Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Maurice Blanchot, _L'Arrêt de Mort_

THERE ARE BOOKS one avoids reading because one feels one should have already read them. For example, unlike just about everyone else my age (= getting up there), I did not read All Quiet on the Western Front in my teens. When I was in college and graduate school, it seemed utterly beside the point to read All Quiet on the Western Front when it was obviously more urgent to read Dostoevsky, or Barthes, or Celan, or Bakhtin...et cetera. Now, I feel I've missed my window.  It would be easy enough to pick a copy up and take a few hours to read it, but it isn't it too late, in a way?

My should-have-already-read-but-have-not list also includes Herzen's memoirs, E. M. Cioran, For Whom the Bell Tolls... let's just stop there, before this gets even more embarrassing, and begins to include titles I have allowed people to believe I have read.

someone: "You know the Biographia Literaria, of course."
me: "Mmmm." [there were some pages excerpted in the Norton, right?  Shouldn't that count?]
someone: "Well, then, you'll recall..."

Not having read Blanchot, I realize, is a bit like not having read Beckett, or Calvino, or Auster; Auster has translated Blanchot, for goodness's sake, and I adore Auster, so shouldn't I have followed up before now?  But you know how it goes.

So, finally, I have read one of Blanchot's fictions, and it turns out he is every bit as compelling as one had been led to believe.

The title of L'Arrêt de Mort is most conveniently translated as "death sentence," but might be construed to mean "the halting of death." Its first part is devoted to a female friend of the narrator, referred to only as J., who after a lengthy illness apparently dies, then is resuscitated, then asks the narrator to euthanize her; the second part presents several interactions between the narrator and other women in the wake of J.'s death.

The text is less a roman than it is a récit, its commentators emphasize: that is, not so much a narrative recreating events as a narrative that is itself an event for its narrator, coming to terms with what he is writing about through the process of writing about it. (Like Gatsby, perhaps, though the usual example  is Constant's Adolphe.)

What difference does death make? Can we understand it? Blanchot is engaging Heidegger here, one learns from commentary, folding in as well both the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the story of Jesus and the daughter of Jairus (the scene where J. revives is as astonishing as the climax of Dreyer's Ordet). Then too--according to Leslie Hill--there may be a political allegory involved, as the narrative includes a couple of precise dates, part one coinciding with the Munich crisis and part two with the German invasion and the collapse of the Third Republic.

My main impression of the text, though, is its continual balancing of contradictions, not so blatant as Beckett's famous one about it raining and not raining, but with the same unsettling, here-and-not-here effect, as assertions conjured themselves up and made themselves disappear in the same sentence. A random instance: "Aux qualités que j'ai dites, Simone D. ajoutait celle-ci, d'être franche mais reservée" ["To the qualities that I have mentioned, Simone D. added this one--to be frank but reserved"]. Got that? She's frank--just in a reserved way. So she's reserved. But frank. What?

Blanchot sets these little tail-eating snakes spinning throughout the text. None of them call more attention to themselves than the one just quoted; instead, they lie in the mind like little time-bombs, some seconds later going off and undermining whatever you had found yourself assuming about a character or situation. The narrator impulsively proposes to Natalie in the subway, obligingly doing so in her own native tongue: "Depuis quelque temps, je lui parlais dans sa langue maternelle, que je trouvais d'autant plus émouvante que j'en connaissais moins les mots" ["For some time, I had been speaking to her in her native language, which I found all the more moving in that I had less understanding of its words"]. But of course--how better express the inexpressible than in a language one does not actually know?

I was a long time coming to Blanchot, but I'm ready to take the plunge.  I've ordered three more.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Doty and Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2012_

YES, I KNOW, I'm a year behindhand with this--the arrival of the new BAP tends to be my annual reminder that I have yet to read the previous year's BAP. But it's always a pleasure catching up.

I'm working on a hypothesis that male-edited BAPs tend to be less aesthetically varied than female-edited BAPs, to include more poetry that is reminiscent of the editor's own work. Holds true in this instance, I'd say: lots of unrhymed couplets, lists of carefully observed details, orthodox but sometime elaborate syntax, flowers, music…the 2012 BAP leans to the Dotean.

