Review of Arts & Entertainments

I published a review of Christopher Beha’s second novel Arts & Entertainments in the January print edition of First Things. The review is now available online. Beha, a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine, is a fine novelist and his debut work What Happened to Sophie Wilder? is worth checking out as well.


Philip K. Dick, the Unreliability of Language & the Writer’s Struggle

The following is an email from Roman Tsivkin to myself regarding an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Writing is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick, and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence” by Jason Starr. I think Roman’s letter is both an informative riposte to the essay, as well as a valuable piece of literary criticism regarding the entire Dick oeuvre. Yet even more illuminating is how Roman intertwines his literary criticism with his own struggles to write fiction. The email was published with Roman’s permission. -Robert Fay


It’s been too long, as usual. Loved the link you tweeted to that article on Philip K. Dick (PKD) & McKimmey’s correspondence, but as usual the author of the article got some things wrong about PKD. No, he did not “devolve” into mental illness sometime in the ’60s. He wrote his best stuff in the mid and late ’60s, got increasingly paranoid due to amphetamine abuse (& due to real reasons; the FBI was spying on him from way back in the ’50s, when they sent two agents to “ask” him to spy on fellow Berkeley radicals), tried to commit suicide, moved to SoCal, had a visionary experience (or, if you like, a mental breakdown…but the two are often indistinguishable), and then wrote novels that were even better than his output in the ’60s.

The tendency to view Dick’s later period as being characterized by drug-induced hallucinations, paranoia and mental collapse are a cop-out — he was onto something very, very important. His last works — the VALIS trilogy — are, to put it simply, incredible, and are really all about ontology and metaphysics, something we normally call “religion.” All of his later works tie in to his earlier stuff, so there’s no big break like some people claim…VALIS et al. are a logical extension of his earlier world-buildings and world-views. I’m still trying to digest VALIS and The Exegesis, a process that will never end because, well, hell’s bells, have you seen The Exegesis? It’s goddamn 9,000 pages long; the print version is “only” about 1,000, but it has so much stuff to mull over, I’ll never exhaust its deep mental pockets. Mixing metaphors here, but that’s a writer’s prerogative.


The book that keeps coming up for me lately is PKD’s Ubik which, if you haven’t read it, deals with life and death, mixing the two states up to the point where the reader is not sure who’s alive and who’s dead — not just characters in Ubik, but the readers themselves (well…some readers, anyhow :). PKD has that effect on readers, it’s why he’s become the uber-cultural artifact of our late 20th/early 21st Century existence (of course the movies based on his books helped spread the word to the unworded, i.e., the masses). Somehow he found a way to transform readers via words, a magical/religious ability. And not just transform them in the sense that some other great writers can transform — as in, “wow, this book changed my life” or “I look at the world differently now that I’ve read this book” or “I am now much more attuned to the human condition” or whatever – but rather change them directly, induce mental change, like the spacetime displacement I felt in Santa Ana, Calif., while reading VALIS. The weirdness and sense of irreality I felt at that moment was more “real” than a psychedelic trip, more embodied, and much, much scarier, like I was having a stroke or something. While I’ve had transformative experiences from other writers (Dostoevsky, Bernhard, Joyce, et al.), PKD’s effect on me was much more powerful by great orders of magnitude: while those other writers excited me, made me chew the bone of existence and taste its bittersweet, fatty marrow, PKD’s writings somehow (magically???) made and continue to make me unsure of anything and everything, but with the added and all-important caveat of that existential uncertainty being backed up by a supra-existential certainty.

At the moment, PKD seems to me to be the most important religious writer of our times. (Curiously, the print version of his posthumously published The Exegesis has a gold hardback that’s very reminiscent of the cover of the Five Books of Moses (the Jewish Torah) on my shelf.) The way he was able to reach out into the noösphere and grab hold of the visions he experienced in February and March of ’74, and then write and write and write his way through them, so that his readers were able to not just read about them (the visions, etc.), but experience them through repeated readings…well, that’s just plain Kabbalistic, mystical stuff. He knew not only how to spell, but how to cast a spell.

