A review of Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark by James Campbell

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark
by James Campbell
California University Press 
2008, $12.95, 226 pages

James Campbell, born in Glasgow, writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times Book Review. This is his seventh book (of one of these he was the editor).

Most of the authors considered in this collection are either dead or very old. Against this background, the sense of continuity with modernist writers is weak so that we have a shallow background supporting authors who are approaching the end of their careers. There are references to Thoreau, Twain, Poe, and Emerson, but the references are mostly for illustrative purposes as are those to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Only J.P. Donleavy evokes a specific reference, to Joyce. This may be more accident than design since Donleavy disclaims his interest in books and it is difficult to see how a non-reader could absorb anything specific from an author of such challenging works.

Some of the authors considered – Updike, Styron – may have less than permanent interest, a suggestion that Campbell himself makes concerning Updike. It’s a fair assumption. Surely we will grow as weary of the set pieces of sexual hijinks in Updike as we have of the absurd proprieties of the faded novels popular years ago – Freckles, The Girl of the Limberlost, or Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Problem novels have a shorter shelf life and drop from general circulation to high school reading lists before they vanish almost entirely.

Campbell is very good on Capote and it is the slightly gossipy air of his writing that makes these studies especially interesting. He is even better on James Baldwin, subject of one of his books. He demonstrates how the FBI persecuted Baldwin, drove him into exile, and hampered his life so that after leaving the United States Baldwin’s best years as a writer were over. It would be pleasant to believe that such things are no longer possible, pleasant but, alas, unfortunately naive.

The almost complete absence (barring William Carlos Williams’s influence on Creeley) of influences is consistent with the tendency of these writers to make their own rules and find for themselves the essentials of their art. In this sense the authors that Campbell elects to study combine sophistication with the primitive.

On the whole Campbell admires the work of his selected authors. The exception is Toni Morrison. He finds her work tricky and filled with a divisive posture attractive to those white readers who enjoy beating themselves up. I’m not certain of his attitude towards Jonathan Franzen’s Connections (reviewed in the Compulsive Reader). Campbell studies Franzen in relation to Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Connections as one of her book club choices. As you will recall, Franzen first attempted to wriggle away from what on his first impulse he seemed to regard as degradation. He later recanted, but recantations sometimes fail and Oprah never had him on her show. Campbell brings out the comedy of this example of the theater of the absurd in action.

Campbell’s book concludes with two studies that at first seem adventitious, one on Robert Louis Stevenson and the other loosely related to James Boswell. But both authors were Scotsmen and both were travelers. The Boswell piece is very largely about the Scottish language and the author’s own experiences with it when he grew up in Glasgow.

This is a book that is both illuminating and likeable.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places