But Doty is at least upfront about this.  "Anthology-making is, at least on one level, a form of self-portraiture," he notes in the volume's introduction (by the way, a better than usual effort in this odd genre). "This book might well be called Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes, but who'd buy that?"

I might buy that, actually. For me, the highlights of the anthology were two long (13 and 12 pages) elegies in a narrative mode that evoked the Doty of My Alexandria and Atlantis, and thanks to the alphabet they were adjacent to each other: Spencer Reece's "The Road to Emmaus" and Paisley Rekdal's "Wax." Both poems play a long game, aren't nervous about being witty or erudite, and carry the wallop of the actually lived. I plan to look for more of the work of both poets.

I see Denise Duhamel is the editor this year's.  How cool is that?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Kristi Maxwell, _Re-_

"A BOOK-LENGTH POEM about a couple" describes Re- accurately while giving an entirely misleading impression.

For one thing, there is no proper noun to be encountered, so the relationship rides out its vicissitudes in no particular place at no particular time. The text unfolds at a certain level of precise, surreal abstraction: "Hiccups and the sea share / a vulnerability should redundancy denounce them."

For another, much of the diction of the text seems generated by its own phonemes, improvising upon themselves As in--

     that they cancelled noon concealed it within a cloudy beaker


     that the lords should overlap and lapse into a quarrel


     cells might be salvaged. Lard from the carcass turned salve

--where an aural similarity becomes a quick leap into the oblique.

And then one notices the structural features, that the text's four (like the seasons?) sections each have twelve (like the months of the year?) poems, and that the later poems contain spoonfuls of earlier ones, like sourdough starter. The last line of the first section's third poem is:

     to see the progress of the leisure?

The first line of the second section's third poem is

     The progress of their leisure was such

and its final line is one of those quoted above, "that the lords should overlap and lapse into a quarrel." That, in turn, bends itself into the first line of the third poem of the third section:

     Lords lap the quarantine

--and so on, as lines recur but not exactly, the familiar oddly new and the new oddly familiar, very much as in the unfolding actuality of coupledom.

Maxwell is a poet (like, I'd say, Jon Woodward) who can work within very particular and idiosyncratic constraints yet somehow convey the texture and mystery of the lived and the felt.  Many people, I have the impression, carelessly assume that highly formal poetry and and highly expressive poetry are opposite ends of some spectrum. But are they?  Not always, I think.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Third great new find of 2013

IT'S SHAPING UP as a good year for me, having already come across the work of Karen Hays and Lucy Ives, and now that I am finally getting to the May/June issue of American Reader, I have my third amazng new find of 2013: Carmen Maria Machado.

Her "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law and Order SVU" looks like an episode guide to the long-running cop series (which I haven't seen) and indeed uses the actual names of twelve seasons' worth of episodes, but the capsule plot descriptions turn into a novella following the outer and inner turmoil, both professonal and private, of Benson and Stabler (and their prankster döppelgangers, Henson and Abler) as they navigate a treacherous urban landscape of abused girls with bells for eyes and insistent subterranean heartbeats.

Sounds goofy, I know, and I don't think I could sell it to my book club, but a deeply felt humanity lurks in the goofiness and the MFA legerdemain. No book yet, so far as I can learn, but I'll be on the lookout.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Does Philip Roth have a magnum opus?

MUCH ENJOYED THE double-barreled page one reviews of the new biographies of Roth and Mailer  in the NYTBR a month ago, especially the review of the Roth bio by Martin Amis, provocative enough to provoke the man himself to write in frosty correction.

The observation that lingered in the mind, though, was from the Graydon Carter review of the Mailer bio. "Unlike his contemporaries Salinger, Capote, Styron, Roth, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Heller, and others," Carter writes, "he [Mailer] produced no single volume that captured and continues to capture the hearts and minds of successive generations." Certainly true, methinks.

But, methought further, does Roth really have such a volume? Carter mentions Portnoy's Complaint, which, yes, every bookish person my age read. But unlike the other novels Carter mentions--Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of which I happen to know high school and college age people continue to read--I don't know of many people much younger than I who pick up Portnoy. It's not often assigned. It may not even be on on Spark Notes, that near infallible guide to What's Canonical Now.

