Saturday, January 24, 2009

YotA Book #2: Lawrence Weschler, A WANDERER IN THE PERFECT CITY

Lawrence Weschler is a writer whose restraint in prose couldn't contrast more with Hunter S. Thompson (the author of the last book I read), but whose prose serves as a container for real-life stories of absolute awesomeness. I first discovered him via Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, his profile of the creator of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, which is a perfect example of the sort of story that Weschler is attracted to - a man (thus far, they're always men) who develops a sudden, specific, overpowering passion, and dedicates his life to it, shunting practicality to the side.

So you have, for instance, the story of Akumal Ramachander, an Indian teacher who discovers an overlooked abstract expressionist painter, Harold Shapinsky, and sets to making sure the world knows about his art. For the first half, I was sure that it would all end in tears; or, perhaps, that there was an elaborate hoax involved. But these aren't the sorts of stories Weschler is interested in telling.

Something specific and wonderful about Weschler's writing style: he lives in little asides that others would leave out. His article on Nicolas Slominsky, for instance, has him follow up for a paragraph with an old acquaintance, whose comments are followed thuslike:

Mrs. Rosenbloom paused for a moment, then sighed. "Oh," she said, "I do thank you for calling. I've got into a wonderful mood just thinking about all this."

Completely unnecessary in terms of Slominsky's life, but absolutely emblematic of the sort of experiential piece of fabric that Weschler includes, and that others would choose to omit, and the inclusion of which deepens the richness of the reading experience - in fact, inclusive is a fantastic word to describe Weschler's writing style.

Another thing specific, that starts off not so wonderful and becomes wonderful - you tend to discover what the point is or what's interesting in real time with Weschler. This creates a couple stories where you're not really clear why you care at the start, only to have a certain point where the penny drops. I'm thinking specifically of "Gary's Trajectory", which contains page after page of mind-numbing detail on financial markets and rocket science, details that even Weschler clearly finds confusing, only to contain a rather abrupt shift in focus, about which I will say no more. "Slominsky's Failure" contains a similar structure - for the first ten pages, I just wanted to know who the hell this guy was and why I should care.

Weschler wanders, and lets his subjects wander, accruing details like Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, whose creator, Ben Katchor, is also profiled. But the wandering is an end in itself, not just the means. It is how they experience the world. They all see things differently from the rest of us. They are fascinating. Every time I think ill of humanity, I will try to remember this book, and remember that all of these extraordinary people are out there; not just those who are profiled, but the author himself, skimming across the lives of extraordinary people in his wander.

up next: Ben Marcus, NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN. Might get done with the McSweeney's book first; it's at work.

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