Looking for Philip K. Dick

Detour here with PKD…but not really a detour, because it relates directly to what I’ve come to call my “false move” vis-a-vis writing: thinking that words are not trustworthy, that they can easily deceive and cover up instead of uncovering, that I was trapped in a linguistic, artificial universe and that writing just a little bit here and there showed me how writing failed, how my writing failed, and by extension how I failed…all of this was my own deception played at my own expense, and now PKD has somehow pushed his way into my consciousness again (“somehow” is not the term…I felt compelled to revisit his universe; again, his life/death novel Ubik just kept jumping into my mind, uninvited, and I’ve been noticing more and more references to PKD in my daily life, including your tweet a while ago about PKD being some musician’s favorite writer) to show me that there is a way to use words to free me from words, or at least from their tendency to obfuscate what I tasted during successful meditations, that space behind words from which words – or more precisely the linguistic categories we unconsciously impose on our world — arise. I was so in love with silence that I thought words opposed it, and therefore were to be avoided or at least their use minimized. I was simply wrong in that assumption, but the kicker is that I was wrong about it because of my reliance on words in the first place. All that Zen & Taoism stuff I imbibed — I simply misunderstood it. That’s all, a simple misunderstanding that led me down a false path lo these many years. So my new revelation (appropriate word here) is that I can use words to free myself of whatever existential bug has been infesting my system. Perhaps this is the way for me to become a writer, one who uses words and not vice versa. Keep writing, motherfucker. Words are your friends and allies, and most importantly, you can’t live without them.

I just finished a PKD novel I’ve never read before — Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Wow. Wow again. Wow yet a third time. It’s a very moving work, so emotional, so much about love and the relationships we have with loved ones. Yeah, sure, there are crazy plot twists and nutty science fictioney scaffolding, but what a book! It just kept getting better and better, and it’s head and shoulders above the novel he wrote immediately before this one, Now Wait for Last Year — which is good (and you can see how PKD’s working out the theme of love in the earlier book) — but then comes Flow My Tears, and WHAM! you’re suddenly reading an amazing, psychologically astute (and how!), book. I highly, highly recommend it. I’m currently going through all the books that I skipped during my ’80s-’90s PKD period, so next up is A Maze of Death, then a revisit of one of my all-time fave PKD books, his last mind-blower, The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer. You really, really should read this book — it deals with Christianity in a much more explicit way than his other books. In fact, I’m surprised you haven’t read it yet (I’m assuming here, but I think I’d have heard from you if you’d read it already). Go get a copy, will ya, so that we can talk about it.

Damn, this is a PKD-heavy email/letter. So be it. Sending now before I change my mind 🙂

Your friend,

Follow Roman Tsivkin on Twitter @zenjew or visit his blog.

Book Review for First Things Magazine

In the March print edition of First Things I reviewed the book The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature by Nicholas Ripatrazone. The review has been posted online, but to read the entire article you need a First Things subscription or must pay $1.99.

Ripatrazone has written that my 2011 essay in The Millions titled “Where Have all the Catholic Writers Gone?” was in part an inspiration for his book.

French, Marcel Proust & Justice Stephen Breyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently gave an interview to the French literary journal  La Revue des Deux Mondes (a review that Proust once wrote for) where he revealed his love of French literature and how he learned French by reading Marcel Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time in the original:

“I read the Recherche when I was working as a legal intern at an American law firm in Paris. I was trying to learn French, so I read all seven volumes in French. Every night I drew up vocabulary index cards with lists of the new words that I’d learned from Proust. But luckily I found that the lists became shorter and shorter as I made my way deeper into the book!”

A English translation of the interview was published in The New York Review of Books.

Gopnik & Compagnon Talk Marcel Proust

I discovered this wonderful video of a discussion between The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and Marcel Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon at Columbia University’s Maison Française.

Gopnik is a well-known Francophile whose essay collection From Paris to the Moon chronicles his experience living in Paris for five years. Compagnon is a Proust scholar and a professor of French and Comparative Literature.

I have posted about Proust before, particularly about learning French from Proust, and I also posted a video detailing Marcel Proust’s Paris.

The discussion is spread across four separate YouTube videos. The first one is embedded below.

Keeping Up with Karl Ove Knausgård

The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård (born 1968) is a writer worth paying attention to. His six-volume memoir/novel My Struggle has been a sensation in his native country (in a way that no such literary work could be in a country as large and as fractured as the U.S). Right now, only the first two volumes have been translated into English, and “addictive” is the only way to describe the experience of meeting Knausgård’s universe head on.

My Struggle chronicles his childhood in 1970s Norway, his dealings with his alcoholic father, his development as a writer and his conflicts about being a husband and father of three in Sweden. “My Struggle is basically thousands of pages of everyday life,” he says. Yet his meditations on marriage, writing, manhood, Christianity, the artificial and homogeneous nature of modern life, and the impact of middle age are more than ordinary.


Knausgård recently gave an interview to The Believer, where many of his obsessions were touched upon. He tells the magazine:

“It’s horrible that things are getting more and more similar with commercialization and globalization… and the differences between the sexes. I mean, men and women are different, and you know those are things that are hard to discuss in Sweden and that I’ve written a lot about. That’s one thing. On another level I find the equalizing that exists in Christianity, the equalizing in which you find mercy… ‘As he was buried his name disappeared and he became one of many’. And in that, there was an enormous consolation when my father died.”

