The Plot’s the Thing / Wherein We’ll…

January 31, 2010

When I look back on my life, at the teachers and professors who have profoundly influenced me, I can trace with my finger, like so many bright points in the sky, a constellation of people stretching from 1st grade to graduate school. There’s Pat—simply Pat, because that’s how we rolled at the OK Program—and there’s Mr. Burns and Mr. Amlin. Then there’s Moses Moreno and the Dr.’s triumvirate: professors Kaye, Mirvish, and Rich. And finally there’s professor Daryl Koehn (pronounced “cane”) who helped me uncover the splendid treasures of Plato’s dialogues. To read The Republic or The Crito or even The Statesman with Daryl is to develop a whole new appreciation for the glories of literary technique and the luminosity of philosophical argument. What I wouldn’t give to be in a seminar with Daryl right now, reading Plato and teasing out the implications of an ethic of thoughtfulness!

Who are you?

If you mean “What is your job title?”, I am the Executive Director of the Center for Business Ethics in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas. If you mean “Who are you simply?”, I suppose I’d have to say “I don’t know.” We spend our entire lives finding out who we are. “Know thyself” is not an easy injunction to fulfill. Plus, to some extent, others get to say who we are. As Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are discovering, much to their chagrin, they don’t get to control how history remembers them.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Why did you like it?

White Tiger by Aravnd Adig. The book gripped me from the opening pages, and I continued to think about the plot and the book’s tone for weeks. On the one hand, we know from the start of the book something of what is to happen. On the other hand, I was completely mesmerized by the unfolding answer to the question of why this entrepreneur does what he does. The book explores all sorts of dimensions of the idea of the entrepreneur and raises questions about whether entrepreneurs in modern capitalistic systems are amoral or perhaps even immoral. I also learned a lot about how the caste system functions in India, a subject about which I knew next to nothing.

Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?

No, but I have a strong prejudice in favor of plots. I think Isaak Dinesen was on to something when she said that we are witnessing the destruction of the novel, for many modern authors increasingly do not understand how to reveal character through plot. Instead, they settle for building stories around character tics, and I’m not much interested in “quirky” personalities per se. I find that American novelists are especially enchanted by character traits, and so I generally prefer British or other foreign novelists to most American authors currently on the scene.

Do you analyze, size up, or generally interrogate someone’s library when you visit their home? What’s your modus operandi?

I suppose I register whether books are a large part of the person’s life. If the person is a good friend and so won’t mind my snooping, I will browse his or her collection, looking for off-beat titles or for books published by foreign presses.

As far back as Plato, there’s been an uneasy relationship between poetry and narrative fiction, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other. What can the philosopher, in particular, the ethicist, learn from novels?

Well-plotted novels show us that activities have their own trajectories or internal logics. As I argue in my book The Nature of Evil, evil has a quasi-mechanical quality insofar as people get caught up in trajectories that possess logics of their own. In initiating the trajectory, the agent might be said to act from within. But evil has an external dimension to the extent that the activity or behavior takes on a life of its own. For example, once Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s protagonist, takes on the identity of the man he has murdered, he can begin to tell himself he has done nothing wrong. He certainly hasn’t killed anyone because he is Dickie Greenleaf, so how could he have murdered Dickie? His action—the plot—itself makes this logic available to him.

What does Henry James’ novel Turn of the Screw teach us about the nature of evil?

Again the work reveals how and why it is way too simple to equate evil with malicious intention. The governess acts to preserve the authority she must have if she is to be the governess she has been hired to be. We are never told her name—only her title. Without giving away the plot line, I would say that evil—if that is indeed what James is portraying—arises from the individual’s identification with a false self (in this case, a role). That role makes certain choices and actions available to the governess—she can plausibly defend her actions and others are willing to go along with those actions as long as these deeds conform with the social definition of the role. Since each of us is always more than a role, this identification with the false self is inherently unstable and thus anxiety-producing. Yet if we have not opened ourselves up to some other non-ego based form of selfhood, we will cling ever more tightly to the false self, seeking to shore it up with increasingly desperate measures. James is brilliant at showing how that sort of mechanism might work.

Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?

I’ve tried to read Cormac McCarthy but just couldn’t get into his books. I guess I found the writing a bit wooden—too much repetition of pronouns with a choppy cadence. But that’s not to say I might not try him again later. Don’t you find that sometimes a book just doesn’t suit your current mood? Years later, one’s mood has altered, and suddenly a previously shunned work seems luminous with meaning and relevance.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Novels aren’t works of religion, so I don’t think any novel could ever “replace” the Bible.

