I have a thing for the underrated books of famous authors.
Sure, there is literary street cred in having a fondness for the obscure. It’s like proudly declaring your favorite color is puce or casually mentioning that “Dirty Work” is your favorite Rolling Stones album. Oh, come on. It smacks of quirk-coveting, especially when perfectly brilliant and life-changing output is readily available from the same source. But I sincerely gravitate towards the less-touted tomes of famous authors. Lorrie Moore’s Like Life, Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, Murakami’s non-fiction and Didion’s fiction. Perhaps because they still feel personal, like unworn secret passages into the talent of these authors.
For me, there are two in particular which come up in conversation time and again. Everyone’s familiar with John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but I have a soft spot Brazil. Beyond sympathetic affection, I think it’s very underrated and am always pleased to run into those few people that agree. Even in The New York Times appraisal of Updike’s career after his death, Brazil was referred to the book as:
“….brimming over with undigested research and bad dialogue, stood as an embarrassing effort to translate the Tristan and Iseult legend to South America.”
Yes, but how do you really think about it? Okay, I get that it’s uneven and oversexed. But it’s also a fascinating attempt by the King of American Letters to tackle both a new setting and a retelling of a classic in a single book. And it shows an entirely different side of the Updike we know and love, so different from the charm of his short fiction or the scarring baby-killings of his longer work.
I get the same feeling reading Brazil as I do reading The Journals of John Cheever or Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. While these books don’t rate compared to the amazing experience of reading an actual Cheever story or In Cold Blood, they do say: Here is what you’re missing. Here is what makes your heroes human. By default they make the experience of reading an author’s most popular and famous work even richer.
The other book that fits neatly into this category is Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. I know, I know. The namedropping. The 90’s. The violence that can seem to come out of nowhere in sharp contrast to American Psycho’s somewhere. I love it all. Especially the aspect considered to be the book’s Achilles‘ heel: the endless celebrity references that Ellis must have known would have a fast-approaching expiration date. But he went for it anyway and with good reason (even if the fashion models of Glamorama have turned more stomachs over the years than the body count in American Psycho). The more Naomi Cambells and RuPauls mentioned, the more the book actually undates itself, releasing it’s characters from being pinned to the decade and becoming a strangely beautiful satire on how we’re not actually obsessed with celebrities as a people but celebrity as a state of being. It’s a trick not to be missed.
At the time of my Glamorama reading, the only other Ellis book I had read was The Rules of Attraction. I had no idea the two books were connected. And compared to most series fiction, the ties are subtle (that is to say we don’t publish “I is for Informers” or “E is for Excessive Psychotropic Drug Use”). So when characters from The Rules of Attraction started appearing in Glamorama (including Alison Poole, who first appeared in Jay McInerney’s Model Behavior) it was a newfound high for me. I may have even uttered the dumfounded response of “Oh my God, I know her!” in public. Of course, that’s the point. And the exact same reaction is available if you read the least “popular” title from any favorite or famous author. You know them. Only now you know them even better.
*Sloane Crosley is the Associate Director of Publicity at Vintage/Anchor Books. For the past 7 years, she has had the privilege of working with many of the authors she mentions. In her office she keeps several underappreciated items from different authors, including but not limited to: a jar of pirate hair, two rubber snakes, soap, a signed photograph of Ed Norton and some hotel liquor bottles. Sloane is also the author of the New York Times bestseller I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Her new book, Show Me On The Doll, is due out from Riverhead in 2010.*