It happened to be about a month ago, too, that I was finishing up a lifelong-learners community course sort of thing on The Great Gatsby. The members of the class wanted to talk about Great American Novels--a bankrupt category, to be sure, in academic literary criticism, but enjoyable enough to kick around in a desert-island-discs sort of way. We mentioned Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Gatsby itself of course.  Are there more modern candidates? they asked. Well, maybe Beloved, I said. Housekeeping.  The Things They Carried.

I've been thinking: Roth is, to my mind, the great American novelist of his generation, the greatest born between the two world wars. Yet is there a particular volume among his many excellent novels of which one would say, "oh, you have to read that one--everybody has to read that one." I can't think of one. And I've read them all.  Loved them all. I ran the same question by a literary friend.  American Pastoral, perhaps? Maybe, but even that one seems deeply idiosyncratic in a way.  The Counterlife? That's my personal favorite, but you would have to read the trilogy first. Portnoy's Complaint? I think the feminism that burst upon us about the very same moment as Alexander Portnoy made his novel more or less obsolete as anything but a 1960s period piece.

This worries me. Roth is the great novelist of his generation, but does he have an As I Lay Dying, a Huckleberry Finn?  Jesus, does he even have a Slaughterhouse-Five?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lawrence Wright, _Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief_

LAWRENCE WRIGHT IS not only an excellent journalist but a brave man, if what he says about the Church of Scientology's pattern of subjecting its critics to intimidation, vilification, and worse is true...and I'm not saying it is, mind you, as the last thing I need right now is to be intimidated, vilified, or worse by the Church of Scientology. But he seems to have done his work.

I think I picked this up partly because I was fascinated by Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and partly out of a lingering interest in home-grown American religions, initiated by reading Harold Bloom's The American Religion many years ago and recently boosted by Laurie Maffly-Kipp's Penguin anthology, American Scriptures.

At the end of the day, though, L. Ron Hubbard just does not seem to have the true mad village visionary gleam of Joseph Smith, say, or Mary Baker Eddy, or Ellen White. Scientology looks to have been 100% American High Hokum from the outset: a little self-help, a little gadgetry, a little science fiction, a little of the "unleash your hidden powers" appeal from those tiny little ads in the back of the pulpier of those old "men's magazines," like True or Argosy.

Clever of him, though, to set up shop in southern California, where the talented and good-looking arrive in flocks, badly in need of some confirmation that they are special and unique, daily subject to doubts and fears and various humiliations, and willing to pay whatever it costs to get to that psychological place where they can unleash their hidden powers.

I could be wrong, of course.  Perhaps some day Hubbard will be up there with Smith, Eddy, and White--in some ways, he's exactly the messiah we deserve.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Lucy Ives, _Orange Roses_

ANOTHER GREAT FIND in Conjunctions 60 was "Orange Roses" by Lucy Ives, perhaps a poem, perhaps a next-American-essay essay in the d'Agatan mode, but remarkable however one chooses to designate it.

"Orange Roses" is the title piece of Ives's recently-published collection, which seems in part to be a contemplation of her own career, judging from the titles "Early Poem" and "Early Novel," and the final piece, "On Imitation," about a quest of sorts she undertook at age twenty. One of the poems was published in Ploughshares when Ives was only 21 or 22; it was called "The Country House" then, but here it is titled "Ploughshares," which is both a canny gesture and a great joke.

I hope to discuss Orange Roses in a more respectable corner of the blogosphere, so I will say no more about it here, save to note that while the author, born in 1980, may be on the young side to be casting her eye over her journey as a writer, the Grateful Dead had only been a band for five or six years when they sang about what a "long, strange trip" theirs had been, and who are we to deny that their trip had indeed been long and strange? Ives's own trip, on the evidence of this book, has been strange and long enough.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Karen Hays, "The Cubes"

CHALK UP ANOTHER great find by Conjunctions.  As far as I can tell, Karen Hays has not yet published a book, but on the strength of "The Cubes" from Conjunctions 60, I can promise that when she does, she is guaranteed at least one sale in Nebraska.

