Monday, March 16, 2009
When I open my Stories of John Cheever, pages spill to the floor from the broken spine. I don't know why, but I like it that way, constantly sorting the pages and shoving them back in. This wornout old shoe of a book never goes out in public anyway. I bought it in the early 80's, and have probably read most of the stories 20 times or more. They age well.
When Wallace and Cheever hit the same issue of the NY'r this month, Wallace got 10 pages (or thereabouts) and Cheever one or two. But the life of Cheever has already been examined so extensively, what more to say? Who left to quote? What else to show? The only things we're lacking are chest x-rays and blood tests.
And now it's Wallace's turn to be pinned to the table and split apart for the public autopsy. The betrayals have already started, in the name of ... well, what exactly, I don't know.
I confess. I read biographies of authors, lots of them. And not one has done anything but stain the author's work. After reading a bio, you second-guess the author's creations -- you begin to doubt the reliable narrators, the motives of characters.
A bio will never make an author's work better than it was originally. But I read them to satisfy my prurient interest in what a brilliant person drank and smoked and all the other stuff. Usually bios are at least 25% about sex.
I've read too much about certain authors that they're ruined for me now. Every line has an unintended footnote that I can't erase.
Some authors rise above the gossip whipped up and devoured in their behalf. Yes, it's rather fascinating that such a perfectly crafted and economically worded book as Great Gatsby could have been written by such an emotional mess as FSF. But does that bit of knowledge inform the text at all? No, it's just a momentary distraction from a clear-eyed, wistful story.