One of the real fun parts, for me, about any article that talks about the Kindle, or the Sony Reader, or digital reading and writing in general, is that books are almost impossibly complex pleasure-inducing things. We may like to think that we come to books simply for the story or characters or conflict, but that’s just patently ridiculous: there’s a physical element to reading that’s hard to dice out fully (if you think this is bogus, try to imagine the last time you read a book you loved that you didn’t want to keep and hold onto after you read. Better yet, ask anyone about where s/he was when s/he read her/his fav. book and 8/10 times s/he’ll remember. If that doesn’t seem significant, ask the same person where s/he was when s/he heard her/his fav. song. The shortest possible way to say this is that books engage us on levels nobody’s quite figured out—which, yes, is sort of obvious, but I think still worth acknowledging).
That’s just the outsides of books, too. Once you get within the actual narrative, you’re dealing with a picture infinitely more webby and messy. Elements like character and tone and location/setting are so interwoven and deep-rooted throughout even the simplest story that to try to disentangle things into constituent parts seems like not just a bats activity but perhaps even a dangerous one. Maybe the most impossible-to-pinpoint aspect of a book is voice. Easy example: is it a matter of voice if a book’s narrator can’t help but point out the color purple each place it turns up? Run any number of mental exercises on this, and (I submit) you’ll get the same answer every time: a resounding maybe. Plus it gets weirder and harder to track once the voice, as most of us understand it, disappears or is highly subdued in writing: what’s John McPhee’s voice, for instance?
What I’m most curious about, and what this whole thing’s about, is about nonfiction stuff that’s overtly voice-driven: I’m talking about the sort of next-generation nonfiction folks, people who’ve (from what I can tell) taken about equally from Wolfe/Mailer and DFWallace (the list is shaping up in my head largely masculine, and I think that’s probably a reflection of something significant, though let’s just skip that for now). I’m talking about dudes whose nonfiction relies, fundamentally, on the author: ostensibly about, say, coaching HS debate (Joe Miller’s Cross-X), or about stuntmen (Kevin Conley’s The Full Burn), these books survive or don’t, I propose, based on the author and his voice/person. I’m only trying to talk about books in which the author/narrator, as participant, matters in the narrative (but, course, it’s impossibly hard to parse this stuff out). For instance, Sarah Vowell is in this category, as is, to some degree, Alain de Botton; I’d say Thomas Frank and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc much, much less so. If I had to guess, I’d say the rise of the sort of nonfiction I’m trying to get at took off (again) when DFWallace did his two most famous pieces for Harper’s, the cruise ship one and the state fair one (‘again’ because this nonfiction’s not fundamentally different from the New Journalism stuff of the late 60′s and 70′s).
(I’m even bothering to go into all of this stuff because it’s become such a fraught thing, for me. It’s not fair to the author—or to me, as a reader—to have to think about whether or not I’d fundamentally like the author if I met him/her, but I think those are the stakes in much contemporary nonfiction [C. Klosterman's the guy I think this stuff really took off because of, though I'd argue all he did was codify some of the nebulous elements that'd been cast airborne when Wallace explodingly began the hypernerdy, hyper self-conscious schtick with his early nonfiction]. Maybe I’m an absolute anomaly and totally alone on this one, but I feel like, more and more, in the real voice-driven stuff, that aspect’s all but unavoidable: I feel like I’m just as often being buddied up to as I’m being given a narrative, which is a hard pairing to deal with, the oh-like-me impulse mixed with the oh-get-this impulse [a good argument could be made that those two things are incompatible].).
All this even comes up because in November I got two books on the same day from Da Capo (a phenomenal press: they release so much cool shit it’s absurd, plus they do the Best Music Writing every year [of course NHornby's is incredible and my fav], which is reason enough to love them), one of which was about jetpacks and one of which was about karaoke. I was curious about them both but was much, much more excited to read the one about jetpacks, simply as a matter of taste (if I met two people, one of whom was a master of jetpacks and one of whom was a master of karoake, it wouldn’t even be a decision). Yet by the time I’d finished them both, I was over the moon for karoake and at very best lukewarm for jetpacks.