"The Cubes" is an essay, I suppose we could say, but of a  d'Agatan, next-American-essay kind. Each "cube"--there are twenty-seven--contains up to six passages of one hundred words, as in exactly one hundred words. Each passage has a key word associated with it, placed in the margin, along with an inscrutable three-digit number in what looks like binary code. Although each cube has six available...faces? like the faces of a die?...not all six are necessarily occupied; some are "void."

The passages in the cubes concern several different topics. Quite a few are about the first photographs to be taken from a kite, the man who took them, and his daughter, but we also hear about suicide, about plague, about Nicola Tesla, about quantum physics, about the presence of iron in our blood, about the mathematics of cubes (27 is three cubed), about the author's grandfather...

...and somehow, although "The Cubes" is an essay-poem in a nonce-form to end all nonce-forms, its structure being the most immediately noticeable thing about it, it is illuminating, moving, haunting. I will have to read it a few more times in order to have any idea why it captivated me, but captivate me it did. But before getting around to that, I need to find some more work by Karen Hays.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Giorgio Agamben, _The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans_

...IN FACT, A commentary on just the first ten words of the Epistle to the Romans, but Professor Agamben has more than enough intellectual resources at his command to find in those ten words not just the key to the whole epistle, but to the whole Pauline project, even, before he is done, to Western thought in general.

Back when I was in graduate school in the 1970s and early 1980s, most of my professor had been in graduate school in the fifties and sixties, and they used to chuckle at the memory of the old school Dryasdust dead-but-won't-lie-down philologists clinging like barnacles to the departmental hull, ignorant of New Criticism, Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye as they compiled their tables of irregular datives...but the brilliance of The Time That Remains is all in its philology. (What goes around....)

For one thing, Agamben is able to pick up these ten words of Paul's koine Greek and chip off the centuries of accumulated theology encrusting them, imagining what their possibilities were when Paul first handled them, the leaps Paul might have made in trying to fit Judaic concepts into the language of the eastern mediterranean marketplace. (For instance, words for faith and belief were always already deeply implicated in matters of contract, commerce, and finance.)

Thus, even in this brief book, we get a large glimpse of Christianity before it was Christianity, when it was still a damp yet incandescent newborn heresy of Judaism.

For another, Agamben can track the word Paul uses to describe what faith does to the law--katargein, usually translated as make void, or nullify, or overthrow--and not only unpack it to a fare-thee-well, but also trace it through Luther's translation of the Bible, where it becomes aufhebung, to...well, you see where this is going, don't you?...to Hegel, and the Hegelian, Marx, etc., etc., so that Paul stands at the head of all radical western philosophy.

The final brief chapter discerns the Pauline in the work of Walter Benjamin--utterly convincingly, I would say.

Agamben gives us a Paul who has been galvanized by possibility, who is able to conceive of an unprecedentedly new relationship between people and time, between people and other people, between people and their own brief but unique lives.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Kevin Powers, _The Yellow Birds_

A FEW OF the reviews I saw compared Powers's prose to Hemingway's.  I'm not sure.  This is from the first paragraph:

As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.

Papa, I believe, would have dodged even so harmless a redundancy as "cities and towns," and I would be very surprised to learn he ever described anything as "windswept." Hemingway has his lyrical effects, to be sure, but would he go for the alliteration of "grass greened" and "weather warmed" in the same sentence? I must demur. Powers may owe something to such students of E.H. as James Salter, but his writing is not all that reminiscent of E. H. himself.

It's a good novel, though, a strong debut. He'll have to do better than this to claim posterity's attention, I think, and as far as fiction about our current conflicts goes, the gold has to go to Ben Fountain, but I assigned this book for a course I teach on the literature of war, and I think my students will go for it.

Our course begins with the Iliad, and I am hoping a few of my students will notice that the novel's protagonist and narrator, John Bartle, is dealing with the loss of a comrade who was a close friend, a loss for which he feels partly responsible, a loss moreover that led him to some excessive actions. The Yellow Birds is a realistic novel, with artful arrangements of narrative chronology and closely observed contemporary detail and dialogue, but ticking away at its heart is the old, old tale of Achilles and Patroclus.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Aimee Bender, _The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake_

IT'S NOT REALLY magical realism, so we need some new name for the spooky neighborhoods, the familiar but tinged-with-supernatural-dread houses and lawns of Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Aimee Bender. I'm not up for it today, but someone needs to get to work on that.

