The Strange Allure of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:

Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer

For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.

For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.” Continue reading

Cucumber Sex in CanLit

An arousing fruit?

Over at the Walrus blog I reflect on the pornograhic potential of produce. Along the way I talk about Lisa Moore, Cynthia Flood, Philip Roth and Andrew “vegitable love” Marvell. You can read the essay here.

Continue reading

Roth’s Exit Ghost: Reviewing the Reviewers

Those who care about criticism, admittedly a rarefied concern, find it useful sometimes to review the reviewers. For movies, it’s an easy enough game: just watch a flick and then go to Rotten Tomatoes and find out what the peanut gallery is up to. If you do this a few times, you’ll discover that there’s a fairly consistent pattern whereby certain critics (like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice) are almost unfailingly thoughtful while the general ruck of newspaper mediocrities rely on a fairly narrow set of ideas and expectations. A quick Rotten Tomatoes tour is an easy way to get a snapshot of the cultural consensus at any given moment.

Reviewing the reviewers is a bit harder to do with literature because many of the most interesting writers get little critical attention. K.D. Miller, for example, is one of the best short story writers around but you’d have to some diligent library excavation to find even brief and causal notices of her work.

Continue reading

Performance Problems in Philip Roth’s Fiction

Philip Roth as rendered by David Levine.

In Philip Roth’s latest novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman is recovering from prostrate cancer, which leaves him impotent. The effects of the disease were described with graphic, flinch-inducing vividness: Zuckerman’s manhood has been reduced to a “spigot of wrinkled flesh”. Roth likes to play with the line separating fact from fiction and Zuckerman’s life over the course of many novels has long mimicked, like an elongated shadow, Roth’s own biography. So some reviewers, notably Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star, worried that the author’s own health might have taken a Zuckerman-like downward turn.  

“I have not had, fortunately, prostate cancer and, subsequently, none of the side effects of cancer operations,” Roth reassured Marchand in a phone interview.  

Continue reading

Philip Roth’s Ghost Stories

Philip Roth.

Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you can’t believe in ghosts. Philip Roth is a stone-cold atheist and is perhaps the most sternly materialist of all the great writers. Not only does Roth not believe in God, his novels are so steadfastly focused on the physical, bodily dimensions of human life (sex and disease) as to be completely free of the sort of residual religiosity that writers like John Updike or Cynthia Ozick possess, with their muted echoes of liturgical music and flickering spiritual hopes. Roth’s whole attitude towards religion is curtly summed up by this description of the anonymous hero of the 2006 novel Everyman: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.”

Continue reading

The Biographer as Enemy

In earlier posts, I suggested that biography is akin to fiction writing, both activities involving the taking of stray facts and hints about a life to make a narrative. But there is another sense in which biography is diametrically opposed to literature. Poets and novelists take the raw material of life and transform it into literature. Biographers take literary texts and, in a gesture of reverse-alchemy, turn them into evidence about life. If biography is, in some fundamental and inescapable way, anti-art, then it’s easier to understand why so many biographers seem to have a grudge against their subjects, an unstated animus that leads many non-fiction writers to find fault with creative artists. Good examples of this tendency are Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost and Michael Shelden’s life of Graham Greene. As William H. Pritchard once noted, you can glean a great deal of Thompson’s attitude towards Frost just by looking at the index, which has entries like “Anti-intellectual,” “Baffler-teaser-deceiver,” “Brute,” “Charlatan,” “Cowardice,” “Depression, moods of,” “Enemies,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Pretender,” “Puritan,” “Rage,” “Retaliations, Poetic,” “Self-Centeredness,” “Spoiled Child,” and in a fine final flourish, “Vindictive.” As for Shelden, in his biography he raises that possibility that Graham Greene was the guilty party behind an unsolved murder of the 1930s.

In Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman ponders a proposed defamatory biography of his mentor E.I. Lonoff. This leads to some waspish ruminations on the relationship between biography and creative writing: “An astonishing thing it is, too, that one’s prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of the words, the man making up the stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.” But of course biographies are an inescapable part of our documentary-obsessed aged. Shortly before writing Exit Ghost, Roth made arraignments to allow a literary biography of his own life to be written by his longtime friend Ross Miller.

Post Script: Any discussion of Roth and biography should mention Alan Lelchuk’s 2003 novel Ziff: A Life in which a character very similiar to Lelchuk tries to write a biography of chararacter equally reminiscent of Roth. Of course since Roth has in the past portrayed a Lelchuk-inspired figure, we’re deep in a hall of mirrors or in the mouth of a self-consuming serpent. There was also an earlier Roth novel, The Counterlife if I’m not mistaken, where Nathan Zuckerman was confronted by the possibility of someone writing his biography. And Roth’s 1988 memoir The Facts includes a critique of the author’s retelling of his supposed true story written by his imaginary alter ego Zuckerman. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Zuckerman’s first appearance was in the novel My Life As a Man (1974) , where he was created as a near-likeness by the equally fictional Peter Tarnopol. A prospective biographer of Roth will have to deal with the fact that he’s already blurred and multiplied his own life story by frequent and involuted re-tellings. Good writers have many lives inside them; Roth has one life that’s taken so many forms as to feel like a crowd.