Books

The Fate of the Epistolary Novel

Justin M. Norton

When is the last time you received an honest letter? We’re not talking about a greeting card from the drugstore racks or the family photos everyone sends once a year with a Xeroxed chain letter describing how junior is in medical school and Sally is back from psychiatric rehab but doing just fine, thanks to the meds. Those are more annoyances than welcome distractions.

We’re talking the bare-your-soul, spill-your-guts letter where you leave it all on the page and then check the mail for weeks for a response. The Internet may have made it easier to remain in contact -- and it’s allowing me to write this column and distribute it worldwide -- but at the same time it’s taken away from the artistry of letter-writing and the sheer feeling of excitement of getting something handwritten in the mail. An email arrives on your computer with a whimper, often unbidden. Letters arrive with a sense of expectation and work all the senses: you can often smell traces of the writer; note their mental state by studying their handwriting and feel the pages crinkle in your hands. Twenty years later, I can still remember the anticipation of receiving long letters from a summer girlfriend who lived outside Cleveland.

It’s no surprise, then, that there is a dearth of epistolary novels written in recent years. Younger novelists have instead crafted narratives out of e-mails or blog entries -- God help us if they write a novel based on tweets. It’s no surprise either, that late-life novelist Sam Savage’s epistolary novel The Cry of the Sloth (Coffee House Press, September) is set during the Nixon era. Savage’s protagonist Andrew Whittaker is precisely the kind of crank who lived for letter writing and the kind of creature we may never see again as Blackberries become fused to bodies. Estranged from his neighbors and far short of anticipated literary glory, he writes letter after letter exposing himself and his failings to friends and complete strangers. It’s a riveting read.

Whittaker is in a tough spot. He’s the editor of a literary journal that’s produced a few well-known writers but has fallen on hard times. His wife has left him but that doesn’t stop him from writing her, even if she sends back a photo of herself with another man. He writes letters to the tenants of his ramshackle apartment complex who dare to complain about broken fixtures. He writes letters to famous novelists soliciting their appearances at a literary festival that we know will never take place. He begins an ill-advised flirtatious relationship with an obviously underage girl who sends bad poetry.

Expanding a tad on the epistolary tradition, Savage’s novel also includes Whittaker’s grocery lists, snippets of his bad novel in progress and newspaper ads for his rental property. The book encompasses his heartfelt longings, his unachieved goals and the pedantic errata of his daily existence. Could such a character be etched through a collection of emails or blogs? It’s certainly possible, but something inside me feels our culture is so self-referential and ironic that such honest and even embarrassing exchanges would never place.

Andrew Whittaker isn’t a Dostoyevskian madman out of Notes From the Underground and he’s not a character you hate. Instead, he’s a frustrated middle-aged dreamer who sees his life crumbling and feels powerless. In many ways, he’s someone we can empathize with -- someone whose tenuous hold on their dreams finds form in letters. He’s the odd neighbor in his bathrobe with a stack of bills and newspapers and a cold cup of coffee.

The novel ends with Whittaker in a tough spot, which is appropriate. The entire tradition of the epistolary novel is being upended. Every English major had to slog through Henry Fielding’s Shamela. My parents had two copies of the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters on the shelf. Optimists would argue that the epistolary novel is just changing from letters and diaries and replicating modern communication. That explanation seems a bit lacking. When is the last time you were able to stick an email in a special box like an heirloom? Aren’t blogs like this just read, linked to and distributed and then forgotten when fresh content is available? Part of what made the epistolary novel so special -- and why The Cry of the Sloth is such a treat -- is because both celebrate the physical and sensual experience of writing and language, something that can never be replicated in a digital format.

Savage also wrote Firmin: Adventures of Metropolitan Lowlife. Is his second novel an elegy for the epistolary novel as we know it?

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image