Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, _The Lifespan of a Fact_

JOHN D'AGATA IS an excellent writer (Halls of Fame, About a Mountain), a superb anthologist (The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay), and the leading evangelist for the literary essay as a form of art (that is, emphatically not journalism).  Jim Fingal was D'Agata's fact-checker (a job that sounds like a punchline, as in "Richard Nixon's joke-writer" or "Mitt Romney's charisma coach") for "What Happens There," an essay that forms the core of About a Mountain and was published by The Believer in January 2010.

The Lifespan of a Fact reprints both that essay and the (I assume) email exchanges between D'Agata and Finley over the many, many facts about Las Vegas and the suicide of teenager Levi Presley that D'Agata revised, rearranged, streamlined or otherwise altered in order to get at what he wanted to get at; true to his calling, he grants himself the same latitude with fact that a poet, playwright, or fiction writer routinely enjoys. Fingal, true to his own calling, calls him on every single revision, rearrangement, streamlining, unattributed statistic, fudged number, and so on. He suggests a variety of qualifications, exceptions, rephrasings, all of them so plumply doughy (e.g., "in certain circumstances") that they would sink D'Agata's sentences without a trace. D'Agata curtly nixes them all. Eventually things get testy, then ludicrous. Are bricks red or brown? Is it okay to say a pink car was purple?

Lydia Davis's blurb calls this exchange a "fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be," but for long stretches it's just a good old fashioned pissing contest. Author and fact-checker sometimes take the high road (D'Agata: "If a mirror were a sufficient means of handling human experience, I doubt that our species would have invented literature"; Fingal: "Basically it sounds like you're saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth-value and make quotations out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world. Is that right?").  Sometimes, they just get down and dirty (Fingal: "OK, so now I understand. The rules are: There are no rules, just as long as you make it pretty"; D'Agata: "It's called art, dickhead.")

Typographically, The Lifespan of a Fact resembles the Talmud, a block of D'Agata's essay centered on the page, surrounded by a moat of rabbinical hair-splitting in a smaller font, Fingal's challenges to the essay's claims and D'Agata's responses to those challenges in red ink.

As so often with the rabbis, you come away with the feeling that, impossibly, both are right, especially in chapter 9, which covers the final section of "What Happens There."

In that section, D'Agata reconstructs where Levi Presley may have walked and what he may have seen on his way to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, from which he jumped to his death.  Consistent with his own convictions, he pays more attention to overall effect than to literal accuracy.  Fingal protests: "You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him."

This comment moves D'Agata pass the snarky condescension into which he too easily slips and he lays out as carefully as clearly as he can what he is trying to do; Fingal understands, but disagrees, and gives his own candid, articulate response. For both men, one senses, what matters is the truth about Levi, but they have opposed ideas of how that truth could be conveyed--opposed ideas that, if Rancière is right (I'm four-sevenths through Mute Speech, to be Fingalianly precise), share the same root in the Romantic overturning of classic representation.  But we'll have to get to that on another day.

Chapter 9 justifies the publication of the book, I think. It's well worth reading the whole thing to get to it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mark Davis, _Left Behind and Loving It: A Cheeky Look at the End Times_

I WISH I could be confident that this book would find its way into the hands (and minds) of the millions who have gobbled up the Left Behind series, The Late Great Planet Earth, and all the other volumes that have led so many self-described Christians to contemplate with equanimity the imminent  bloody slaughter and eternal damnation of whole populations of their fellow creatures. But...like free ice cream Fridays or open-to-all polkas on the White House lawn, bestsellerdom for Left Behind and Loving It is delightful to fantasize about but unlikely to happen.  More's the pity.

Mark Davis's book is smart but accessible to the ordinary reader, its scholarship deep but lightly carried.  And yes, it is, as its subtitle announces, cheeky--but not gratuitously snarky. For instance, Davis's chapter on the eschatological chapters in Matthew and Luke is called "Victorious Secret," evoking the famous naughty lingerie emporium and catalogue. Cheeky, to be sure. It begins by juxtaposing Davis's accidental internet discovery of a "Society of Christian Nudists" with the familiar image of the "raptured" leaving behind a neatly-folded pile of clothes. But then Davis steers this into a not-at-all-cheeky reminder that, at least according to Matthew, what separates the saved from the damned is that the saved clothed the naked (and fed the hungry, visited prisoners, nursed the sick) and the damned did not.  That is, the Son of Man coming in clouds does not ask anyone, "OK, did you accept me in your heart as your personal savior?  Yes?  For real?  All right, you're in." The Son of Man wants to know what you did for the least advantaged of your fellow creatures.  That's the victorious secret.

