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Olsson's: Buyer's Corner
Olsson's is a locally Owned & Operated, Independent chain of six book and recorded music stores in the Washington, D.C. area, started by John Olsson in 1972. Each week the Head Book Buyer blogs about interesting new books that are available.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Joe Murphy on JR
Hope all is well with you. Things are beginning to get busy, as the fall season steps into full swing. Certainly there is a plethora of great books coming out; we have lots of great Buyer's Choices both in stores now and on the horizon, and choosing items for our Holiday Gift Guide, as I've mentioned, was mostly a question of sifting through an embarassment of riches.
So: I'd like to take this last chance to mention an older book that I'm reading and loving, before tackling new books only for the rest of the year. I've already raved at some length about William Gaddis' The Recognitions on this page, and I'd like to extend my recommendation to include his second great novel, JR.
The Recognitions was published in 1955; JR didn't appear until 1976. Gaddis had felt that his critical reputation would be assured with the publication of the first novel. What he didn't anticipate was that the reviews wouldn't actually read the book before reviewing it. The result was a number of reviews that either summarized the dust cover and other reviews, or reviews that just commented on its length (Thomas Pynchon's offering for this fall, Against the Day, appears poised to outdo it, at 992 pages. Here's hoping the reviewers read it).
In any event, Gaddis's first novel was not a commercial or critical success at the time--despite being among the most brilliant of the twentieth century--and Gaddis moved on to a decade-long sojourn in the corporate world. The results of this tenure are astonishing: JR is a 725 page primal scream of frustration at the business community and its unfettered takeover of every aspect of American life.
Curiously, while the book is entirely about the acquistion of money, money isn't exactly the source of power in the novel: language is. But in the hilariously dystopic world of JR, it's not the intelligence, elegance, or even factual correctness of language that counts: people in JR dominate each other with a torrent of words, spewing corporate double talk, advertising slogans, complaints, demands, and assumptions so quickly that those who hope to stand their ground are buried under the avalanche. Edward Bast, the brilliant but meek music teacher/composer, finds himself the functioning head of a giant corporate conglomerate, formed nearly overnight by an 11-year old, amoral student named JR, largely because Bast is unable to tell him no and have it register, as more and more shady business schemes keep pouring forth from the boy. Gaddis constructs a huge tapestry of characters, nearly all of whom are in some way doing the bidding of this greedy little sixth-grader, all but Bast without knowing it. Gaddis picks the best way of telling this story: the novel is essentially entirely in the form of dialogue. The speakers are never identified, but their voices are so distinctive that you recognize them right away when they reappear in the novel. It's an utterly unique style--you could never mistake a page of Gaddis for anyone else--and it's pulled off with breathtaking flair.
The critical results, happily, were different this time. In his appreciating of Gaddis in his recently published Temple of Texts, William Gass tells this great story:
"Then, quite coincidentally (for coincidence is the real ruler of all things), I was asked to be a judge for the National Book Award during the very year in which JR, William Gaddis' second novel, would appear. Mary McCarthy, also on the jury, simply shoved the third judge (a worn-out hack reviewer) into the corner as you would an unneccessary chair, and the reward went to "Junior," as she liked to call it."
This thankfully lead people to take a second look at The Recognitions, and Gaddis has been a somewhat more recognized (although still seldom-read) author since then.
JR is truly a comic masterpiece. From its start, with Bast trying to mount a sixth-grade production of Wagner's Ring cycle, through the rise and dissolution of JR's massive empire, to the convoluted and hilariously tragic lives of the people he indirectly touches, the novel is consistently witty, angry, sardonic, and brilliant. Stop by one of our stores and give it a try--and then help spread the word.
Well, first things first: don't forget about our anniversary sale (our 34th!). It starts tomorrow, September 21st, and runs through Sunday the 24th. All books are 20% off, and all CDs and DVDs are 15% off. It's a great deal, so come in for some pleasant fall shopping!
And now to quickly mention a couple of books: I very highly recommend Robert Hughes' new memoir, Things I Didn't Know. Hughes, the critic who galvanized the art world with his famous treatise on modern art The Shock of the New, offers an equally insightful examination of his own life, including his early days in Australia, his discovery (not easily made in Australia at the time) of the challenge of modern art, his tempestuous relations with the women in his life, his path to becoming one of the world's most influential art critics, and the devastating car accident that changed everything, particularly his relationship with his Australian homeland. It's all one could hope for in a memoir by a true raconteur, written with Hughes' usual acerbic incisiveness, and it's thoroughly absorbing. It's also a Buyer's Choice, at 20% off (even after the sale ends!).