The books are Mac Montandon’s Jetpack Dreams and Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’. Montandon’s has 40 pages on Raftery’s, and Jetpack came out in hardcover while Believin’ was a paperback original. They’re both first-person accounts of something vaguely culturally-related (jetpacks we know from The Jetsons and Boba Fett in Star Wars; karaoke we know from half the goddamn bars in the country, plus also maybe like 15% of all the goddamn romantic comedies), and both books are about the narrator tracking down little snippets of the story relating to the larger cultural thing. Also, Raftery and Montandon are similar in all sorts of fairly mundane (esp. re: book-writing) ways: NYC-based, white, 30-something. They also both, obviously, have their cultural markers down cold (Jetpack, page 8: “the single coolest character perhaps ever, George Lucas’s bounty-hunting Boba Fett, blasted off at the drop of a Wookie scalp with his clunky, dusty, and most righteous jetpack”; Believin’, page 4, after discussing where he [Raftery] has seen karaoke featured while writing the book, “And with the exception of Garfield (who’s still haughtily commenting on the ever-pressing social matters of 1986), not one of these entities mocked karaoke.”).
And yet Raftery’s book is, for my money, a much more enjoyable book, and I’d like to here posit that it’s because he is, fundamentally, a better, more honest, less ironic tour guide. That is, after all, what nonfiction writers like these have become, isn’t it? They’re tour guides. Raftery takes yr hand and walks you through the world of karaoke; Montandon walks you through jetpacks; Fatsis takes yr hand and walks you through competitive scrabble (though Fatsis shouldn’t, I don’t think, actually be included in the comparison: he’s significantly different, and in his books he’s after significantly different stuff).
What I’m pretty sure it came down to, for me, was that Raftery has written a book that, unless he’s just flat-out lying his ass off, he wrote because of and for love: dude’s been truly knocked sockless by karaoke, and he’s not doing Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own” ironically; he means it, all of it (don’t believe me? That’s his mug on the cover, clutching mic, eyes shut, mouth wide.). Montandon, in contrast, has written a book because of, well…First sentence, first full paragraph, page 5: “So that’s how it began: with a premature midlife crisis.” Whatever he may mean in the book, it’s got more to do with himself and his concerns re: mortality than jetpacks.
Which may, at the end of it all, be the big/only/real reason behind the difference between these two books: one stemmed from pleasure, one from pain, and they both wended to their ends from such different starts that, obviously, the books are wildly different. Yet there’s more to it: Raftery’s out to explain/feel more of this thing that’s caused/offered him joy, while Montandon’s out to understand why we don’t all have jetpacks. Look at the construction of both of those: feel more of one thing vs. understand the absence of another. (Given the set-up, Montandon’s book was bound to be more about him, about his feelings and his ideas about jetpacks, while Raftery’s book, though clearly/obviously about his life and friends and experiences, is not, fundamentally, about him, but about karaoke.). Given those as foundations (feel more of one thing vs. understand the absence of another), it feels almost unfair to compare these books.
Yet in tone and style, Jetpack Dreams and Don’t Stop Believin’ are too similar not to compare, and they’re just two of the (at least) dozens of books written by and for folks in that demographic (in fairness, my demographic, which may be why I’ve got the response I have). They’re both fine books, but Raftery’s is the one that’s fucking hysterical and great and makes you keep reading even though it’s way, way late at night and you’ve got to get up early the next day to catch a flight. Both books are, in their way, about topics of interest for dorky subsets of society, yet, at least in my case, the topic I figured I’d care less about was the one that really stuck and moved. Both books have clearly been written by incredibly culturally aware and well-versed dudes (at both high- and low-brow ends), but in the end, the book that sticks is Raftery hilariously sincere embrace of karaoke. I’m sure plenty of this is about taste and expectations and, hell, maybe some of it’s about cover-art or what I’d eaten before I’d read each book, but I can’t help but think that the joy I felt reading Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’ but didn’t feel in Mac Mondanton’s Jetpack Dreams had much to do with irony and self, had much to do with preferring the story of one dude unapologetically digging the shit out of something instead of one dude lamentingly reaching for a (still unrealized) token of youth. Further, I can’t help but think both that books like these—written by white dudes, focused on dorky cultural subsets (how long until a book on obsessive Star Wars action-figures collectors? until a book on righteous Betamax holdouts [with, obviously, a chapter on the dudes who never moved up from record players][nothing, obviously, against records]?)—are starting to show their age, and also that we’re gonna need a new style here, soon, that’s predicated less on irony and nostalgia and more on actual and deeply-felt emotion and guts. I can’t help but think Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’—unlikely though it may seem that anything having to do with karaoke might provide an ‘answer’—is a fine example of what’s gonna have to come next for this sort of nonfiction to stay worthwhile.