Davis quickly (the book is under 120 pages) tours the Book of Daniel, the relevant chapters in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and of course the Book of Revelation, emphasizing that the writings have an original historical context that we need to keep in mind, and that poetic texts (such as the second half of Daniel and large swathes of Revelation) were never meant to be read literally. He illustrates the problem with "homotextuality" (cheeky! he means treating scripture as if it were all the same kind of text) by presenting three texts on Lincoln's death: the autopsy report, grisly and clinical; a letter by one of the attending doctors, describing his emotions at the loss of the great leader; and a passage from Whitman's magnificent elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." All are about the same event; their perspectives, though, and their use of language and their scope vary tremendously.

Daniel certainly matters for us today, Davis argues, but not because we should be looking around to speculate over what contemporary phenomenon we can identify as an "abomination of desolation," but rather because he responded to his own historical moment in so powerfully visionary a way that we can draw courage and hope from his vision.  What mighty empire today, brothers and sisters, has feet of clay?  They all do. They all always do, from Daniel's day unto our own. That's why we should still be reading Daniel.

I very much liked the chapter on Revelation, where Davis counterposes the Jesus of the gospels to "Ahnold," having some good serious fun with the Left-Behinders' apparent relish for the idea that when Jesus comes again he will not be a weedy semitic carpenter full of enigmatic utterances, easily humiliated by a squad of centurions, but instead will be buff, nordic, and packing some awesome weaponry.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Yvor Winters, _In Defense of Reason_

I READ SOME of this in graduate school--Winters still enjoyed some currency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at least at the university where I did my graduate work; that may have been because our chair had been a student of Winters, though. You certainly hear little enough about him these days. I wanted to look at this again, however, owing to Winters's figuring in Kathleen Ossip's The Cold War (LLL 6 June 2012).

In Defense of Reason collects three separate volumes of Winters's criticism: Primitivism and Decadence, Maule's Curse, and The Anatomy of Nonsense. Although as a young man he had published some modernist-inspired poetry, he was famous as a critic for explaining what was wrong with the modernist poetry of, e.g., Eliot, Pound, H.D., Stevens, and Hart Crane (even though he was quite good friends with Crane, at least for a while).

Skimming through it again, I recalled why I hadn't liked it at that time and feel disinclined to revise my opinion upwards now.  Here's a taste: "The doctrine of Emerson and Whitman, if really put into practice, should naturally lead to suicide: in the first place, if the impulses are indulged systematically and passionately, they can lead only to madness; in the second place, death, according to the doctrine, is not only a release from suffering but is also and inevitably the way to beatitude." In the margin of the library copy I am looking at, someone has pencilled a big "?". "?" indeed.

Winters thought that "every line or passage of good poetry, every good poetic phrase, communicates a certain quality of feeling as well as a certain paraphrasable content." It was that "paraphrasable content" that tended to be elusive in modernist poetry.  Often it was not to be found; when it could be found, as when Winters found "the doctrine of Emerson and Whitman" in Crane, it was often worthy only of being condemned.

Winters had a term for a poetic phrase that seemed to have a "paraphrasable content" that it did not, upon examination, truly have: "pseudo-reference." He even anatomized the ways a phrase could promise such content and fail to deliver: "grammatical coherence in excess of, or in the absence of, rational coherence"; "Transference of Values from one field of experience to another and unrelated field"; "reference to a non-existent plot." A good creative writing assignment, I think, would be to ask student writers to create one example of each of Winters's varieties of "pseudo-reference." Taken together, they almost constitute a poetics. Ashbery's Girls on the Run, for instance, seems a sustained instance of references to a non-existent plot.

Winters died in 1968, before Ashbery became famous, but Winters's predilection for expecting poems to make clear propositions, which were then to be evaluated as propositions, suggests to me that he would have found Ashbery's ascendancy as exasperating as James Fenton did.