“Identity is a key question for me. What’s identity? If you’ve read my books you’ve read about an extremely feminine boy. He’s into clothes, he likes to talk to girls and he’s very sensitive. That’s me when I was younger. Then I understood that no, it won’t work this way. I was bullied because of it. When I turned thirteen it became something dangerous. I felt like I had to get out of it and try a masculine role. Somehow in that I lost balance, I wondered who and what I really was… and later, I became a father, I got a new role, and at the same time I was incredibly afraid of my own feminine side, and everything crashes together, it boils, and becomes something amazingly beneficial to write about, it’s exactly the kind of complexity that I always look for.”

Read the entire Knausgård interview here.

UPDATE (4/2014) The New Republic has an excellent feature on Knausgård that chronicles the regret he now feels as a result of criticism of his autobiographic work by his friends and family.

New Documentary on J.D. Salinger

Like many people I first read J.D. Salinger‘s novel The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent and was immediately smitten with Holden Caufield and the spirit of the book. Yet it wasn’t until I was older, and a much more experienced reader, that I read Franny and Zooey and his collection of short stories titled Nine Stories (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a personal favorite) that I became a true devotee of Salinger.

The stories in Nine Stories may be as perfectly crafted as any American short stories since those in Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time or, more recently, the stories of Raymond Carver. Salinger was in complete control of his craft and could seemingly do whatever he wanted on the page…And then, of course, he famously disappeared from the public scene and stopped publishing entirely.

A new documentary due out this September titled “Finding Salinger,” documents one man’s search for Salinger during the last years’s of his life. Here is the trailer:

What is Stuff? (or How to Survive Exile in France)

The French have the peculiar habit of referring to American and Brits collectively as “Anglo Saxons,” which isn’t exactly a racial or cultural description, but more a way of classifying a people oddly attached in their estimation to both hyper-commerce and 17th Century modes of Puritanism.

To make matters worse, we Anglophones fail to observe the most elemental rules of civilization, like saying Bon jour Madam/Monsieur when entering a French place-of-business or using the magic words s’il vous plait and merci. We continue to wander around Paris clueless that France is a country where social formalities matter, and it is inconceivable to the locals that grownups (even those reared in a country where the French language is about as esteemed as Sanskrit) can be ignorant of such common courtesy.

In the publishing industry, the Anglo-French clash-of-cultures has become something of a book genre unto itself. American and British writers explaining France to us—while chronicling both the joys and horrors of living and working with the French—is well-worn territory. From the tome-like sociological study The French by Theodore Zeldin (1997) to the delicious New Yorker essays of Adam Gopnik collected in Paris to the Moon (2001), and a glob of memoirs chronicling love affairs in the city of lights, such as Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris (2004) by Sarah Turnbull (an Australian writer), many of us cannot get enough of the French.

As a self-identified Francophile, any book subtitled A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris, naturally catches my eye. We Francophiles are like Civil War buffs who never tire of another recounting of the Battle of Vicksburg or even another Lincoln biography. Yet Stephanie LaCava’s memoir An Extraordinary Theory of Objects, isn’t in this vein. She has no interest in deciphering the French for us; instead, she tries to do something far more ambitious, and rarer: to reveal the syntax of an internal life, which in her case, is mediated through a lifetime of objects.

Vélo sur les quais

In the spring of 1993, at the age of 12, LaCava’s father moved her family from New York to Le Vésinet, France for work. Her parents enrolled her in an international school. She struggled to connect both to her peers and her new French life. Her social dislocation led to depression, and at the age of 13 she “falls apart,” an experience that naturally marks her sensitive nature for life. But what makes this memoir unusual, is how LaCava tells her story via a catalog of metaphysical connections to various objects. LaCava writes: “I traffic the world using my idiosyncratic senses, so it follows that I’d document my life through a narrative illuminated with objects and their respective stories.”

Through this peculiar narrative of objects, we meet someone who is almost pious-like in her devotions. “I was obsessed with relics and reliquaries,” she writes. “The ideas that part of an ancient body or blood could be housed in a beautiful, little monument for future pilgrims.” And it is in this infusion of the spiritual and emotional onto these objects, and her reflection on their legacies and cultural histories, that illuminate her internal life for us. A sampling of these objects include a Skelton key, a curved whale’s tooth, tea bags, antique jewelry, Kurt Cobain’s ratty Cardigan from Nirvana’s famed 1994 MTV “Unplugged in New York” performance, and a dodo bird, to name just a few. LaCava introduces these objects with Infinite Jest-like footnotes at the bottom of the page (along with illustrations). And while some readers might experience these footnotes as an interruption to the narrative, it’s important to understand them as essential to LaCava’s aim, just as one must embrace the repetition of musical themes in the work of Philip Glass, for example, or the endless “digressions” in Proust because they constitute the architecture of the work, the post and beams if you will.


