the lathe that filled his laboratory. Now, forty–six years later, the theme reasserted itself as that of a novel (“The Man in Blue”) about—among other things— a Czechoslovakian-German-Jew survivor of World War II, who owes his survival, in part, to a daring escape from a Nazi labor camp into a moonlit river. As with Drowning Lessons, water courses through this work, too, supplying its major metaphor. But the theme of water itself runs not just through my novels, essays and stories, but through my life. There are no accidental metaphors.

And there are no accidental songs or pieces of music. Which is to say: songs don’t lie. Not if they’ve gotten into your head, they don’t. And all music, if it works at all, works subliminally.

Whether we play music consciously or not, by accident or by volition, or even if we don’t play it at all, still, that won’t stop music from playing us.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Was This Review Helpful? The Search for an Unassailable Masterpiece

Not long ago I asked the young students in a fiction workshop I was teaching to name a few novels that, in their view, stood the best chance of becoming seminal works of their generation. Among titles that came up more than once was that of Dave Egger’s first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity. Curious, I got hold of the book, read it, and found it awful (for the record, I’d very much enjoyed Egger’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, up to a point). Which made me wonder: was I completely out of touch?

To find out I did something I’d never done before. I looked up Egger’s novel on Amazon and checked out the customer reviews. If I wasn’t out of touch I was certainly outnumbered. The novel had earned an average rating of five stars (the highest), with enthusiastic reviews stacking up ten-to-one against those less favorable, and satisfied customer after customer proclaiming Egger’s novel the “best” he or she had ever read—making me wonder just how many novels those reviewers had ever looked into. To vent my indignation I submitted a review of my own—a drop of vitriol against the flood of unalloyed praise.

That calmed me down for about ten minutes, until an even more disturbing thought crossed my mind. What might the same unprofessional critics have to say about the books I’d loved as a younger man? If I looked up the customer reviews of, say, The Man With the Golden Arm, On the Road, Tropic of Cancer, or A Catcher in the Rye, what would I find? These were books that I’d not only read, but carried around with me in the back pocket of my jeans like talismans, cheap paperbacks whose acid-rich pages I dog-eared and fondled into ochre crumbs and dust. I had grown up with them no less than I’d grown up with my family and friends, and loved them just as much. What would today’s readers have to say about them? I hesitated to find out, yet I couldn’t resist.

I started with The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1948 novel about a heroin junkie set in and around Chicago’s seedy, neon-lit Division Street. I discovered the book at age thirteen, while alphabetizing Mr. Berg’s library (see "Dirty Books" below: where I call him "Mr. Boyd"). Mr. Berg was a parsimonious widower who lived alone in a modest shingled house at the top of a woodsy hill. The library was in his basement, in a room holding an army surplus cot and a dehumidifier. The room stank of mildew; the dehumidifier didn’t work. The books were all cheap Signet and Plume paperbacks, which, when he bought them in the fifties and sixties, cost somewhere between a quarter and seventy-five cents. As I pulled them from the shelves their desiccated spines snapped; their pages broke free and fluttered, like brown autumn leaves, to the floor. As I picked them up some of the pages caught my eye and I’d read them. The page of Algren’s novel that fell out happened to be the first page. It begins:

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query room desk.

To date I’d probably read two books, both about ships and heavily illustrated. Still I went home with Algren’s novel tucked in my pocket and over the next week or so gulped down its four hundred-plus pages with the fervor of a parched man slaking his thirst. Something about Algren’s prose, the lilt of its sentences, gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. For the first time, thanks to Mr. Algren and Mr. Berg (who, in my mind, had merged), I fell in love with novels. Now, thirty years later, what would Amazon’s customers have to say about the book that turned me into a reader—and ultimately into a writer?

There were less than a dozen customer reviews posted, with the average review totaling a respectable four-and-a-half out of a possible five stars. Among these most were laudatory—no wonder, since the book won the first National Book Award. Still, as I scrolled through the reviews a sinking feeling came over me, a sense that the positive reviews were mostly by people of my generation or older, and not representative of contemporary tastes—a suspicion reinforced when I came upon this review by “mojo navigator”:

[The Man With The Golden Arm] is ponderous, turgid and lacks any sense of urgency and desperation that its central theme—heroin addiction— should necessitate. Situations and relationships are one-dimensional and cardboard-cutout-like rendering them thoroughly implausible. However, the real failure of this novel is in its dreadfully antiquated 'hip speech', a failed attempt on the part of Algren to capture the street lingo of the time ¼ [Algren’s dialogue] sounds false and clumsy, making the novel unnecessarily difficult to read. Bottom Line: If you're looking for an accurate depiction of drug addiction in '50s America, you won't find it here.

Ouch! A cyanide-tipped arrow straight through my literary heart! The worst thing about “mojo’s” review is that he (or she?) is right; Algren’s novel has dated badly. It was as if I’d been shown a photo of my first heartthrob only to realize that she had crossed eyes, pimples, and big ears.