(Reviewing Ashbery's Selected Poems in 1985, Fenton wrote, ''"The critics always get everything wrong,'' Mr. Ashbery remarked in the interview just quoted. Yet one feels that the work is designed precisely in order to insure that they will not get it right. There is no 'getting it right.' Just as I would be arrested if I tried to find out what eminent thing my old friend was up to, so I shall be stopped at the gates if I try to penetrate an Ashbery poem. Look! The camera has already been activated and the dogs let loose in the grounds. Let's just scramble back over the electric fence.")

My catching-up-with-theory program was taken me to Jacques Rancière's Mute Speech, and Winters's approach to poetry seems very like that Rancière describes as prevailing before the Romantic era: "...it is not only a matter of pleasing by means of stories and discourses, but of educating minds, saving souls, defending the innocent, giving counsel to kings, exhorting the people, haranguing soldiers, or simply excelling in the sort of conversation that distinguishes men of wit.  The system of poetic fiction is placed in the dependence of an ideal of efficacious speech, which in turn refers back to an art that is more than an art, that is, a manner of living, a manner of dealing with human and divine affairs: rhetoric."  Which adds up--Winters seems to have really, really disliked Romanticism.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Téa Obreht, _The Tiger's Wife_

THE MAIN PLOT of The Tiger's Wife is simple. A young doctor from a country resembling Serbia has come to an orphanage in a town in a country resembling Bosnia to administer immunizations, a sort of atonement/reconciliation mission.  Her grandfather, to whom she was close, has recently died while on a trip to another town nearby; she drives over there to inquire about his death and pick up his effects. A group of people from yet another village happens also to be in the town with the orphanage; they are digging around, trying to find the corpse of a townsman who died and was buried without due ceremony there during the war twelve years ago. They find the body, and the young doctor participates in a peculiar ritual designed to ease the dead man's soul. Recurrent theme: things we do for the dead, which simultaneously are things we do for ourselves.

More of a short story, really--what bulks the story out to a novel are the interpolated tales.  Two in particular are thoroughly developed, both about the grandfather: first, a series of encounters over many years with the "deathless man," who has the power of knowing when a person's time is up, but cannot himself die; second, the story of the woman of the title, the deaf, mute, and abused wife of the butcher in the grandfather's boyhood village, who forms an unlikely alliance with the grandfather (nine years old at the time) and a tiger who escaped from the zoo (destroyed in a WW II air raid) and made his way into the neighborhood.

Beyond that, we get the back-stories on many of the minor characters, including some of the characters in the interpolated story of the tiger's wife.

What with the accumulation of embedded stories providing some of the texture of a traditional, mainly oral culture, and the additional whiff of the supernatural (a man who cannot die, a woman who has formed a pair-bond with a tiger), we are discernibly in "magical realism" territory. Given the august examples already in circulation (Grass, Garcia Marquez, Morrison, Rushdie), it would be hard for this novel to avoid having a studied, slightly second-hand air. That is exactly the air, I think, it has.

Matters are not helped by Obreht's tendency towards superfluous description, e.g.:

The highway narrows into a single-lane road and begins to climb--a slight incline at first, forest-rimmed pastures, bright flushes of green that open up suddenly as you come around the curves. Cars heading down the mountain toward you are small, crowded with families, and sliding into your lane. Already your radio is picking up news from across the border, but the signal is faint, and the voices are lost to static for minutes at a time.

Hmm. Apparently rural driving in the Balkans is a lot like...rural driving.  I thought MFA programs were supposed to wean young writers away from this sort of thing. Someone needs to step up and be Obreht's Gordon Lish.

There are some good things, though, too--the tiger is described at one point as appearing "carved in sunlight"--nice one. Obreht is audacious enough to write a few passages from the tiger's point of view, in one of which he spotted something and "his instincts slammed open"--nice one again.  On page 279 there's a convincing description of a city being bombed:

...she watched a missile hit the old brick building across the river, the vacuum of sound as the blue light went down, straight down, through the top of the building and then blasted out the windows and the doors and the wooden shutters, the bronze name on the building, the plaques commemorating the dead....

The building does not fall, but stands "like a jawless skull."

Obreht has thought a lot about hate, too, and the story of how the village turns on the tiger's wife is grimly compelling and feels true.  Her story, separated from the contemporary frame, would have made a good novella all by itself, I think. She has a palpability that neither the young doctor nor her grandfather, even though they are the main characters, quite attains.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Giorgio Agamben, _Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life_

PART OF MY summer catch-up-with-theory program--Zizek mentioned this, so it seemed a good place to go next. It is not that new--published in Italian in 1995, in English in 1998.  Both Agamben and Zizek, I was interested to note, bring into their discussions Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," which was Derrida's subject the one and only time I heard him, in 1990. I ought to find out where that was published; I understood about a third of it at the time, and these days I might be up to understanding half of it or more.

