Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Anne Enright, _The Gathering_

LIKE REMAINDER, THIS one won a prize -- 2007 Man Booker.  A story of childhood  catastrophe/trauma that crucially shapes the protagonist's adult life, leading to strain in her marriage, concealment and resentment among her family, a brother's suicide.  

Does it seem an awful lot of Booker winners have a theme like this?  The Inheritance of Loss, The Sea, The God of Small Things, all involved long-term effects of some disaster in someone's childhood.  Atonement -- wait, that one didn't win.  How did that happen?

Anyway, I enjoyed the narrator's voice in The Gathering -- had that cutting Irish humor that spares nothing and no one, not even the narrator herself -- and things came together in a moving yet mostly believable way at the end.  It was something of a downer, though, a long gray day of a novel that seems endless.  I'm in no hurry to pick up another Enright.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tom McCarthy, _Remainder_

I PICKED THIS one up because it won a prize, of sorts -- most interesting novel of 2007 according to the editors of Believer magazine.  And it is certainly interesting.

The narrator, as a consequence of severe injury in an accident that, for legal reasons, he can't tell us about, but which seems to involve falling airplane parts, find himself millions of pounds richer but also "not himself," so to speak -- that is, an arduous course of rehab that involves analyzing and mindfully, painstakingly executing even his most natural, spontaneous actions has left him feeling as though he no longer fully inhabits his own personhood.

So, he begins spending the money constructing enormous  "re-enactments," with sets, scripts, actors, etc., that allow him for a few seconds or minutes at a time to feel that he is himself again.

The novel raises one good question after another.  Is the narrator an artist?  Is all art mainly an attempt to recapture some fleeting sensation, heavy with meaning when it occurred, that is of its nature not really recoverable?  When, in what conditions, are you "yourself"?  If you have a guess what those conditions are, can you contrive them, artificially (by art) bring them into being and thus through massive effort be yourself?  If you knew you could create a situation in which you could "be yourself," what would you sacrifice to create it?

All wrapped up with a disturbing if somewhat open ending.

By the way -- is there some large trend towards protagonists/narrators with some neurological glitch, some kink of cognition and/or memory that shapes the narrative decisively?  Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn qualifies, with its Tourette's Syndrome narrator, and this one does, since the narrator (does he have a name? can't find one) has some kind of neurological impairment due to the accident.  Then there is Mark Shluter in Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, who has something a lot like what the character in the new Rivka Galchen novel has.  Not that I've read it yet, just a review  -- nor have I read The Raw Shark Texts nor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, though those are obvious other examples.

This trend seems even taller & wider than that of ten years ago when every other novel included at least an episode, perhaps several chapters,  in post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe. 

And then some films as well -- Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There are precursor texts for this: Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," Gogol's "Diary of  a Madman," Faulkner's Benjy Compson.  But why so many all at once, just now?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jonathan Lethem, _Motherless Brooklyn_

ANOTHER BACK CATALOG foray, as the only other novel I have read by Lethem is the book that followed this one, The Fortress of Solitude.

Motherless Brooklyn is a fine novel, and a prize-winning one (National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction) -- yet its winning that prize surprises me, because it's one of those honors that normally goes to literary fiction rather than genre fiction, and Motherless Brooklyn sure seems like classic noir detective fiction to me.  

Some literary fiction is obviously inspired by or modelled on genre fiction in general and detective fiction in particular -- Auster's New York Trilogy comes immediately to mind.  You would not actually mistake City of Glass for an honest to god detective novel, though, would you?  The metafictional games, the lack of resolution.... 

The blurb on the back of my copy of Motherless Brooklyn calls it a "compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel," and a "homage to the classic detective tale," but in what respect is it a "riff" on or "homage" to the detective novel rather than, simply, a detective novel?

I can imagine someone asking, "if it's a good novel, who cares how you classify it?"  Reasonable point.  Classifying it as one thing rather than other does have practical consequences, though, such as where it is placed in the store and whether it will get serious consideration for, say, the National Book Critics Circle award.  So what makes a detective novel a "riff" on rather than an instance of its own genre -- hence in a more prestigious if typically less lucrative category?

Maybe our narrator?  Our narrator, Lionel Essrog, is quite a bit more interesting than Philip Marlowe (in my opinion) or Easy Rawlins or whoever we are following around in James Ellroy, not only because of his Tourette's -- did this book inspire the TV series Monk, do you suppose, with its neurologically-awry detective? -- but also because he develops and finds himself in the course of his investigations in a kind of frantically compressed bildungsroman.