Let’s concede that The Man With the Golden Arm had been a great book in its time, and remains a good one, but it’s an eccentric book and hardly one for the ages. I decided to try another favorite, one that, for my generation at least, certainly qualifies as a “classic.” Into the Amazon search field I typed “on the road,” and then, with breath held, scrolled down to the reviews.

The first two of five hundred and sixty-two reviews I found weren’t all favorable, but they weren’t that bad. One reviewer, having proclaimed the book “the classic beatnik novel,” confesses that it took him four tries to get through it. Some of the reviews are sharp. A Matt Martin of Fort Collins, Colorado damns Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece with faint praise, then distils the books’ main problem down to its “fusillade style” which “preemptively fore[goes] ¼ real character complexity or narrative development.” Ultimately, he dismisses On the Road as a “personal travelogue” and disses it with a paltry two stars.

But compared to others Matt’s review is generous. After coughing up a single star for the book that sent me and thousands like me hitchhiking across America, “manwithnoname” of Melrose, California, opens his review with a typographic snooze, “ZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz........” —then apologizes for having fallen asleep while reading the book. Then, having proclaimed the book utterly plotless, he excuses himself and goes back to sleep again. Richmond “Spider” of Florida, having cast his own “death star,” describes On the Road as a “disjointed story” about a “dude with no background being lead around by a pseudointellectual jerk [Dean Moriarity, a.k.a. Neal Cassady] with no respect for anyone but himself.” So much for a classic.

Maybe On the Road wasn’t the best choice. Even when first published, it was a controversial book that earned mixed reviews. How about that other classic of youthful rebellion, A Catcher in the Rye? Surely the classic coming-of-age novel wouldn’t suffer an ignoble fate in the hands of Amazon’s loyal customers.

To be sure the book still has its fans, as indicated by the four-out-of-five star average. But the bad reviews come fast and furious, with Linda “Ayeldee” warning potential readers that, though funny in parts, the book will make you “want to kill yourself,” and pitying those forced, like her, to read it in school since “you can’t throw it out the window and get rid of it.” Two reviews down, things get worse, with another involuntary reader, “Cher630” of the Bronx, calling the novel’s protagonist a “whiney, immature, angst ridden teenager who need[s] a smack in the head.” Cher goes on to brand Salinger’s hero “a phony.” Holden Caulfield, a phony?

Oddly, some of the reviewers who hate the book most sound remarkably like its narrator. Listen to John Hechtlinger of Fort Lee, New Jersey: “This book killed me. . . somehow I never read it as a teenager or college student but it seemed alot[sic] of people read it and loved it so I wanted to finally find out what the book is all about . . .Well, anyway, it’s definitely not great literature, that’s the first thing I discovered, and he writes with this phony pseudo alienated-but-artistic-youth style that makes you pretty much wanna throw up.”

After a dozen reviews like that I felt pretty sick myself, as if it my own novel had been lambasted. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.

If this is what contemporary readers thought of Kerouac and Salinger, I hesitated to imagine what they’d say about my other hero, Henry Miller.

“Sex belongs in the bedroom, NOT the library!!!!” writes Jon Deepcreek in his review of Tropic of Cancer, and goes on to say, “This book is filthy. I had to take a shower after I read it. Why doesn’t he [Miller’s narrator] get a job? Why does he have to live in France? Why doesn’t he save his money instead of investing it in alcohol and hookers?” These are good, practical questions to ask of Miller’s protagonist, but also ones that fail to take into account the spirit of rebellion in which Miller’s book was written, and which, aside from its notorious (yet surprisingly scant) sex, is its chief virtue. The children of the counterculture that embraced works like Miller’s have apparently taken to wagging their fingers at their parents’ favorite authors, blaming them for the less-than-enlightened world they were born into. Which may explain why vast majority of the customer reviews of Miller’s book boiled down to three words: “Get a job.” So much for the spirit of rebellion.

Possibly a novel without a countercultural theme, one written by a man, would fare better? What about Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), a novel I’ve recommended to many without reservation. Gorgeously written (so I felt—and feel), with a cast of quirky, complex characters and the indelible image of a house half-submerged by floodwaters. What’s not to like?

According to Amazon’s customer reviewers, plenty. “This book is without a doubt the most dull, uninteresting, and painful piece of literature I have ever set my eyes upon,” writes Karl (no address given). How something can be dull and painful is worth pondering. Conceding that the author is “not without talent and intellect,” Karl berates Robinson for serving up “beautifully crafted scenarios” via “a multitude of metaphorical sentences” that add up to “no real meaning.” Karl concludes, “This book is an utter waste of time.” One star.

One star for a book I’d recommended to dozens. I should have dismissed Karl as a crank; it would have been easy enough, since his was by all means a minority view. But how can you argue with someone’s feelings? For whatever reasons, Housekeeping bored Karl stiff, such that the texts of Catallus and Cicero (which, Karl claims, he read in Latin class), though equally tedious and hard to understand, at least made some sense to him.