Homo Sacer is an astonishing, revelatory book which will severely tax and ultimately, I suspect, defeat my powers of summary. Helpfully, Agamben summarizes some of his key theses in the book's final chapter. First, "the original political relation is the ban." Following Schmitt, he sees the primal moment of sovereignty not as a contract somehow arrived at between ruler and ruled, but as the ruler being able to say who (or what) is in and okay and who (or what) is out and not okay, and make those pronouncements stick. To enforce its pronouncements, authority makes itself exempt from them; it enforces laws against violence by committing violence against those who commit violence.

Authority also can make exceptions of certain individuals.  The book's title comes from an ancient Roman law: someone who committed a crime was declared homo sacer ("sacred man," in a way, but the meaning of "sacer" is a discussion all of its own), which meant that (a) he could be killed with impunity and (b) he could not be used as a sacrifice. The homo sacer is thus excluded from the civil polity and the religious polity.  He's one of us that is not one of us. Killing him is not murder. His is a life that is life and life only (to inappositely quote Dylan); he is human, but stripped of all protections and privileges that go with being in the community.  He is "bare life."

The "production of bare life as originary political element and as a threshold of articulation between nature and culture" is "the fundamental activity of sovereign power," claims Agamben's second thesis.  In one intriguing chapter, Agamben aligns homo sacer, bare life, with the werewolf: too animal to be part of the community, too human to be allowed loose like an animal, he has to be isolated and killed.

Along come the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions and the idea that even "bare life" may have rights--that is, simply by being human, prior to any belonging to a community, you have some rights. Sounds promising, but Agamben goes on to note that these turn out to be slippery to define. Once we are in the process of defining "human rights," human life itself comes within the purview of the state, we have all the familiar Foucauldian developments--the human sciences, norms, surveillance of the body, biopolitics--and the Enlightenment turns out to have merely done the spadework for the totalitarian regime, and the homo sacer has matured into the concentration/extermination camp. Agamben's third thesis: "Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm."

A crude and inadequate summary, but this is a powerful book, worthwhile reading especially in this US election year when so many of the buzziest issues--health care, abortion and contraception, immigration, gay marriage--have to do with bodily life and drawing lines, with what bodies the state "sees," recognizes, chooses to protect, and what bodies it simply subjects to its power.

Friday, July 13, 2012

_The Pale King_, interim notes ii

(5) As someone who lived in Chicago in the late 1970s, I vividly remember the January 1979 blizzard that paralyzed Chicago (yet did not deter Chris Fogle from getting to his appointment with the IRS hiring officer), but do not at all recall Illinois experimenting with a progressive sales tax in 1977. Turns out Wallace made all that up, as he did the bit about IRS employees having special Social Security numbers.  This and other points germane to the history/fiction distinction I gleaned from a piece by Lawrence Zelenak in, of all places, the Michigan Law Review: 


Mr. Zelenak may also hold the distinction of being the Wallace commentator whose name sounds the most like one that could have been invented by Wallace.

(6) I've been reading Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer alongside The Pale King. Agamben begins by elaborating Carl Schmitt's idea that sovereignty is founded on the power to decide on exceptions.  For instance, Weber's idea of the state's monopoly on force--the state's ability to punish violence lies in its excepting itself from the ban on violence. The state forbids that I imprison people against their will; if I do such a thing, it will except itself from that prohibition and imprison me against my will. These exceptions (and other kinds) define sovereignty.

That taxation is the most routine, most familiar, probably dullest example--the state forbids me to appropriate some proportion of another's wealth, but excepts itself from that prohibition. Part of the strange appeal of The Pale King is its willingness to take as subject this part of our lives that is as common as dirt, as ubiquitous as dust, and unfold its arcane universe.

Chapter 21, in which someone (Glendenning?) takes advantage of a stalled elevator to lay out the philosophy of taxation, and in passing quickly and persuasively map the course of American culture since World War II, contains as elegant and succinct an encapsulation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America as I have ever come across:

"De Tocqueville's thrust is that it's in the democratic citizen's nature to be like a leaf that doesn't believe in the tree it's a part of."