Sentences in a blindly godless world

January 17, 2010

Michael Atkinson is a New York film critic, essayist, poet, and novelist. His most recent novel, Hemingway Cutthroat, which is the second volume in a projected series of books inspired by Hemingway’s literary life, is slated for release in 2010. In addition to Hemingway, Atkinson loves Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. But what makes Atkinson the kind of bloke I’d want at a neighborhood block party is the pleasure he takes in small things — his love of artisan beer and shellfish, as well as the pride he takes in the fact that his children can identify Timbuktu on a map. For more on Atkinson and his considerable body of work, please visit 


Michael Atkinson

Who are you?

I have been for the most part a New York-based film critic, for some 15 years, and in that time I’ve gained a little notoreity, I guess, for being both feverishly particular and “two-fisted,” as a colleague put it. But I’m also a longtime poet (with, for now, one volume published, and another on the way), and now a novelist. Mostly I just write, and I’ve had my hand at almost anything you could name that’s made of sentences, from obituaries to limericks to memoirs. What’s more to say? A dad, a homeowner, a stalwart anti-imperialist.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction — Orwell’s journalism, Hemingway biographies, that sort of thing. A lot of modern fiction bores me — especially the veiled-autobiographical kind that comes out of writing programs. The last book I began and didn’t finish was a Patricia Cornwell mystery — so bad — and the last book I finished was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, first time I’ve picked it up 30 years. And I still love it.

What role does literature play in a blindly godless world?

The question of “roles” is always difficult, particularly in a culture that’s becoming as attention-deficit as a mayfly. What role does literature, or art, play otherwise? Depends on the individual, I’d think. I know this: if it’s time-killing and distractive, “just entertainment,” then it’s not art, and I don’t care for it. I just don’t have the time for “entertainment.” I’ve got 50 years to live at best, so I have to be picky. My perhaps ham-fisted designation of a blindly godless world is born out of political pique, not book-love. If only the world were more concerned with expanding their experience through the work of their fellow citizens (a definition of art?) and not myth systems, we’d all be a lot better off.

In the past 10 years, what’s the best movie adaptation of a novel? Explain.

If you’d ask about the best “book” adaptation, I’d have to say Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, because it is in fact so much more than an “adaptation,” or even a “movie,” or any other category you’d care to put to it. (It certainly puts Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief to shame.) But for novels, it might just be Alphonse Cuaron’s version of P.D. James’s Children of Men, a perfect fugue between wildly resonant narrative and extraordinary real-time filmmaking. And science fiction is, frankly, the best way to address the days of the new millennium, so far.


Anne Sexton: those eyes, those lips, and that exquisite writerly nose!

Who is your literary lover?

I really wanted Anna Akhmatova until I saw that nose. Otherwise, it’s Anne Sexton. So hot, so crazy.

Actors, comedians, and athletes are often elected to political office. Is there a novelist you think would make a good senator? Explain.

Yes, I would’ve voted for Gore Vidal if I’d had a chance, but only if he promised to keep writing essays. I’d vote for Margaret Atwood, if she’d change her citizenship. Otherwise, Joan Didion, who seems like a natural choice. The first part of this question, however, is a horror.

Of the books you love most, which one is your Chimay Cinq-Cent (for you wine-wussies at there, this is beer at its ambrosial best)?

Turn a page, tip a pint.

Oh, so many. Likening it to the best heady artisanal brew suggests that you can’t partake of it often, but only occasionally, selectively. And that’d be Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Does fiction carry a burden beyond stylistic excellence?

Of course it does — it carries the burden of being ethically sane and of caring more, if only a little more, about the reader’s precious time than it does about the writer’s soul or ambition. But that’s all.

In the last 25 years, what’s the most significant change in the form of the novel?

Solipsism, I’d venture; so many new novelists and arbitrary narratives built of faux-Alice Munro sentences kvetching about childhood memories the only fictional justification of which is that they’re modeled on what happened to the writer at one point. Why editors think readers are interested is a puzzle, because largely, they’re not.

Serial Exploiter of Books

January 1, 2010

Of course, one person does not a sample make. Still, I’m tempted to conclude that speculative fiction, apart from providing a lens through which to view alternate and futuristic worlds, as well as delivering a hefty jolt of pleasure and enjoyment, makes its readers more insightful, more honest, in a word, more truthful. For how else can we explain the virile ease with which Randy Honold, our honored guest this week, lets drop the two most important yet underappreciated words in the male lexicon? Man. Crush. Yep, if only Tiger Woods had read a little DeLillo, a little Saramago, a little Richard K. Morgan, who knows, he might have discovered the pleasures of an innocent, family-preserving bromance.


Who are you?  

Spouse of 27 years, father of two grown daughters, assistant dean at DePaul University, teacher of environmental studies and philosophy courses, photographer, music lover, bicyclist. And of course avid reader! What I’m definitely not is a literary critic of any sort, or a good critic of critics. I’m sure much of what I read would be considered perfectly disrespectable by folks with a more refined sensibility.  

