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Familiar authors, uproars fill fall's literary landscape

The season's newsworthy feuds and major new works show that writing remains a potent force.

September 02, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

You've got to hand it to the Fox News Network. In its attempt to give as much publicity as possible to Al Franken and his new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," Roger Ailes and company have exposed a truth often disregarded in contemporary culture -- that writing matters still.

Even now, it moves us, stirs us, causes controversy; even now, it makes us argue and debate. Although the network has dropped its lawsuit against Franken for his use of the Fox trademarked phrase "fair and balanced," the best part of this feud is that it has put a book on the front page, and in so doing, brought us back in touch with the power of the written word.

This fall, controversy is everywhere on the literary landscape, from Fox and Franken to Martin Amis, who has been a lightning rod since the outset of his career. In 1995, his novel "The Information" met with an uproar that quickly became personal as he was attacked for changing agents and even having undergone elaborate (and expensive) dental work.

Amis' new novel, "Yellow Dog" -- his first in five years -- is not due out in the U.S. until November, but it's already causing a stir in England, triggered in part by novelist Tibor Fischer, whose scathing review in the Daily Telegraph may have been a ploy to draw attention to his own forthcoming book, "Voyage to the End of the Room." Here in America, most authors don't consider writing such a blood sport, but two who always have are Michael Moore and Gore Vidal.

In October, Moore follows up on his bestselling "Stupid White Men" with "Dude, Where's My Country?," an uncompromising screed against the Bush administration, while Vidal's "Inventing a Nation" looks at three other presidents -- George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- in terms of both their influence in framing American democracy and the ways our national experiment has gone awry. "Certainly," he concludes, "the inventors of our nation would be astonished at what we have done to their handiwork, their reputations as well."

Vidal is just one of a number of major writers to publish new work this fall. In "Where I Was From," Joan Didion uses the story of her family -- from pioneer days to the present -- as a filter through which to examine the history of California, and by extension, of American ideals. Gabriel Garcia Marquez looks back at his life in "Living to Tell the Tale," the first in a projected trilogy of memoirs, which takes the author from birth into his 20s, and concludes with his proposal to the woman who would become his wife.

Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Fifth Book of Peace" is a project we might say has been in progress for more than a decade; it grew out of her manuscript for the novel "The Fourth Book of Peace," the only copy of which was destroyed during the 1991 firestorm in the Oakland hills. Twelve years later, Kingston has pulled the fragments of that story (which dealt with the Vietnam War) into a saga of death and loss and reinvention, merging fact and fiction, truth and imagination, until the lines between them are irrevocably blurred.

Speaking of books that have long been in the works, John Updike's "The Early Stories, 1953-1975" gathers 103 pieces of short fiction from the first half of the author's career, while Stephen King returns to his "Dark Tower" series after nearly 20 years, with "Wolves of the Calla," the fifth volume in the projected septet. And in October, Toni Morrison will publish "Love," her first novel since 1998, which recounts the influence of a dead man on the women who were once part of his life.

Morrison may be the most iconic author to have a new novel this fall, but "Love" is just the tip of the fictional iceberg. Everywhere you turn, there are novels that demand attention, that stretch our appreciation of the form.

The most interesting of these may be Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude," set in Brooklyn in the 1970s and revolving around a white kid, Dylan, and a black kid, Mingus, whose friendship encompasses everything from punk rock to comic books. "Still Holding" is the final volume of Bruce Wagner's "cellphone trilogy." (The first two are "I'm Losing You" and "I'll Let You Go.") Here, Wagner continues his inquiry into the dark heart of Hollywood, focusing on a trio of interlocking stories that unfold in the aftermath of Sept. 11. J. Robert Lennon's fourth novel, "Mailman," redefines the whole idea of "going postal," evoking the inner life of a small-town letter carrier named Albert Lippincott as he slowly unravels in the wake of a misdelivered piece of mail.

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