(7) The sections on the previous lives of the IRS employees at the Peoria REC remind me of the similar sections that introduced the inhabitants of the halfway house in Infinite Jest, which is to say that they are as astonishingly compelling as contemporary fiction gets.  The almost hundred pages of Chapter 22 all by themselves justify the publication of The Pale King. The painful struggle of the not-all-that-educated, not-all-that-articulate Chris to tell the truth about himself and what he has come to realize... the sustained un-writerliness of his voice while nonetheless giving so fine-grained a portrait of a fictional character (new suit from Carson Pirie Scott--dead on!)... the weird dignity Wallace is thus able to lend a cliché like "play the hand you're dealt"...all this is why the novel, even though unfinished, even though it will no doubt fail to All Come Together into an Unified Aesthetic Whole, is among the best fiction I have read in these past few years.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thomas Frank, _Pity the Billionaire:The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right_

THERE IS NO American writer on contemporary society and politics that I read with more relish than I do Thomas Frank. Katha Pollitt I read with, I would say, just as much relish--ironically, she seems to hold his theories in a certain disesteem--and perhaps Jill Lepore, but no one else comes close. Well-shaped sentences, historical depth, originality, a born satirist's instinct for the jugular--that is Mr. Frank.

His books map different parts of the same terrain. A Midwesterner by origin, he has a plains-populist-progressive's instinct that the business elite's main objective is to make as much profit as possible, and that its secondary objective is to create and sustain the political conditions that will enable it to keep making as much profit as possible.  Hence his previous book, The Wrecking Crew, described how lobbyists for various corporate and financial interests have undermined the foundations of federal regulatory oversight, using campaign contributions as leverage.

But, in a representative democracy, how get the voters to elect representatives who will so willingly lend an ear to lobbyists whose interests are inimical to those of the large majority of voters? That was the topic of What's the Matter with Kansas, which argued that the Republican party uses family values/social stability issues (abortion, gay marriage, whip-cracking school reform) to attract the votes of middle America, then uses the legislative power thus gained to advance the corporate agenda.

His latest, Pity the Billionaire, asks why, in the wake of the finance industry's spectacular 2008 demonstration of its proclivity to shit in its own and everybody else's nest, when circumstances seemed at their ripest to re-tooth the SEC and revive Glass-Steagall, did the Republicans run the table in 2010, filling Congress with Tea Partiers who made Goldwater look like a New Dealer?

Well...they moved very quickly and very astutely, it seems.  The real problem, they claimed, was the opportunistic people down the street who borrowed on the (inflated) value of their home to add a too-fancy bathroom. So a pox on them, those awful people down the street who should have known better, but for God's sake, let's not punish the entrepreneurs, the visionaries, the hard-working small-businessmen or geniuses like Steve Jobs, no, no, let's keep the top tax rate low, keep dismantling regulations, keep reducing government spending...and so on.

Is the Right that quick, that smart, that intuitive in reading the minds of the largest swathe of American voters?  Well, maybe.  Frank makes an awfully persuasive case. He's particularly good, for instance, on the cult of Ayn Rand and the push to promote Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy. Pity the Billionaire connects back to his (I think) first book, The Conquest of Cool (and to a film with a comparable point, Tim Robbins's Bob Roberts) and its argument that resentment against the Man can be quickly transmuted into resentment at the government; that resentment at the government, he shows here, can be quickly transmuted into a massively pro-corporate legislative agenda.

Frank is always, to me, persuasive on the mess we're in, and I sometimes wonder if he ever envisions a way out.  This book came out just as the Occupy movement was making news--did he see any grounds for optimism there?

Friday, July 6, 2012

David Foster Wallace, _The Pale King_, interim notes i

I made a sort of resolution to read this, Peter Nadas's Book of Memories, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 this month. My chances of actually pulling this off are vanishingly slender. But if I'm going to keep buying cinderblock-sized novels, I really ought to try to read some of them, no? This one, it turns out, is not even that long, under 600 pages, despite its considerable heft.

1) How do I feel about posthumous publications of this, or Hemingway's Garden of Eden, Ellison's Three Days before the Shooting, or Elizabeth Bishop's working drafts, or other work its author did not regard as finished?  I know it presents an ethical quandary--I've read Kundera's Testaments Betrayed. It might be a disservice to the author. But the Canterbury Tales weren't completed, either, nor Michelangelo's slaves, nor The Faerie Queene, nor Wives and Daughters, nor The Cantos, but does that amount to a case for keeping them out of circulation?  Obviously, no. I am confident Michael Pietsch did as conscientious job as anyone could have. Besides, The Pale King so far (I'm on page 103) is awfully, awfully good. Astonishingly good.