Whatever we call it, it's appealing.  Bender renders Los Feliz with the same exactness as to streets and shops with which Joyce rendered 1904 Dublin, but the lives of her characters are more like those of characters in Hawthorne or E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Rose Edelstein, protagonist and narrator of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, reminds one a bit of Mona Gray from An Invisible Sign of My Own (intelligent and articulate, but situated at an oblique angle from other people and from her own emotions), but reminds me even more of Eliza Naumann in Myla Goldberg's Bee Season.

Like Eliza, while still a girl Rose discovers she possesses a preternatural ability, an ability moreover that stirs the faultlines in her family.  Rose, like Eliza, has a mother who is likely to get carried away, a father withdrawn into his own pursuits, and a gifted older brother who has trouble connecting to the world. Her family, like Eliza's, comes unglued. Like Eliza, she eventually has to decide to take her life into her own hands.

Bee Season ends before we know how Eliza will fare, but indicators look promising for Rose.  Rather than flee her gift, as her brother does, or resent it, as her grandfather did, or simply do his best to avoid it, as her father does, or never quite figure out what it is, as her mother does, Rose faces her gift, owns it, steps into it, decides to make it work if she possibly can.

A bit more uplift than Bee Season, then.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not up for deciding that today, either.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

James Salter, _All That Is_

IT MUST HAVE been decades ago that I first heard or read about how great a writer James Salter is--long enough ago, at any rate, that it became downright embarrassing that I had not gotten around to reading him. Well, he has a new novel out this year, so the time has come.

And a great writer he is.

I often tell my students that that they cannot expect to get much done with adjectives--but then look what Salter can get done with them:

In the morning there was England, green and unknown beneath broken clouds. [...] They turned onto a wide avenue, The Mall, with the dense green of a park alongside and black iron fence peeling past. At its end, far off, was a great pale arch.

Each adjective--green, unknown, broken, wide, dense, black, iron, great, pale--feels indispensable. But besides conjuring a visual backdrop, Salter seems to have folded in the perspective of someone new to the place.  And then we have the musical effects, "peeling past," park/far/arch.

Not only is there the cool grace of the prose, but Salter also begins, develops, and ends his scenes with the unfussy aplomb of a master. I was struck by this, which opens the chapter after a chapter in which the protagonist, Philip Bowman, buys a house:

The year he had the house, the spring of that year and the summer were the happiest time of his life although some of the earlier times he had forgotten.

Roth is the master of the little proleptic bombshell, the quick allusion to a catastrophe ahead in the next turn of the narrative, but I don't know if even Roth could better "the year he had the house" as a signal that circumstances are about to sucker-punch our protagonist.

Just as cool, just as apparently effortless, are Salter's shifts from one character's perspective to another's, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes devastatingly, as in the chapter "Forgiveness."

Finally, there is a feeling of lightly carried wisdom, the the novelist has seen a lot, done a lot, thought a lot--even with the greatest contemporary novelists, I rarely feel this. Shirley Hazzard is the other living novelist who gives me that feeling, perhaps the only other one. Salter contemplates his characters with that same unruffled equanimity, that same stoic acceptance that yes, like it or not, this is what people do.

The novel follows Bowman from his service in the Navy, in the Pacific, during World War II, to about the time he turns sixty.  After the war, he becomes a book editor at a small but prestigious publisher, but we learn much less about his career than we do about his relationships with women--Vivian, whom he marries but soon divorces, the Englishwoman Enid, Christine, who winds up getting the house he bought, Anet, who is Christine's daughter--revenge? probably--and finally Ann, who works at the same publishing house. Philip and Ann are contemplating a trip to Venice when the book ends--Bowman reminds me not at all of Gustav von Aschenbach, but I did get a feeling this would be his last trip.