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?  

Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. I’m not sure she succeeded in disclosing anything new and interesting about the near future world she first imagined in Oryx and Crake. Just before that I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. I’m a big fan of his music, I like to bike in cities, so I figured I’d love this. Not so much. When he actually shared his experiences biking in urban areas it was fun. Otherwise, it was intellectually disappointing. The novel I really liked, which I read a couple of months ago, was Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Every page gave me a “wow,” in the same ways that Kundera did for me twenty years ago. At least once every year I come up with an excuse to have my students read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and that time happens to be right now. It’s become an appendage to my psyche; whatever states I and the world are in when I re-read it are highlighted and reflected back to me with a kind of funhouse mirror effect. Simulacra, pharmaceuticals, toxins, and death — what’s not to love?  

In your opinion, what’s the most neglected literary genre?  

Logic and feeling: eternal paramours

I’m not sure it’s neglected, but I want to gush over speculative fiction. I find some of the stuff that’s come out recently to be really stimulating and smart. Let me mention three authors I’m infatuated with. Per my comment above about disrespectability, I want to give props to Richard K. Morgan. Can I say I have a man crush on him? Violence, sex, iconoclasm, idolatry — he doesn’t hold back on any of it, but nothing is gratuitous. Everything serves the plot and is deployed fearlessly in a neo-noir style. Even though she’s finally getting her due, unfortunately posthumously, Octavia Butler needs to be more widely read. No one else I know has done a better job of imagining future embodiments of gender, race, ideology, and technology. In a style that couldn’t be more different from Morgan’s, she builds insight, hope, and fear in equal measures. I had a chance to meet her at a book signing in the late ‘90’s and when I got to the table could only babble something reminiscent of what that Chris Farley character on SNL (the college radio dj who interviewed that week’s musical guest) would say: “Uh, like I really like your books. Huh – thanks!” Finally, I devour everything Neal Stephenson puts out. I don’t want to count the hours I spent reading The Baroque Cycle, but I don’t regret a minute of it. The Diamond Age is my favorite.  

Schopenhauer famously argues that music is the art form par excellence for communicating the essence of the world. What do you say in defense of narrative fiction?  

Schopenhauer is onto something here. But let’s recall his erstwhile rival, Hegel, and do some dialectical synthesis. I have unending admiration for anyone who can write music, and for anyone who can write a compelling narrative. Thus the highest form of art is the three-minute pop song with a catchy melody and pithy narrative. For me, they go most short stories one better. Sure, the medium is different, but I’ve probably gotten as much out of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, and Aimee Mann as I have from any three authors. I keep twisting these questions, don’t I?  

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?  

Last evening we saw a production of “Frankenstein” by an experimental theatre group. The director staged the play in the midst of the audience. We meandered around, getting as close to the action as we wanted. Kind of a low-tech holodeck. The experience made me wonder what it would be like to hang out with the monster a while. I’d set the tone by inviting him to talk about the tragedy of existence over a beer, maybe some kuchen, or on a walk through the hills at night. I’d bring him up to speed about present-day scientists’ ability to manipulate life and how his creator’s name is shorthand for technological hubris. I’d share my fascination with the figure of the cyborg in contemporary culture and ask him how he feels being the ancestor of all kinds of engineered mergings of the organic, machinic, and electronic. But if he suggested we partake in some vengeful bloodletting, that’s when I’d quit the program.  

Do you have any pet peeves or superstitions when it comes to books?  

No. I used to treat them as precious commodities, almost fetishizing them. I schlepped boxes of them from apartment to apartment, never got rid of any, and when we bought a house built some bookshelves to display them properly. Then one day when I couldn’t find one I was looking for I realized I lent it to a student years ago and never got it back. And suddenly I didn’t care; I was happy it was in the hands of someone who wanted it too. I’ve come to prefer having things cycle through my life rather than get overly attached to them.  

Why do you read?  

When you get to the point that you can’t not do something — as long as you have the means – some of how you got there is lost forever. Or, the reasons are so tangled up with other things you do or don’t do that you can’t determine what’s what any more. I confess I have a hard time separating the “why” from the “what!” Why do I try to divide my reading between fiction and non-fiction? Why am I so disinterested in most classic, especially American, literature? Why have I been gravitating toward speculative fiction over the last decade or so? I think Aristotle was right that it’s all about flourishing, or what Csikszentmihalyi called flow. I’ve come to realize this is the goal of most of my reading — and whatever else I do — though I know going in whatever buzz I get won’t last. When I finish a novel I recall shockingly little about plot, sequences of events, even characters’ names; what I’m left with is a clump of feelings. I’m a serial exploiter of books for my own temporary pleasures!