James Camp

  • Hocus Focus

    In life, we tend to dislike those who “like the sound of their own voice.” And in literature, we dislike them too. We call what they’re doing “overwriting.” They pun, they hyperbolize, they use words like hyperbolize. Words, in general, carry them away. In a word-user, there is no vice more difficult to forgive. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Shakespeare. William Faulkner is another one. Cormac McCarthy offers a living specimen, and in his case, the ornateness makes sense. In his books, people get scalped. A little alliteration seems warranted. How the writer Sam Lipsyte pulls

  • A Man in Full

    IT IS ONE THING to write down the shameful truth of what you really think about someone else; another to publish that shameful truth inside a novel. It is, perhaps, a third thing to use, within your novel’s pages, that person’s actual name, and a fourth to render it all in prose whose rawness will flatter no one. It is something else, however, if that person is your wife.

    “Oh, I was so completely in the shit,” thinks Karl Ove Knausgaard in My Struggle: Book Six. This thought, which occurs on page 43, captures much of the spirit of the pages that follow, of which there are eleven hundred.

  • Play It as It Delays

    Procrastination is the most confusing form of self-destruction. At least heroin addicts get high. Procrastinators watch YouTube videos. They walk their dogs to excess. They go to the gym and revise the first sentence of their first novel in their minds. Then they go back home and get on their iPhones. Before they know it it is 1 AM and they are alarmingly well-informed about the Kardashians. And it is not even as if they are enjoying all this, this incessant shirking of existence, because procrastination is the opposite of embracing the moment. It is passing the time while telling yourself a

  • Barbed Wiring

    Great writers aren’t always “good writers.” Dostoyevsky shamelessly repeats himself. Denis Johnson, as Geoff Dyer once put it (fondly), can seem unsure of how a sentence works, and from the fake elegance of periphrasis Henry James gives us no relief. To go by the evidence of his fiction, Raymond Carver, that Chekhov of the strip mall, had the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old. On every page of Roberto Bolaño there is something to make a copy editor shudder. Easily, we could improve these writers’ sentences, and it is of sentences that literature is built. But we do not wish to “improve” their

  • Bonds and Insecurities

    In the weeks after the attacks of September 11 New Yorkers tried to be nicer. Strangers made eye contact, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani walked in step with Senator Hillary Clinton. There were televised reports of hugging. It wasn’t utopia, exactly, but like the voids where the towers once stood, it was weird. “What the fuck was wrong with everybody?” as the first, nameless narrator of Jonathan Dee’s The Locals puts it. It is not a novel with a lot of patience for the idea that 9/11 transformed New Yorkers into a better, more noble people.

    This places it at odds with much recent 9/11 fiction, in

  • Play It as It Lies

    The Fugitives is the story of a writer who can’t, or won’t—always a fuzzy distinction—write any more. By the time we meet Alexander Mulligan, his dead-ended third novel is years late. Off the page, things seem to be wrapping up all too quickly. He has left his wife for his mistress, then left his mistress for his wife, then left his wife again. Shamed for his behavior by gossip blogs, he has retreated from his home in Brooklyn to rural Michigan, approximately where Ernest Hemingway set In Our Time. It is here that Mulligan, adrift in the “All-American et cetera,” has discovered the Ojibway

  • Darkness Visible

    Your soul mate is emotionally unavailable. He’s a bastard! He’s a narcissist. (So are you.) He’s great in bed, but he’s a workaholic. He’s an alcoholic. He’s a junkie. In strictly mechanical terms, your apartment is literally too small to have sex in. Let’s not talk about the size of your heart. The plight of the homeless does not move you. You personally haven’t called home in years. You have no shoulder to lean on; all your “friends” want to eat you alive. You’ve been forsaken by humanity. You’re a New Yorker.

    Loneliness plagues the heroes of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire

  • Commitment Issues

    Ph.D. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane. The number of those who actually do go insane is small. For Barbara Taylor, the trouble began when she got it into her head that her dissertation was going to be, in a literary sense, really good. Then a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Sussex in England, Taylor was writing about the Owenites, a minor group of nineteenth-century English utopians. As a socialist,

  • Invitation to a Beheading

    Humans are easy to decapitate: Our large heads rest on little necks. Most mammals have thick muscles joining the shoulders with the base of the skull; ours are so slender that our spines show through the skin. It is the price tag of standing upright, of casting off the hominid hunch. “Heads,” writes Frances Larson in Severed, are “tempting to remove.” Above the shoulders, our anatomy resembles a teed-up golf ball.

    Larson, an English anthropologist, thinks that before turning to the mind-body problem, we might consider the head-neck situation. She wrote the book, a survey of our “traditions of

  • Magic Dirty Realism

    Aristotle thought all stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; the novels of David Mitchell begin and end so often they can seem like all middle. Critics have called Mitchell a stylist. In fact, he is a structuralist. His first novel has nine narrators. His second has three false starts, signposts for the maze to come. His third, Cloud Atlas (2004), is the most elaborate—six plots, four continents, eleven chapters. The plots interlock, and the chapters mirror each other. It is the apex, and possibly the ceiling, of the Mitchell method. People and problems recur, a chase scene is

  • culture June 20, 2014

    The Americanization of Narcissism by Elizabeth Lunbeck

    According to Freud, infants are total narcissists, because they can’t get inside anybody else’s head. They demand everything and are outraged when it doesn’t arrive. Freud used the phrase “His Majesty the Baby.” Parents put up with these demands because they are sad they can no longer make them. They shield their children from the truth: Life is frustrating. You’ll never get all you want. The only way out is to not grow up at all. This is the path of the narcissist, who looks in the mirror and falls in love. He isn’t frustrated by life. He’s frustrating to live with.

    SIGMUND FREUD THOUGHT most narcissists were either homosexuals or women. Attractive female narcissists were the “purest and truest feminine type.” “Such women have the greatest fascination for men,” he wrote. According to Freud, infants are total narcissists, because they can’t get inside anybody else’s head. They demand everything and are outraged when it doesn’t arrive. Freud used the phrase “His Majesty the Baby.” (It’s in English in the original.) Parents put up with these demands because they are sad they can no longer make them. They shield their children from the truth: Life is frustrating.

  • culture June 15, 2011

    Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

    Our brains are made of “three pounds of the most complex material we’ve discovered in the universe,” David Eagleman informs us in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Still, if you remove half of a child’s brain before he is “about 8 years old,” the child will be fine. “Let me repeat that: the child, with only half his brain remaining, is fine.”