Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 30, 2010

David Shields, _Reality Hunger: A Manifesto_

I NOTE WITH satisfaction that I have averaged just over a post per week this year. Well done, Theobald.

It's too soon to tell whether Shields's Reality Hunger will in the long run stand alongside Woolf's "Modern Fiction" and Robbe-Grillet's "Towards a New Novel" as one of the seminal end-of-the-novel-as-we-know-it pronouncements, but those comparisons give the measure of the book's ambitions.

Ever since -- oh, shall we say Defoe, leaving aside for the moment such forerunners as Petronius Arbiter and Lady Murasaki? -- and the rise of the novel, i.e., the conscientious effort to tell one's tale while also creating the impression of the texture of lived experience, moments periodically arrive when the inherited conventions and contrivances for creating that impression begin to seem over-familiar, too obviously artificial, unpersuasive. At such moments, a Woolf or a Robbe-Grillet will say, "all that is not working any longer -- let's try...this!" And so we get To the Lighthouse or La Jalousie, which may not have as many readers as Arnold Bennett or Romain Rolland did at the time Woolf and Robbe-Grillet fired their salvoes, but which so enlarge and reorganize the possibilities of the novel that in the next generation Bennett's and Rolland's novels join the vast ranks of the unread.

Shields thinks we are at such a moment now, and declares that the future belongs to a certain kind of non-fiction, something like what John D'Agata calls the lyrical essay, personal, exploratory, hybridized, marked by a power and suppleness of style, more akin to poetry than fiction, sojourning towards a truth and wisdom the writer reaches only though the process of writing. For instance, Nicholson Baker (at his least novelistic), Anne Carson, Elizabeth Hardwick (Sleepless Nights), George W.S. Trow, Geoff Dyer, Proust, Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello), David Markson.

(Speaking of Markson, Reality Hunger could almost be the fifth in the series that began with Reader's Block and concluded with The Last Novel. It is composed in short segments, and the larger part of the segments are quotations, which appear in the text itself without attribution -- at his publisher's insistence, an appendix identifies the various sources.)

Shields has a point. As he says, a great many novels are based on the author's experiences, with some rearrangement, consolidation of personages, streamlining of events, and so on -- while the same rearrangement, consolidation, and streamlining go on in memoir. So is there really a difference, or just a kind of continuum, with memoir perhaps having the advantage in not having to go through a lot of rigmarole and belabored invention?

I admit, many is the novel I pick up these days, even much admired, prize-winning ones, and as the old weary machinery of exposition begins to grind and shudder, I just want to sigh. Do we really have to go through all this again? Or I read in the NYT Book Review of a "poignant and unforgettable fictional portrait of..." and I just want to cry out, save me from poignant and unforgettable fictional portraits!

Mine is a minority view, I suspect. A good deal of the reception of Franzen's Freedom this past fall seemed to express relief and delight to have a sort of Stendhal/Tolstoy/George Eliot novel about the contemporary USA. But could any serious art or music critic get away with saying, "This guy is great! He's just like Courbet!" or "He's just like Brahms!"?

Truth to tell, I don't think bourgeois-realist novels are going away. Too many people love them. But I'm glad to see the kind of writing Shields is boosting is getting a boost, because I enjoy it and hope it prospers.

How old is the term "creative non-fiction," by the way? Twenty-five years, thirty? I remember the day when essay and memoir were the shabby-genteel poor relations of poetry and fiction, weedy and tweedy and without much prestige in the creative writing curricula of this our republic, but take a look at what fine strapping lads they are now, not about to take a back seat to anyone. John D'Agata (multitudinously cited in Reality Hunger) landed a one-two punch to the canon with The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, and now Shields has provided a declaration of independence, or perhaps of war. CNF is yielding no ground and taking no prisoners, by the looks of things.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

David Markson, _The Last Novel_

MARKSON DIED ABOUT six months ago, and about five months ago I began reading this, having already read Vanishing Point and This Is Not a Novel, two of the earlier texts in the series that The Last Novel completes. I finished it minutes ago.

