Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Christian Bök, _Eunoia_

I WAS INSPIRED to pick this up after reading an interview with Bök in The Believer some time last year. Eunoia is a text with five chapters, each chapter named after a different vowel, and each chapter containing only words that contain only that vowel. ("Awkward grammar appals a craftsman" is the first sentence of "Chapter A.") The chapters for A, E, and O run close to twenty pages apiece; those for I and U are shorter. Each paragraph of each chapter gets its own page, a not-quite-square block of print, all of very similar length, say eleven or twelve lines long.

Can such a project possibly be readable, to say nothing of interesting, intriguing, revelatory, moving... any of the things we hope a poem will be? Turns out it's all of those things. But how is that possible? What does it mean? Working under a constraint that would seem to nearly preclude persuasive mimesis or honest self-expression or the speaking of truth to power or compelling fantasy -- to identify some of things readers ordinarily say they are looking for -- how does Bök nonetheless draw you into his text and keep you there?

I have no idea. My best guess is that he is astonishingly talented.

What also interests me is that Eunoia (which, it turns out, is the shortest English word in which each vowel is used once and only once) might be seen as a case in which experiment leans over so far backward it bumps into literary tradition on the other side -- for what are meter and rhyme if not constraints?

Almost every spring I have the responsibility of getting a group of undergraduate English majors to acquaint themselves with some specimens of 19th century English poetry, and the larger part of them come in skeptical that rhyming, metered poetry can be poetry at all, since all that artifice -- the counting of syllables, the patterning of accents, the line-endings that have to contain a vowel-consonant cluster that matches the vowel-consonant cluster of an earlier or later line-ending -- can only be an obstacle to achieving persuasive mimesis, honest self-expression, and so on, right? Why would any poet who really has anything to say put him- or herself through so many hoops? I wonder if Eunoia would help me here -- or if they would just see it as an oddity.

I also wonder about the news borne on the back of my copy: "A BESTSELLER IN CANADA." What? Can that be true? Are Canadians that much smarter than we are? Hmm, possibly -- there's Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Atom Egoyan, Sheila Heti... there's also that fact that Eunoia was written with support of the Canada Council of Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. They're either that much smarter than us or they just never had a Jesse Helms messing with public arts funding.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Roth, _The Humbling_

I KEEP BUYING and reading Philip Roth novels, I've decided, rather the way I keep buying and listening to Neil Young albums. Both of them settled upon a handful of characteristic moves and gestures quite a while ago and are largely content to replay them. Both of them, odds are, have already done the work for which they are most likely to be remembered. As influences, they are dead ends; both of them are so utterly and idiosyncratically what they are that it would be foolish for any young writer or musician to imitate them. In an uncharitable mood, one could accuse both of simply imitating themselves.

The Humbling certainly gives one feelings of déja lu. The main character, Simon Axler, is an actor who has suddenly lost the ability to act, putting us in mind of other Rothian versions of the artist whose inspiration is blocked or dried up, Nathan Zuckerman in The Anatomy Lesson, Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath's Theater, "Philip Roth" in Operation Shylock. Like those three characters, Axler gets himself into some unsuitable shenanigans, throwing himself into an affair with a lesbian named Pegeen (named for the Synge character), who turns out to have a dangerous penchant for unsuitable shenanigans herself, like her many, many sisters in the Roth gallery of shikses fatales. And then there is the recurring late Roth pondering of death: following Everyman, Exit Ghost, and Indignation, The Humbling seems to wrap up a death tetralogy (unless we count A Dying Animal as the inaugural volume).

So far, so familiar. And then there's the Rothian trick of having some major plot development occur in a gap in the narrative, so that we readers learn of it only after it has occurred. The Rothian way of folding-in episodes that occurred years before the action begins. The marathon male-female dialogues, like Chinese ping-pong, enormous exertion and strategy put into the volleying back and forth of a tiny, nearly weightless ball.

And you know what? I couldn't put it down. I read it in a day. I can't stop myself. As long as he keeps publishing them, I'm going to be reading them. When whatever he leaves unfinished, his Original of Laura, gets published, I'll read that too, if I'm alive. I just can't get enough.