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Should John Wray be less fashionable?

EsquireJohn WrayLowboy

Johnwray_spring2009 Writer John Wray's third novel, "Lowboy," came out this year to high praise. In the book, a paranoid schizophrenic teen rides the New York subways as, in a parallel narrative, a missing person's specialist tries to find him. Our reviewer Akiva Gottlieb compared the book to iconic novels by Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, concluding:

Wray fully envelops the reader in both the existential and quotidian concerns of his afflicted protagonist. Lowboy's hero-projections and hormonal overdrive are, in this author's hands, tragically epic expressions of an ordinary teenage fatalism. "The world is inside of me," Lowboy warns, and the author does not mean to contradict him. This poetic, stirringly strange novel offers an empathic reminder that, for many, the light at the end of the tunnel can be taken for a harbinger of doom.

Wray's first book, "The Right Hand of Sleep," earned him a prestigious Whiting Award, and he was named one of America's best young novelists by Granta in 2007. In a profile this spring, New York Magazine called him "a phenomenally versatile writer."

He's a writer with serious literary credentials, one who, by all accounts, is due for more attention than before. So why wouldn't Esquire ask him to write some short-short fictions to accompany a fashion spread? And why, like any writer who needs to make a living, wouldn't Wray say yes?

The result, Esquire's Collected Short Stories of Summer Style, shows that sometimes it might be better to make like Nancy Reagan and just say no.

The four pieces by Wray are inelegantly written and belabor the obvious: Objects in fashion photos are sexualized, or they're meant as signals for sex. Fashion photos are carefully created to tell stories -- yes, pants hanging on a wall imply that someone is, sexily, pantsless -- and in each instance, Wray fails to tell a better story than the photographer and stylist did in the first place.

Clearly, Wray is a gifted writer, one who is willing to experiment with his writing. Which means now and then an experiment is going to go wrong.

Or did it? Take a look and tell us whether you think Wray should skip the fashion next time.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: John Wray. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press

 
Comments () | Archives (3)

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I wasn't moved by Wray's stories on Esquire, but I also see them in context. I assume he did them for money, so I think the bigger question to ask is: when authors of literary fiction can't afford to turn down jobs selling clothes, is it worth putting real heart into the commercial work, or is it okay to phone it in?

I don't know, I thought "Polly Jean Johansson on the Case" was kind of charming.

To second Shya's point, Wray's collaboration in the Illustrated Guide (I can't recall the artist's name) for A Public Space was really, really nice.


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