In 1958 New York Philharmonic music director Leonard Bernstein, in his first “Young People’s Concert” titled What Does Music Mean?, tried to dispel the popular notion that classical music was some stuffy business that required a PhD to appreciate. He informed the assembled children in Carnegie Hall and a national TV audience that:

“No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them.”

[Portrait of Leonard Bernstein in his apartment, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948] (LOC)

I can’t guess what LaCava would think of Bernstein’s assertion vis-à-vis music, but I suspect that when it comes to objects (a word that doesn’t seem sufficient for our subject here), she would have to disagree with el maestro. And while Bernstein might have asserted there is no inherent meaning attached to Cobain’s Cardigan or a pale nude slip designed by Helmut Lang either, it is that stuff’s intersection with our lives—and the subsequent stories—that infuses them with personal meaning.

Bernstein played a section that afternoon from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, and he asked the children what came to mind. Without hesitation they screamed out “cowboys and Indians” because of their exposure to “The Lone Ranger” radio programs. Bernstein remarked that one could experience Rossini’s music fully and completely without every considering the American west. The music simply is, he explained, but could we say the same for that iconic Cardigan, if we’d never heard of Cobain?

In 2013 America, as hyper-materialism becomes the religion-of-choice, it’s hard for many to believe that there is soul in an object, let alone a human being. And so we have to ponder the legacy of that iconic mediator between consumer materialism and the spirit world, the late Steve Jobs, who gave this subject more than a bit of thought during his short life. In his recent biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs and Pixar animator John Lasseter shared a belief that “products have an essence to them, a purpose for which they were made. If the object were to have feelings, these would have to be based on its desire to fulfill its essence.”

Stephanie LaCava, thankfully, has a more personal and less self-interested take on the material world than Mr. Jobs. This is not Silicon Valley metaphysics or a lecture from a genius American musician, it’s a snapshot from an vibrant internal life.  “As humans we crave beauty and we attempt to hold on to this experience through physical evidence,” writes LaCava. “For religion, it may be a relic, for the curious, a found talisman. For me, it is my story of conquering another world, place where in order to survive I needed to seek another world.”

Another Take on Catholic Literature & Writers

In 2011 I wrote an essay in The Millions titled “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Little did I know that the topic would interest a great number of people, and that the piece would continue to pop-up in online discussions.

Earlier this week the essay surfaced again when Nick Ripatrazone penned an article in The Millions titled “Counter and Strange: Contemporary Catholic Literature.” Ripatrazone is the author of a new book titled The Fine Delight on what he describes as “Postconciliar Catholic Literature.” He argues that Catholic writing (by Catholics of all stripes) is vibrant and vital right now, which stands (somewhat) in contrast to my case that there has been a significant decline since Vatican II and the disappearance of the old “Latin Mass.”

Tot conflueix / All's conected

Ripatrazone nicely summarizes the main focus of my essay:

“While I strongly disagree with Fay’s overall thesis that postconciliar liturgical retranslation led to a decline in Catholic art, his short essay introduces important points. Fay writes elegiacally about the postconciliar shift from Latin to English, or local, Mass: ‘what for centuries had seemed eternal, mysterious, and rich in symbolism — the very marrow that feeds artists — was suddenly being conducted in the same language as sitcoms, TV commercials, and business meetings.’ Was Fay’s observation convenient hindsight, or lived reality?”

I was also humbled to see that my essay seemed, in part, to have been an inspiration for his new book:

“I needed Fay to ask the implicit question, and in the past year I’ve attempted to provide the answer in The Fine Delight, my new book on American Catholic writing after the Second Vatican Council.”

One of the curious aspects of Ripatrazone’s argument is that he dispenses with any kind of specific definition of what a “Catholic writer” is, which allows him to include all kinds of writers under the Catholic tent, such as Jeffrey Eugenides and Thomas McGuane, whom one struggles to associate with Catholicism.

Some Fun with Novelist Gary Shteyngart

Today my friend Roman Tsivkin and I had some fun with the Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart on Twitter. My friend Roman and Shteyngart share a very similar background–both are Russian Jews, about 40, live in NYC, both were born in what used to be Leningrad, and they both look VERY MUCH alike.

Roman recently posted a new photo of himself (see below) and I had to Tweet both Roman and Shteyngart and remark on the similarity…Only on Twitter can you interact with a writer as well-known as Shteyngart and have a little fun too.

Roman’s new Twitter photo:

Roman Tsivkin

And here is a photo of Shteyngart:

Gary Shteyngart

And here is the exchange of Tweets: