In my final decade as a teacher of English at Cate School in California, I found great pleasure in adding a course to the elective options given to students in their senior year. I’d come to miss some of the books I most enjoyed teaching in my early years, and became determined to bring a few back into the classroom. Fashions in literature change, less rapidly than some other elements in education perhaps, but with significant impact. Abandoned are a number of books once found in every high school curriculum, from The Iliad and Tess of the D’Urbervilles to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. A few familiar standards still appear; The Great Gatsby, for example, appears to have staying power far beyond that of equally highly regarded novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Over the years with my sophomores, I had brought back The Odyssey and Of Mice and Men, and had added newer books such as All the Pretty Horses, Never Let Me Go, and Ordinary People and certainly would have added Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but there were so many books and so little time left for senior before they sailed into whatever remained of discussion of books in their college years.
So, I grabbed two trimesters for a course entitled, “Wait! You haven’t read that?”, presenting books that I thought deserved a place in the great conversation between books in the auditorium of the mind. At the start, Pride and Prejudice had slipped from view, but was soon to gain traction again and take its rightful place on the bookshelf. I loved teaching the book, but had to give it up as it gained popularity. Mansfield Park is ready for the next jump if my successor is looking for a dark horse. Hemingway’s In Our Time was an obvious choice as were Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, and Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. Best book/worst response? Lolita (worth it!) . Second Worst Response? Molly Gloss’ Wildlife (Still hurts).
Ok, with a few spare minutes in retirement and in the spirit of continuing the adventure, I’m lumping through Infinite Jest with my eldest son as a jesting buddy. We’ll see. In the meanwhile, I tell my friends about the authors who have recently jumped on my list, most notably Heidi Julavits, David Mitchell, and Kelly Link, but all of these went out the window this morning when, in an ill-advised moment, I picked up the Spring 2015 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Seriously, unless you have world enough and time to track down the seventy to eighty authors/philosophers/lords of enterprise/scientists/poets/historians whose work is anthologized in each journal dedicated to bringing voices from the widest perspective over the widest span of time to the contemporary reader, remarkable voices collected in order to animate the various themes of the quarterly, don’t even read past the cover I include the link so that the unwary can appreciate the sweep of ideas taken up in the life of this extraordinary quarterly.
My mistake was in picking up, Volume VII, Number 2 – Swindle and Fraud. Lewis Lapham is the editor of the Quarterly and its moving force, but also something of a literary firebrand, an American aristocrat with truly democratic sensibilities. Formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lapham is a prolific writer whose 2005 film, The American Ruling Class, is one of the most curiously arresting documentaries of its time. Described as, “… the bedrock of classic academic purity and discipline,” Lapham also enjoys a wicked sense of irony, made clear in his preamble to Swindle and Fraud, in which he compares the emptying of trillions of dollars from the nation’s resources during the Great Recession to Houdini’s performance at the Hippodrome Theater in 1918, a performance in which Houdini made a five ton elephant disappear from the stage. Writing of the great and general fleecing in 2008, Lapham writes, “Throughout the whole of its extended run, the spectacle drew holiday crowds into the circus tent of the tabloid press, and joyous in Mudville was the feasting on fools.”
Feasting on fools is celebrated in articles written by a range of observers including Bertolt Brecht and William Shakespeare, Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi. Two articles captured me entirely: “Manila” by Lawrence Osborne in which the author, fascinated by accounts of faked deaths, sets out to perpetrate an act of “pseudocide” by purchasing in Manila an authentic certificate of his own death and an excerpt from David Maurer’s The Big Con in which Maurer presents an extensive guide to the language of the confidence artist.
The ease with which Osborne was able to buy a death certificate was disturbing, but I was instantly absorbed in tracking down the novel that sent Osborne off on his quest, a meticulously researched book (Osborne assures us it was written,”with an entertainingly maniacal attention to detail”), The Family Business, by Byron Bales, who as a private investigator in Bangkok knew the ins and outs of faked deaths and disappearances throughout Asia; Amazon will sell me the paperback copy for thirty-five dollars, but I can pop it on my Kindle for less than three bucks.
Except that, I have to read The Big Con if only to further broaden my grasp of confidence lingo. I’m ok with “The Big Store” (essentially the con run in The Sting) and “The Money Box” (a con in which the mark buys a machine he believes will actually make genuine paper money), but “Cackle-bladder”? “Tin Mittens”? “Laying the flue”?
Except that, I just finished “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife” by Patricia Highsmith, which is stunningly understated, as in this passage: “Sarah’s idea was to kill Sylvester with good food, with kindness, in a sense, with wifely duty.” This short piece by Highsmith is but one of the eighty or so spider webs into which Lapham is pleased to toss me, each of which carries me off into yet another web. I last read Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley more than four years ago, intending at the time to follow up with the other four books in “The Ripliad”, so there goes tonight’s bout with Infinite Jest.
Wait! You haven’t read those?