There is something "goodbye to all that" in All That Is. In 1944, when Bowman begins his adult life, men are securely in charge of the world, martial valor is the unmistakable sign of manhood, and the novel is the pre-eminent cultural form. By the time the novel ends, though, Bowman has noticed that "the power of the novel in the nation's culture had weakened" and that women like Susan Sontag our now calling the tune, with such pronouncements as "film is the supreme art of the century," that military service has become something only boys who cannot afford college undertake...in short, all has changed.

In this respect--an unlikely comparison, I admit--All That Is puts me in mind of Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt (a great book, if you have not read it), the most powerful illustration I have yet read of the truth that historical change is mainly imperceptible while it is occurring, yet tectonically profound over a lifetime.

While it is true that the novel is not the cultural cynosure it was at the end of World War II, I have to say that the scenes of All That Is that are set in the 50s and 60s make Mad Men look silly and shallow. There are still a few things at which the novel is hard to surpass, given the right novelist, and evoking the texture of the daily life of an antecedent era may be one of them.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Christian Wiman, _My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer_

STILL MULLING OVER the unlikely congruencies between this and the novel I happened to be reading at the same time, A. M. Homes's May We Be Forgiven (see "Font Dissonance," July 8). Wiman's book predisposed me to see the religious dimension of Homes's novel: the title, of course, the phrase "a prayer, an incantation" that occurs at the book's opening and close, the bar mitzvah scene, the Yom Kippur scene with is alphabetic recitation of sins. Homes's novel predisposed me to see everything that was unsettling, even disturbing in Wiman's book, the shadow of anguish that falls over it, its awareness of our irreparability.

My Bright Abyss often put me in mind of Pascal's Pensées--a mosaic of mini-essays thematically grouped, the prose somehow combining lyricism and gravitas, the concerns predominantly "modern," i.e., belonging to a moment in which faith cannot take itself for granted, and has to become aware of itself.

It's a powerful and touching book; Wiman does not spend a lot of time on the cancer he's been fighting, or on his wife and daughters, but we get enough to see that he has been stretched tightly between great joy and great pain for some years now, and that every realization he comes to in the book has cost him something.

It's hard to say who the book is for, who its audience is. Something about the presentation suggests that Farrar Straus & Giroux figured it for the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd, but Wiman seems to acknowledge that church matters to him, and he is very specifically Christian in his theology.  He mentions an editor objecting that one of the chapters has "too much Christ" in it--too much for whom? For the SBNRs, I suspect.

On the other hand, the book hardly belongs in the company of the anodyne volumes found abundantly in Catholic or evangelical bookstores. If My Bright Abyss were placed next to a Joel Osteen book, the Osteen would shrivel to dry powder and scatter in the hot desert wind gusting from Wiman's pages.

In some ways the book is its own audience, an audience that includes doubters, hecklers, naysayers. "If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it's only because I have a hornet's nest of voluble and conflicting parishioners inside of me," Wiman writes. As Pascal seemed to be often talking to himself, in dialogue with himself, so Wiman characterizes his writing as "exhortations to myself, mostly." Mostly--not entirely.

Wiman returns more than once to the idea that "faith in God is, finally, faith in change." Can we say "yes" to an endless process of transformation that will eventually take away everything we hold precious, will even extend to our own personal extinction as a body? To revert to Homes's novel, Harry Silver has to find a way to commit himself to just such an unpredictable hurricane of events, has to roll with it as Job had to roll with it. Wiman too finds a way to say yes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A. M. Homes, _May We Be Forgiven_

I HAD READ two or three of Homes's short stories in Granta and elsewhere and found them worthwhile without feeling any urge to look into her novels.  She was a dab hand at describing fucked-up families--but that talent is not in short supply these days. I don't know why I went ahead and took a chance on this--something was whispering to me in the reviews, I suppose--but I did, and it is superb.

The novel opens on Thanksgiving, the fucked-up family holiday par excellence.  Our narrator and main character, married but childless Nixon scholar (shades of White Noise?) Harry Silver, has the hots for the wife of his younger, more successful, richer, altogether more intimidating brother,=
George. George is involved in an auto accident in which a hispanic couple is killed and begins behaving erratically; while he in a hospital under observation, Harry and George's wife Jane (shades of The Jetsons?) begin an affair. George sneaks out of the hospital, comes home, discovers them in bed, and smashes Jane's head in with a lamp. He is taken into custody again, and Harry now has to look after his brother's house and kids.