2) For one thing, there is Wallace's unsurpassed ear for American discourses. Besides his pitch-perfect evocation of American bureaucratese, seen in the IRS chapters, chapters 6 and 8 show how completely Wallace could inhabit the linguistic universe of the relatively inarticulate, and how the cadences of the King James Version are integral to the True American Gravity (Whitman, Melville, Lincoln, King) and the True American Weirdness (Joseph Smith, Bob Dylan, Howard Fenster); Lane Dean and Toni Ware  are perfectly suspended between those two poles. Quite a contrast to Franzen's Patty Berglund--every once in a while he has her deliver a clunker sentence, as a gesture to authenticity, but in the next paragraph her prose is swooping with the elegance and grace of an Olympic figure skater. Wallace can stay heartbreakingly close to the language his characters would know and use.

3) Did Wallace, as an undergraduate, really write papers for fellow students for extra income, did he really get caught and suspended, did he really spend 1984-85 working for the IRS? Apparently not, though chapter 9--the "Author's Foreword"--insists he did, even while insisting that "the very last thing this book is is some kind of metafictional titty-pincher." Oh? So then why are my titties sore?

4) Sylvanshine passes through Midway airport on his way to his new post in Peoria and sees "thirty-year-old men who had infants in high-tech papooselike packs on their backs, their wives with quilted infant supply bags at their sides, the wives in charge, the men appearing essentially soft or softened in some way, desperate in a resigned way, their stride not quite a trudge, their eyes empty and overmild with the weary stoicism of young fathers" (13). My God...in 1985, when the novel is set, I was thirty-one, living in Chicago, and often used Midway. Our older daughter was born that year, and we did have a papoose-like carrier and a quilted diaper bag. I probably did look pretty tired--we weren't getting much sleep, and so on. Soft or softened?  Well, yeah. Not a flattering snap of me at at time, true, but at this juncture it seems an inexpressibly cool thing that I am in The Pale King, something of an honor even though it is populated entirely by the anxious and desperate and hopeless.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Alison Bechdel, _Are You My Mother?_

WHAT CAN ONE do, in the end, but worship at her altar?

Which is the last thing she would seek or desire, I imagine.

I started Are You My Mother? with that mixed eagerness and reluctance one has when the author's last previous work was sublimely, superlatively good. Could this possibly be as good as Fun Home?

It represents a greater challenge, I think. Bechdel's relationship with her mother comprehends a greater span of time than did her relationship with her father, is ongoing rather than essentially completed, has a looser and less dramatic narrative arc, and is just more complicated. The episodes touching on Bechdel's own life are not from childhood and adolescence, which have a kind of natural vividness, but those of muddled and compromised adulthood, which are much harder to make compelling. (By the way, should I be surprised that Alison's girlfriends bear a strong resemblance to Mo's?) Everything about this project makes  it all but inevitable that it will not have the same kind of immediate impact that Fun Home does.

Yet it may represent an even greater success. What Bechdel does with Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse, here is even more persuasive than what she did with Joyce in Fun Home, and there is nothing in the earlier book to compare to her incorporation of the life and theories of Winnicott. The extraordinarily subtle handling of time and narrative architecture that distinguished Fun Home are every bit as strong here, but again the earlier book has no equivalent to the way Are You My Mother? integrates reflection on the processes of its own creation.

How many novels published this year will be this intelligent, this inventive, this brave, this nuanced, this real?  Damned few, my friend--damned few.  Maybe none.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Chad Harbach, _The Art of Fielding_

JUST AS ONE knew that at least one of the cast of Friends was bound to have a viable film career, it figured that one of these guys had to have a really good first novel in him; likable as it was, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision was not it, nor was Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, likable as it was. But The Art of Fielding is not only likable, but also a really good first novel.

