This was not meant to be next in the queue. But I so loved Appointment in Samarra that I wanted to know more about what the American literary scene was like in 1934. I read that O’Hara was friends with John Fante, whose novel Ask the Dust sometimes comes off the shelf when I’m feeling nostalgic about Los Angeles. And he also knew William Saroyan, maybe the most famous Armenian-American author. This is Saroyan’s first book, published the same year as Samarra, and it’s hard to imagine how the two could be any different.
If this were a paper for a comparative literature class, I’d probably go on and on comparing and contrasting these books. But I’ll spare you the piping hot, critical theory-informed takes, and just say that Trapeze is kind of excruciating to read. Samarra, about our inscrutable capacity and often-unstoppable drive to ruin ourselves and those around us, is hard to read – especially for anyone who’s looked mortality square in the eye.
No, Trapeze is hard to read because it’s an extensive collection of beautiful prose without much order or purpose.
It took me forever to get through this. My badly battered edition clocks in at a brisk 270 pages, and I finally limped through on day 6 through brute force of will. I am not someone who lightly quits a book, especially a novel. In this year of 100 books, I’ll probably have to leave some by the roadside, but I was quite determined not to begin this early, and not with a book that I once loved.
You may not be familiar with Saroyan, but you’ve probably seen his famous advice to young writers. It’s in his introduction to Trapeze: “Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
The stories themselves are, in general, both extremely deep and probing of the human condition and its conflicting impulses toward the superficial and the abyssal. They are also, often, pretty incomprehensible as stories. If you consider some of them as kinds of writing exercises that test and elaborate on the contours of expressionistic thinking, they do work quite well. If I were to reproduce the individual lines and paragraphs that generated awe and merited re-reading, this post might test the Internet’s capacity for endless vertical scrolling.
The most important person in my life is Armenian, and I’ve long recommended Saroyan to him, but now I’m not so sure. On the one hand, Saroyan centers Armenian characters and riffs lovingly about their foibles and theories of mind. On the other hand, his prose can be a beautiful but impassable wall.
Saroyan rambles and peregrinates. He crafts ragged tapestries that hang along the edges of his stories and sometimes create the appearance of plot. Along the way, he brings a series of yearning, alienated, largely nameless characters to life against successively inimical backdrops.
Sometimes Saroyan is like the most tiresome bits of T.S. Eliot, where he’s just naming things and people you don’t recognize. Other times he prefigures the self-conscious approach of David Foster Wallace – something that seems far out of place when you consider that it was also written in John O’Hara’s 1934.
It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But I’m pretty sure I may never read it again, and definitely not the whole way through.