So were I to say, as I feel like saying, "I couldn't put it down," that would not be literally true, since I put the book in a stack back in August when my semester started and rescued it from that same stack two days ago, when my grades were turned in. But I truly have found all the Markson books I have read hard to put down. They have all been sequences of brief items -- facts, quotations, observations about the life of art and the lives of artists -- and, as with M&Ms or Triscuits, one more always seems like a good idea. They are no chapters or other divisions creating an opportune moment to replace the bookmark and get on with whatever else I ought to be getting on with, so I just keep reading, gobbling down one more item, one more page, five more pages.

That said, though, The Last Novel is sobering stuff. Published three years before Markson died, it is valedictory from its title to its last page, Markson's own death hovering just beyond the final entry ("Als ick kan," a phrase Van Eyck put beside his signature on a painting, which means something like "The best I can do").

And, as in earlier volumes in the series, the news from the lives of artists from antiquity to now is mainly grim: "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke," runs a recurring entry. Prizes, popularity, and fame infallibly gravitate to the un- or scarcely deserving (Markson notes a particular dislike for Warhol, Christo, and Damien Hirst). Most artists are forgotten (he tries to recall the last time he heard anyone mention Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, or James Jones, all immensely well known once). Critics are harsh and impercipient, one's artistic peers harsher and blinder.

So what is the source of the strange astringent joy in this book? Why is it -- dare I say it? -- delightful? Partly, it's just plain interesting. One finds out, for instance, that Ruskin could never imagine living in the United States because it lacked castles. Then there is the idiosyncratically bendy syntax Markson came up with for the series, e.g., "A century before Alcoholics Anonymous, something called the Sons of Temperance, Poe did make a stab at. To no avail."

Chiefly, I suspect, the joy lies in Markson having made a novel (four, even) without observing a single one of the form's conventions. At one point, he quotes:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been.
Said Wayne Gretzky.

Markson perhaps was thinking more about where the novel was going than where it had been, and so his book is alive and green even as it contemplates death and oblivion. So The Last Novel has no characters to speak of, no plot to speak of, no setting to speak of, not even any fiction to speak of (since it is all quotations and theoretically verifiable statements of fact, and even the asides from the "Novelist" voice seem squarely based on Markson's own circumstances and dispositions)... yet mysteriously feels like a novel. Watch me create a novel with none of the attributes of a novel, Markson invites us, and then pulls it off.

There is , apparently, one bit of fiction in The Last Novel. On p. 131, Markson writes, "For no reason whatsoever, Novelist has just flung his cat out one of his four-flights-up front windows." Jeez, I thought, he's losing it now -- for I quite believed him, you see. But was the flung cat only a snare for the careless reviewer? P. 135:

Novelist does not own a cat, and thus most certainly could not have thrown one out a window.
Nonetheless he would lay odds that more than one hopscotching reviewer will be reading carelessly enough here to never notice these two sentences and announce that he did so.

Ha! Unless there's a deeper game here and he did fling that poor cat.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Robin Robertson, _Swithering_

THEY HAIL FROM four different countries, but somehow Robin Robertson (Scotland) calls to my mind Ted Hughes (England), Seamus Heaney (Northern Ireland),and Les Murray (Australia). The sound is crunchily consonantal, the texture loamy, the mood rural or at least out of doors, the memory yet green of the heavy wooden furniture of the grandparents and the smells of animals.

In "Entry," a Heaneyesque buzzard ("the slung bolt of her body / balanced in the wind / by wings and tail") lands on and devours a rabbit's corpse with Hughesian relish:

The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field,
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.

Hughesian, too, methinks, Robertson's poems on Actaeon's death ("the whole pack, thick with bloodlust, / flowed over the rocks and crags, over the trackless cliffs"), and Heaneyesque his animal poems, like "The Eel":

-- a dart of light, loosed
through the chestnut trees
ignites her glimmer, her muscle,
there in the dead pools
in the pleated grooves that stream the sides
of the Appenines down to Romagna [...]

The Murray note? Perhaps this, from "Swimming in the Woods":

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.

So what is the Robertson note? Hmm, dunno. I feel like reading more even though he keeps reminding me of other poets (poets I like, though, so maybe that's it). But there's something not at all like Hughes, Heaney, or Murray in this very short poem contemplating an adolescent girl (a daughter, I think, but I may be projecting):


The child's skip
still there in the walk,
A woman's poise in her slow
of the brightly coloured globe, this
toy of the world.
Is there anything
more heartbreaking than hope?