Poor old J.K. Toole, so thoroughly brilliant and correspondingly nuts, sucked the exhaust-pipe back in ’69, having determined that self-asphyxiation was the answer, just because Simon and Schuster wouldn’t publish his satirical novel about New Orleans oddballs. I guess he showed them. His book, A Confederacy of Dunces, appeared posthumously, in which state it won a Pulitzer Prize and sold a million-and-a-half copies.
You might say Toole had the last long laugh: He’s doorknob-dead, sure, but so is the D.H. Holmes department store that was the hub of his story, so is the entire city of New Orleans, and so too, for good measure, are book publishing and book retailing. (I can’t recall the make of the automobile wherein the author chose to end it all, but to complete the chain I’d guess it had to be a smoke-emitting Oldsmobile, or De Soto, or AMC Ambassador, or some other now-defunct American brand.)
This phenomenal string of Toole-related mortalities deserves to be called something, so we’ll name it in honor of Toole’s protagonist. Gather round, and hear about the Curse of Ignatius J. Reilly.
Dead books. The British author Simon Winchester, whose middle-brow investigative subjects have included the Oxford English Dictionary, recently told the Guardian newspaper: “Until six months ago, I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last forever. Since the arrival of the iPad, I am now wholly convinced otherwise. The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed.”
His comment was prompted by the report that the venerable old OED – which, you could claim, forms the very building-blocks of all English-language literature – may migrate entirely to an exclusively electronic format.
Does it follow, then, that days are numbered for the printed word? There’s scads of well-publicized evidence to support Winchester’s view. Amazon.com claims their sales of e-books for the Kindle device already exceeds the volume of hardcover books they ship. And Sony, which sells competing e-readers, figures there will be more digital books than paper copies produced, within a mere five years.
You already see signs of the radical restructuring in the book business. It’s most noticeable in the UK, where the act of lollygagging around High Street bookstores is, or was, a cherished tradition – for me, anyway. But the Borders chain seems to have disappeared during the last year, following the exits of Ottakar’s and Books Etc. The independent booksellers are long, long gone. W.H. Smith appears to have drastically reduced its book inventory, and The Works, formerly a cheerful source of remaindered book titles, now features a range of old videos (“Carry On Nurse”) and strange tsotchkes, such as commemorative teaspoons and glue-on tattoos. That leaves only Waterstone’s, which is owned and run by HMV, a disorganized and unpleasant music and video chain that consumers have hated for decades.
It’s creepy to see the number of book retailers shrinking before your eyes, but more disturbing yet is the emerging confusion over what a book is supposed to be. The current choices are print or digital, but some publishers insist on blurring the edges. I was surprised the other day to receive an e-mail message from MyNovel.ca, offering the opportunity to “Write a novel and make someone close to you the hero of the intrigue.” Many people (especially them wot’s got writerly inclinations) would initially decline this suggestion, knowing that it typically takes most of an entire weekend to hammer out a medium-sized novel, sometimes with a couple of evenings thrown in for proofreading — as poor old Toole used to complain.
But this new service, which originated in France, brings the novel-creation process within everyman’s reach, providing a boilerplate and the chance for you to fill in the persona of anyone you choose, to function as the cleft-chinned protagonist. There’s 21st century efficiency for you.
For around sixty bucks, you can jointly scribble a 160-page whodunit, or cowboy yarn, or bodice-ripper, or even a medical thriller, with Herve Mestron – yes, the Herve Mestron – and feature yourself, or a chum, or a co-worker, or your mom, in the plot. By inserting your chosen party smack dab into the narrative, you can transform anyone into an integral cog in the great wheel of literature.
Unfortunately, if the excerpt provided on the company’s website is anything to go on, Herve Mestron is no Michael Crichton. Monsieur Mestron’s paint-by-numbers epic, “Short Circuit,” strikes this critic as perhaps a tad trite in plotting, with unconvincing dialogue, and a style best described as Franglish, of a sort translated with painstaking care by the distinguished craftsmen at the old 5e arrondissement house of Google et Google. Here’s a snippet:
“We never really know what is going on inside a skull. Unknown, artful mechanics, whose laws cannot be found in any textbook. The human mystery. Well, here it is. Doctor Chaveleau, sporting his eternally snowy smile, welcomes him into his den with an iron fist.”
The idea being that the iron fist need not belong to Doctor Chaveleau. Pay up, and you can substitute the name of any evil dermatologist or periodontist of your choosing. (I have a list, in case suggestions are required.)
Sadly, the opportunity to collaborate with l’auteur Mestron comes too late for the departed Toole, who surely would not have taken the rejection of his manuscript quite so hard, if it only meant he was out-of-pocket to the tune of sixty bucks.
Dead cities. Five years after Hurricane Katrina laid the place to waste, and dispersed one-third of the burgh’s residents, New Orleans can claim to have achieved something of a minor comeback. The city recently ranked only fifth on a roster of America’s Dead Cities, compiled by a website called 247WallSt.com. Analyzing census data, combined with some stats gathered by MIT researchers, the website determined there are four towns in the US even worse off than the famously battered and depopulated New Orleans.
Here, however, is where I take umbrage, at the risk of replaying the Michael Palin role in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot skit. Judged to be the deadest of the dead cities is Buffalo, New York, a place I know extremely well, and, truth to tell, a spot I hold dear. Those are my credentials for rebutting this libel against the Queen City of the Great Lakes.
Yes, Buffalo’s political and economic leadership is much more than a little screwed up, as the most ardent civic boosters will instantly concede, and it has its ingrained problems, including a debilitating inferiority complex – which will not be ameliorated by the publicity in 247WallSt.com.
But there’s a wonderful vibrancy to city life in Buffalo that only a moron or Manhattanite would fail to recognize. To illustrate, I point toward the blocks of modest bungalows in the south end of town, from whence you can carry your golf clubs to Cazenovia Park Golf Course, a sweet little nine-hole municipal course that opened in 1929, and then stroll straight over, still carrying clubs, to the Blarney Castle or Doc Sullivan’s and knock back a cheap draught, or, better yet, several. That’s the type of everyday pleasure that is exclusive to millionaires in most places, but is available to working-folk, retirees, and college students in Buffalo.
But I’m not applying the same criteria as MIT. One of the measures I’d use to determine the vitality of a city is the health of its booksellers. Buffalo has not one but two branches of a great independent bookstore, Talking Leaves, both of which stock plenty of titles, some of them about the town and its inhabitants (here‘s a good one to start with.) The location on Elmwood Avenue features a snack counter that pours some good Chilean wines at five bucks a glass, which you can slurp while you browse, or take outside to a table while you watch the college crowd flit past. If you wanted to sit there on a Saturday morning and thumb through your copy of A Confederacy of Dunces, it could appear to some blogging nitwit witnessing your behavior from a distant white-collar metropolis — say, Charlotte, Miami or Toronto — that you’ve parked yourself smack among the legions of the dead. At least two would say otherwise: Ignatius J. Reilly, and me.