#2: A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
I read this because one of my old teachers from UC, Brock Clarke, wrote a novel called Exley, which made frequent reference to this book. This book was like a character in Brock’s book. So I wanted to check it out. I was really disappointed in it, though. I really had a hard time getting past the misogyny and the way the protagonist, an author stand-in, treated women and talked about women. That was by far my biggest issue with it. It was so blatant and shocking that I really wish I had a copy with me so that I could quote it. I summarize the sense that remains with me of the novel’s attitude toward women this way: “Women are stupid and only good for fucking.” No joking, no exaggeration. Sure, these ideas were contextualized in the character’s life, which included major mother issues and mental hospitalization, but that didn’t outweigh or justify the misogyny to me. I even read a biography of the writer to try to figure out his appeal to Brock and others, but he seemed like a pretty reprehensible, pathetic human being as a whole. I guess I can see how his posturing could be appealing to a white guy of a certain class, region, and time period, but that’s not me, and Exley made no efforts to relate to anyone who wasn’t just like him. (I can’t help noticing that the people who positively reviewed the book on its Goodreads.com page are overwhelmingly white males, judging by their names and pictures.) Exley might have seen his lack of consideration for other viewpoints as a point of pride, but for me it made the book less enjoyable, and even disgusting at times.
There were a lot of satisfyingly fun and virtuosic sentences in the book. When he wasn’t talking to or about women, I liked the sentences.
I concluded that Frederick Exley and A Fan’s Notes are not worthy of the hero’s treatment they get in Brock’s heartfelt, decidedly non-misogynist novel Exley. Here‘s a short essay where he explains his choice. The book was meaningful to him personally at a certain time in his life when he needed to read about someone who was “even more of a loser” than he was. I can understand that kind of personal response to a book, especially a book that seems to speak precisely to a problem that is currently consuming your life. I’ve been there. In fact the things that Brock points out in the essay, Exley’s ambition and his failure, are the things that I related to the most as well. I guess the difference between my reading and Brock’s is just that every time I saw some shockingly misogynistic remark, my emotional investment and appreciation of the language just evaporated.
I hate to be the PC police or something, but I notice that Brock doesn’t mention Exley’s misogyny anywhere in this essay. Can he really not have seen it? Does he deem it less important than his personal reaction? It is a short essay, and the misogyny might seem irrelevant to the question of why he wrote a novel about Exley’s book. I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Brock is much smarter than me, and I really hesitate to judge a former professor, especially one who has been so personally generous to me. The next time I see Brock I will have to ask him what he thought of the misogynistic portions of A Fan’s Notes, and why they did not interfere with his ability to have such a strong personal response to the book.