What it took Karl three paragraphs to say, “Nose in a Book” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, summed up in one word: “Blech!!!” While such outbursts don’t exactly flaunt a reviewers’ intellectual or verbal powers, who can deny their eloquence and concision?

By now I was all but convinced that there is no such thing as an unassailable classic. All but. Two final tests remained. To perform them, I’d have to find books that had been both popular and critical successes, bestsellers beloved by millions, and not just over a decade or two or three, but for at least forty years.

It took me three seconds to arrive at To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s perennial bestseller about murder and racial injustice in the deep south. True, the book has its flaws, including Atticus Finch, that stick-in-the-mud emblem of paternal righteousness, and also its child narrator’s tendency to favor words like “assuaged.” Still, what’s to hate? Right?

Of a whopping 1,529 customer reviews, the majority were decidedly uncritical, with “AWESOME CLASSIC!!!” a typical response, down to its orgy of exclamation points (with “I love this book!” coming in a close second). I had to scroll through seven pages to find a dissenter

“Picked up this book from the library due to the reviews,” Yoo Win writes, “plus heard from the conversation between 2 colleagues that it is a page-turner. However, it is to my disappointment [sic] from page 1 to page 40. I could not drag myself to wade through page 40.” Okay, so English isn’t Yoo’s first language. Still, he gets his point across. “It seems like a book with no clear objective to convey. It might be the greatest literature book as is claimed, it is just not my kind of book.”

Not a knockout punch, but no love-tap, either. The decisive blows were yet to come, like this one from “Kid,” whose staccato caption delivers its verdict like a judge pounding his gavel: “Worst. Book. Ever.” Kid continues: “Let me just say this: the book is boring. It starts out with Scout talking about how her brother once broke his arm. Who cares? The book’s most exciting part [the trial?] is extremely confusing, and don’t tell me I’m stupid; I have an IQ of 140.” But even this review is a rave compared with what Nadia of Wisconsin says. “This book is very nasty. It depicts scenes I would not care to see if I was being PAID. It’s just a sick book. Don’t read it, kids.” So much for the inviolability of To Kill a Masterpiece—ur, a Mockingbird.

I tried one more book, one that had not only been soundly embraced for a solid century. What sort of nasty things would Amazon’s reviewers have to say about Jane Austen’s greatest novel, Pride & Prejudice?

This time I had to scroll through seventy out of seven-hundred and fifteen reviews to get to one that was even mildly excoriating. “Read this,” writes Ikaro Silva, “if the sole goal of your life is to get married.” Ikaro goes on to reduce Austen’s novel to “just a new version of Cinderella” and one that “portray[s] all women as conformists.” Take that, Jane!

But even this reviewer gives the book two out of five stars. The only one-star review I found was by Juan Camarillo of San Antonio, who writes: “From a fan of IMMANUEL KANT, this was too boring.” Juan proceeds: “I had to study the Diamond Sutra and the Book of Job to get the vapid feeling out of my head." Juan then quotes another reviewer who had written, “as Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, so did Austen see the world in a drawing room.” To which Jake responds, “There is a vast difference in seeing the world in a drawing room and thinking that the world IS a drawing room.”

What strikes me about even the most outrageous of these reviews is that they all hold some truth, if only the truth of one reader’s experience, and novels are meant to be experienced intimately, by individuals, not en masse. And just because the views expressed are those of a minority doesn’t make them any less valid. Nor can they be written off as the opinions of amateurs, since by and large novels are written for amateurs, not for critics.

And I also have to confess to taking some comfort—and even a certain twisted pride—in the fact that great works are as subject to censure as my own modest performances: a fact that makes it possible, through the following syllogism, for me to equate my work with theirs:

Major Premise: All great works are subject to criticism

Minor Premise: My work is subject to criticism

Conclusion: My work is great

On the other hand there’s something undeniably upsetting about having your favorite books flogged in public, even if the flogging is administered by one or two cranky dissenters amid throngs of rabid devotees. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out with characteristic wit, a critic laying into a novel is like someone putting on a full suit of armor to attack a banana split.

Still, ours is a democracy where—so far, anyway, at least about harmless things like works of art—people are still free to say what they think. That leaves works of fiction not only open to interpretation, but subject to opinion. What touches one reader may injure, offend or bore another. So it goes.

That said, though a novel may be subject to opinion, its greatness isn’t. That masterpieces exist is all the evidence we have against artistic relativism, but it’s damning evidence. The quality of a work of art isn’t a matter of opinion any more than the shape of a snowflake or the smell of rotten eggs: it simply is. And like those who so freely give them, opinions come and go. But masterpieces endure. In the end the only stars that matter are those cast by time.

Meanwhile, since we have no choice, we should welcome the opinions of others—even if we have to take them with a Taj Mahal-sized grain of salt. And remind ourselves, while doing so, of the immortal words of G. C. Lichtenburg:

“A book is a mirror. If an ass looks into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”