Finally, as I mentioned last week, this is an unusually strong fiction season, but I'd like to mention a great novel from last year, now finally out in paperback: Zadie Smith's acclaimed On Beauty. With its Howards End-based themes, sharp portraits of family life, and Smith's delightful wit, On Beauty wound up as one of our customers' favorite books of the year last year, as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. if you missed it the first time around, come pick up the paperback.
Well, it's technically still summer, but the Fall book season is in full swing, and Fall titles are coming in fast and furious. As I mentioned last week, the other buyers and I have been deep in the throes of picking titles for our annual Holiday Gift Guide. Our biggest problem really is the number of great titles coming, and this is a partularly strong fiction season. New works are coming from Dave Eggers, Walter Mosley, John Mortimer, Isabel Allende, John Le Carre, Mark Haddon, Edward Jones (we have signed first editions in stores now!!!), Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, and even Thomas Pynchon has a 992-page extravaganza on the way.
There's also been great review attention for Marisha Passl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. I'd just like to throw one more great fall novel into the mix: first-time author Michael Cox's just-published The Meaning of Night. It's an immensely entertaining narrative with a perfect-pitch Victorian setting and a completely riveting narrator/lead character: Edward Glyver. Glyver seems at first to be competing for the Unreliable Narrator Hall of Fame, opening the book with the stunning sentence: " After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for supper." That, and his seemingly unreasoning hatred of doggerel-poet Phoebus Rainsford Daunt (do names come any better?) make the opinions he offers the reader seem highly suspect.
The novel serves up all the great conventions of Victorian literature: questions of inheritance, a fight over the most beautiful estate in England, and colorful (and colorfully named) characters galore. Glyver views Daunt as a master criminal who ruined Glyver's prospects; Glyver immerses himself in the seedy Victorian underworld, doing dirty work for a powerful law firm, and bides his time, waiting to take revenge on Daunt. As the plot unravels, the reader realizes that perhaps Glyver's assessment of Daunt isn't that far off the mark; in fact, Glyver's biggest problem with Daunt may turn out to be that he has underestimated him.
The settings range from Evenwood, the gorgeous estate that Cox succeeds so well in making a perfect object of desire, to the most disreputable corners of 19th century London. The plot encompasses murder, manipulation, and conspiracy on a grand scale. The result is what may be my favorite novel of the season, an absolute must-read, and (naturally) an Olsson's Buyer's Choice. When I read it last spring, my home life nearly ground to a stop: I found myself cooking dinner by holding the book in one hand and stirring a pot with the other. As the weather cools, stop by our stores, pick up a copy, and find the most comfortable chair you have, because you won't be leaving it for a while.
Now that fall is finally here (we've had our needed rain, now bring on the beautiful days!), I need to begin reporting on What I Read at the Gym This Summer. While I was enjoying my William Gaddis fest (still gradually workin' away at the hilarious JR), I didn't forget to get ahead on some of the great upcoming fall titles. Happily, advanced reading copies fit very neatly into the racks on the cardio machines at the gym, so I've got some great new titles to tell you about over the next few weeks.
I'll start with the first to be published: if you've been frustrated in your search for a worthy successor to Caleb Carr's The Alienist, try Jed Rubenfeld's great new thriller, The Interpetation of Murder. It's set in 1909 New York, with a bizarre killer on the loose, and Sigmund Freud visiting town. The result is a great combination of thriller with Ragtime-style hybrid of real and fictional characters (in fact, the murder suspects include Harry Thaw and Carl Jung). It also features a nifty set piece set in a caisson for the Manhattan Bridge, just being built at the time. If you're looking for a fun September read, drop by and check it out.
Don't forget--the great Mariner-Harcourt Brace-W.W. Norton buy-two-get-one-free sale continues at all stores. Come look at the dizzying array of great titles!
Alexis Akre, a DC-area native, has worked at Olsson's for almost six years. She received her BA in English from Barnard College,
and lived in New York for several years. Since her return to her home town, Alexis has honed her gift for skewering both vapidity and
pretension with concise, well-worded psychological assessment. She can be seen tooling around town on her minty green bike, reading
one of the hundreds of books she has stacked in her home, and teaching her cat to do tricks.