Saturday, June 28, 2008

Steve Almond, "(Not that You Asked)", (2007).

For some reason, we are seeing a rash of authors that blur the line between gossip, memoir, and essay during this first decade of the Twentiy-First Century. I suppose it has something to do with the success of David Sedaris. His funny autobiographical/exaggerated tales captivated a new generation of readers, and I suppose we shouldn't complain about that. After all, not many people are reading novels anymore. Still there is something slight about this new wave of young authors. They seem particularly beholden to a transient wave of postmodern irony. I wonder how many folks really expect that these books will still be read fifty years from now. I don't see a lot of candidates for core American Lit curricula.

A few of these writers are consistently entertaining (Sedaris is a blatant example). Others are uneven and cloying. Steve Almond is an illustrative case. The young secular Jew from California claims to write both fiction and non-fiction. But he is best known for Candyfreak : A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. It documented his quest for candy bars made by small companies. While dealing with a rather insignificant topic, it drew some critical attention and popular success. Candyfreak allowed the author to garner attention from the mainstream media, and resulted in invitations to appear on television. Almond has actually written about his participation in a proposed segment of a VH1 reality show that never aired.

There's a certain narcissism involved in deconstructing one's own relationship with fame. But it's an honest approach given the nature of our society. Our worship of celebrity seems to have no bounds. We've even expanded our definition of the concept to include anyone willing to present a fabricated version of themselves for the edification of the dull masses. This is the new lens through which we view ourselves, and now it's being applied in literary form. You can't really blame Almond for capitalizing on an obvious trend. However you can implicate him for a certain level of bitchiness and a penchant for offering superficial insights on a series of clich├ęd themes. He seems to actually invite the criticism.

(Not that You Asked) , Almond's 2007 collection of essays, was originally supposed to be entirely focused on the author's admiration for Kurt Vonegut. That's the proposal his publishers bought. We can only speculate on why they decided that they wanted a series of rants instead. Perhaps that's just what the market demands. But I'm hard-pressed to understand why any editor would allow the inclusion of a 12-page, hate-filled screed, directed against the lit blogger Mark Sarvas, and accompanied by a simpleminded dismissal of blogging in general. The only theory I have is that Random House is planning a major release of a Sarvas title in the near future. Regardless, Almond's obsession with his own personal cyber-critic comes off as especially whiny. It also reveals a strange sexual subtext that manages to be troublesome and creepy.

Yet despite the weak points of (Not that You Asked), I feel obligated to present at least a modicum of balance in opinion. I will admit to sharing Almond's basic political perspective. I too find the Bush Administration abhorrent, and Dick Cheney especially scary. I share his enmity for right-wing hacks like Condoleeza Rice, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. I can also relate to his experiences with his new child. I've felt just as helpless in the face of fatherhood as he describes himself. Perhaps the emotional depth and maturity that customarily attends child-rearing will have a beneficial effect on Almond's writing. Maybe (as he suggests) he'll find a character to love as much as he loves himself.

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