Great ending, too -- although that alone makes it seems more genre fiction than literary fiction, as our literary fiction writers seem to have entirely misplaced the whole art of ending a novel.  So many novels that I very much liked -- Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, anything by Zadie Smith, even The Fortress of Solitude for that matter, left me thinking, "hmm...what?...that's an ending?"

Someone I once talked to had a theory: novelists sell a novel on the basis of the first few chapters, which consequently they slave over, get other opinions on, polish to a fine sheen and so on, but once they have a contract on the basis of those chapters it is in their interest to finish the rest as expeditiously as possible, and so we are now in the era of under-achieving endings of novels.

This could never happen with genre fiction, though -- you couldn't write a romance or a mystery unless you knew how it ended.  

So, since Motherless Brooklyn has a corker of an ending, it must be genre fiction?  Hmm, that won't work either, will it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Marilynne Robinson, _The Death of Adam_

   FOR A FEW years, Marilynne Robinson and Jorie Graham must have been colleagues at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  And how did they get along, do you suppose?
   The subtitle of Robinson's collection is "Essays on Modern Thought."  So, what does she think of modern thought?  Not much, it turns out.  "I am sure I would risk offending if I were to say outright that modern thought is a failed project.  Still, clearly it partakes as much of error as the worst thinking it has displaced" (p. 69).
   Robinson dislikes that Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud, for instance, routinely get a great deal of respect and credit as founders of modern thought even though, if we take the trouble to read them, we find a lot of their ideas are definitely daft, and even though, when we trace out the effects of their historical influence, we come across much that is cruel, evil, unjust.
   She also dislikes that older thought -- religion, for instance, more particularly Christianity, and especially particularly the theology of John Calvin -- routinely gets dismissed as unenlightened and neurotic and without intellectual interest by people who never bothered to try to understand it, or gets dismissed as cruel, benighted, and oppressive in its influence on events by people unaware of the roles religious people have taken in, say, the abolition of slavery or German resistance against the Nazis ("Dietrich Bonhoeffer," "McGuffey and the Abolitionists").
   Well, more power to her.  Her discussion of Calvin -- rather cleverly camouflaged in an essay titled "Marguerite de Navarre" -- is a dazzling revelation if all you know of Calvin is "TULIP" and Balzac's historical novels -- such was the state of my knowledge before reading her essay.
   She seems awfully peeved for a lot of the book, though -- testy, impatient, even a bit defensive.  I wonder if this an effect of being a believer who necessarily spends lots of time around extremely well-educated people, secular-progressive-academic-vegetarian-recycling sorts of people, who tend to be unbelievers.  Most citizens of the US are believers and not at all embarrassed about it -- but in a college town like Iowa City, you would be encountering big clumps of the sort of people who read the neo-atheist apologias of Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and such, or at least read the reviews of these books and get reconfirmed in the idea that religion is bosh for bozos.  Frequent encounters with such folks seem to lie behind such testy testimonials as "Puritans and Prigs" and "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," where Robinson gives those who think believers are dim-witted a good poke in the eye.  So to speak.
   I wish she had given fewer pokes  in the eye and more of the lyrical and moving, as in the beautiful, powerful essay"Psalm Eight," or even just more of the historical insight of "Marguerite de Navarre."  Oh well.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jorie Graham, _Sea Change_

JORIE GRAHAM REMINDS me of W. B. Yeats -- not that she sounds like Yeats, because she doesn't at all, and even though they have some thematics in common (being in a body and living in time, the intersection of the individual and history), I don't mean that either.  She reminds me of Yeats in that he was perhaps the greatest poet in English of his time, as she may be of hers, and yet his poetry had little obvious relationship to the other great poetry of his time, as little as Graham's does to the other great poetry of hers.  They both seem apart, isolated, great as they are, and bound to stay that way.

Whenever I teach Yeats alongside Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, Williams, H.D., etc., I always notice how unrelated what he is doing seems to be to what the others are doing.  His work, though involved in his historical moment and his place in numerous and complex ways, does not seem to be incorporating anything of poetry written in English after, say, 1900.  (Even Pound's editorial assistance doesn't keep Yeats from sounding like Yeats, I would say.)  The Oxford Book of Modern Verse that Yeats edited suggests that he just couldn't hear what the great poets of the 20s and 30s were up to.