Not a great novel, perhaps. Too many superfluous modifiers and lame verb choices, for one thing. Do editors still edit? Maxwell Perkins, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

The characters are quirky, flawed, but well-intentioned, capable of change, and ultimately lovable, as if several of John Irving's characters had married several of Anne Tyler's characters, and these are their offspring. The novel is heavily plotted, à la Irving, with Irving-out-of-Dickens cliffhanger chapter endings (and proper names: Henry Skrimshander, Guert Affenlight). When not just one, but two crucial plot turns involved serious head injuries from flying baseballs, as in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I began to suspect an homage to the master.

One of the plots involves a Death-in-Venice relationship (in this instance, consummated) with a gay mixed-race baseball-playing intellectual prodigy as Tadzio, a scholar of 19th century American lit turned college president as Aschenbach...although the crucial precursor here may be not Mann but Mark Merlis, whose American Studies fictionalized the tragedy of F. O. Matthiessen, a brilliant scholar of American literature who was double-ambushed by homophobia and McCarthyism. When The Art of Fielding calls such texts to mind, one realizes that no, it's not exactly great--it's a little too quick to turn on the sentimentality tap, a little too willing to stick to the shallows. But it's as good a baseball novel as I have read since Eric Greenberg's The Celebrant.

By the way, is Mark Merlis ever going to publish another novel? A cursory web search suggests he has moved on into policy wonkery. We need policy wonks, to be sure, but not at the sacrifice of one of our best novelists.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tom McCarthy, _C_

MUCH ANNOYED BY the dismissive review of this in n+1, right on the heels of an issue which contained no fewer than four (!) gushily flattering pieces on Franzen's Freedom. When the reviewer, Amanda Claybaugh, was identified in the contributor notes as "professor of English at Harvard and the author of The Novel of Purpose," I suspected a necronautical prank in the vein of Nabokov's John Ray, Jr., but no--turns out Amanda Claybaugh and her book are quite real. Someone whose day job is explaining the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin seems like a peculiar choice to review McCarthy, it seems to me, but a writer can't get the kind of praise McCarthy has without a bit of backlash.

McCarthy seems to me one of the very best American fiction writers of his generation.  True, I recommended Remainder to about half a dozen people and only one of them liked it, and I assigned it to a class and none of them liked it, so I know most readers are immune to his charms.  But I think he will eventually do for American fiction what Ashbery did for American poetry, liberating it from what seemed obligatory assumptions.

The obligatory assumption I have in mind--I respectfully follow Zadie Smith here--is that of the psychological-realist novel, that we can take what a person says and does and with the right map, or the right code, discover or decipher the coherent interiority that produced that behavior. For the realist novel, as for psychoanalysis, the surface indicates the depths, if you have the map to the treasure room, if you have deciphered the message.  As Claybaugh notes, in signaling his interest in maps and codes to the secrets of his characters by his references to crypts (e. g., the treasure room of a pyramid) and encryption, McCarthy seems to allude to Abraham & Torok's famous reading of Freud's "Wolf Man" case history.

What irritated my students and all but one of my friends about the unnamed narrator in Remainder is that we never do arrive at what would pass as a "coherent interiority" for him. My students' highest praise for a novel is that one "cared about the characters," and to attempt to care about the narrator of Remainder is to smack against a blank wall.

So too with Serge Carrefax, the protagonist of C, whose circumstances are closely modeled on those of Freud's Wolf Man. He is covered in code, in signs and indications and allusions: the Wolf Man, Hans Castorp, the "Burial of the Dead" section of The Waste Land, British Great War memoirs, the London of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, the North Africa of Paul Bowles. (I wonder if McCarthy had a list of elements [incest, insects, crypts, flight, narcotics, codes] and hit on some way of randomly creating new combinations, as Harry Mathews might have done in Cigarettes.) The patterns accumulate, thicken, entwine, always asymptotically approaching resolution, but never, ever reaching it. For many, this would mean McCarthy has reneged on the fiction writer's contract with his reader. I think he is renegotiating it, and in an extremely fruitful, exciting way.

Ashbery continuously brings the reader of his poetry to the challenge, "You may think that poetry depends on the coherent interiority of a presumed speaking subject, but it doesn't, really.  The poetry is every bit as much in this... and this... and this." McCarthy brings the challenge, "You may think the novel depends on the construction of believable coherent interiorities whose destinies you participate in vicariously, but it doesn't, really." Take away that illusion, and you nonetheless still can have the eerie verisimilitude, the vivid evocation of imagined experience, the sumptuous prose. The "novel" is as much in that everything else as it is in those coherent interiorities. At least when McCarthy is writing it, it is.