This may help account for why Yeats is such a dead end as an influence.  The poets whose early work was obviously under his spell -- Auden, Berryman, Lowell, Plath -- had to shake him off in order to do important work.  Delmore Schwartz never did shake him off...en route to becoming a cautionary tale.  Heaney showed a bit of Yeatsian influence early and was canny enough to lose it and follow Kavanagh and Lowell instead, both of whom he could surpass.

Some poets make good influences: Bishop, Pound (n.b. as poet), Williams, even Eliot, I think, but Yeats -- no.  One cannot be much influenced by him without sounding as though one is imitating him, so he is a sort of dead end.

I think Graham is a sort of dead end as well.  Fairly often I come across work that seems influenced by hers, but the influence makes the work in question seem like an imitation, i.e., all too influenced by Graham, unable to do with the approach anything that Graham hasn't already done better.  Ashbery is a fructifying influence, I think, but being influenced by Graham just leads to a sort of off-brand Grahamishness.

Sea Change is more real Graham -- not quite the same as earlier Graham, to be sure, though recognizably her.  Along about Swarm and Never I was beginning to feel that Graham herself was succumbing to Grahamishness, but Overlord was stimulating and so is this new one.

Climate change seems to be on her mind; many of the poems begin with a reference to a time of day, or weather, or a season, and there is pervading sense of a civilization (or an administration) that has jumped the rails.  History hovers behind the lines.  But most often the poems start with a few stacatto bursts, then start unrolling in great sheets of phrases, more dashes and ampersands than periods, of that distinctive Graham phenomenology, witty then stumped, poignant then terrifying, veering from the just-barely-sayable into the unsayable.

She's great.  The greatest poet alive writing in English?  I think so, sometimes.  But anyone who wants to write poetry should be looking for influences elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stephen Marche, _Shining at the Bottom of the Sea_

If by chance you picked up a copy of this novel without its dust cover, you would assume it was an anthology of short fiction from Sanjania, a small island nation in the North Atlantic.  Everything about the volume, from the introduction to the "biographical notes" and "acknowledgements" on  the final pages, maintains this illusion, and "illusion" we have to call it, because Stephen Marche invented Sanjania, its history, and all of its extant literature, and the authors, scholars, and critics of that literature are his inventions, too.  

Nabokovian in its ingenuity -- Sanjania as Nova Zembla, 19 different John Shades, eight or so Kinbotes -- but with a tablespoon of Deleuze and Guattari on minor literatures, inflected with reminiscences of the literary histories of Australia, the Caribbean, Ireland, and Anglophone Africa.

There is the early popular vernacular literature, the dawn of realism, the ambition to follow the lead of great literary innovators of more powerful countries, the nationalist struggle, the attempt to reclaim with pride the vernacular for its associations with the oppressed, the attempts to evade the censorship imposed  first by the colonial masters and then by the dictators spawned by independence ("Caesar Little"... a little Caesar, clever touch!), exile, faculty positions at Bard College...

It began to bother me that Marche's skillful writerly gamesmanship takes for granted that the literary histories of post-colonial societies have, as it were, an isolatable and mappable cultural DNA that can be, as it were, cloned.  That the suffering and struggles of small, subaltern cultures can be reduced to quintessential episodes and personalities, their literatures persuasively mimicked...it began to feel condescending, in a way.  What about the writers in Australia, or Trinidad, or Kenya who actually had to wrestle with whether to write for a national or international audience, or who wound up imprisoned for what they wrote, or who had to endure exile?  Can it be OK to whip up a frothy literary fantasia based on all this actual pain?

About the time I was formulating these questions, I read a selection purportedly by Leonard King, purportedly the living lion of Sanjanian literature, purportedly nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize, etc.  Titled "Histories of Aenea by Various Things," it's a tribute to his late wife, organized around various objects, places, and moments in their shared life.  It was deeply moving -- unforgettable, in fact.  Yet -- there is no Leonard King, no Aenea King, the island they inhabit is imaginary, so for whose loss, by whose grief was I moved?  Nobody's.  It was all the astonishingly powerful sleight of hand of fiction.  

But would I say Marche's story is somehow parasitical on the real grief of real widowers?  I would never say that.  I mean -- that would be to decry all fiction in general.  So was I not equally off-base to get my knickers in a twist because the whole of Marche's novel is parasitical on the real oppression faced by real subaltern cultures?  I was, I think.  

Can one be frothily literary and yet honestly address real pain?  Well -- Nabokov did.  Marche is not in that class yet, but he's someone to watch.