That all happens in the first twenty pages. Things slow down a bit at that point--but not much.

 The novel streams past in short episodes (no chapters, parts. sections, or other divisions) narrated by Harry in the present tense, and something about that stylistic decision (I don't think I've read another first-person fiction of this length written in the present tense) makes every development seem like a surprise. Lots more happens to Harry: he has a stroke, his wife leaves him, he loses his job, he begins hooking up with strangers via internet dating services, and everything seems to come out of the clear blue sky like a boulder thrown by a dyspeptic god.

Some of the events seem implausible, and intentionally so--the dog has kittens--but even the strangest have a subtle believability almost by virtue of their unpredictability, as in an inspired improvisational comedy sketch.  Characters who seem mere walk-on types suddenly acquire nuance and depth, tawdry situations become poignant, chance begins to seem like design.

Improv may even be the key to the novel. Harry learns to say Yes, and. In a sea of turbulent uncertainty, he learns to tread water and then to swim.  He turns out to have a knack for parenting. He gets the opportunity to edit Nixon's fiction. Women begin to find him intriguing. He embraces the herbal remedies of the shaman in the South African village where his nephew decides to have his bar mitzvah--Homes makes even that seem believable--and is finally able to pass his magnum opus on Nixon like a giant, barnacled kidney stone.

Somehow, his utterly fucked-up decision to make a play at his sister-in-law has led to a train of choices and contingencies that add up, by the time a year has elapsed since that fateful Thanksgiving,  to a strangely happy ending.  Harry still stands in need of being forgiven, of course, as the final sentence and title remind us.

In the acknowledgements, Homes thanks Zadie Smith, "who asked the question that got the whole thing going." What was the question?  My guess: the brief italicized bit at the opening: "Was there ever a time you thought--I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don't know why."  Some of the characters in Smith's NW certainly had reason to find themselves thinking that, as Harry does. Something in both novels seems to be about finding the other in the self, shaking hands with the stranger inside we have lived with all our lives; in Smith's book, it's a short cut to trouble, but in Homes's, it has something liberating.  For all the damage Harry SIlver's decisions do, we're left with a sense of the possibilities for himself and others that he has opened up.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tom Driberg, _Ruling Passions_

I PROPOSE AS a general rule that you are in for a treat whenever you pick up the autobiography of anyone who crossed paths with Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s. Waugh's own A Little Learning, likable as it is, is not even the cream of the crop, considering the set includes Anthony Powell's To Keep the Ball Rolling, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave, Harold Acton's Memoirs of an Aesthete and the even better More Memoirs of an Aesthete, Henry Green's Pack My Bag, and the volume under consideration here.

Tom Driberg's name was familiar to me from reading about London in the 1920s and 1930s. I knew he was a gossip columnist and  therefore likely to have known just about everyone, but I had no idea--we get glimpses not only of the people you would expect (Brian Howard, Guy Burgess, Edith Sitwell), but also of Aleister Crowley (Driberg tells a great story about a trick played on that Prince of Darkness), Nikita Krushchev, Dwight Eisenhower, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aung San--that is, the father of Aung San Soo Kyi. He was a one-time member of the Communist Party and a High Church Anglican; he was a gossip columnist and a member of the House of Commons.

Your having known everyone scarcely suffices to make your autobiography interesting, of course; you have to be able to write.  Driberg can really write. His prose has that bracing cocktail of Oxford erudition plus journalistic brio that the writing of the late Christopher Hitchens had--always graceful, never dull.

Driberg was also an out gay man at a time when that was a tricky and not exactly legal proposition. He mentions the "twofold theme of this book--that it is possible for a practicing homosexual to do an adequate job in public life, but that if it is known that he is homosexual he will be subject to discrimination." This theme does appear intermittently, though without being fully developed--Driberg died before the book was finished, and perhaps there would have been more on this twofold theme had he lived longer.  But its frankness (and lack of sentimentality) about Driberg's personal life makes the book all the more appealing and worthwhile.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Brad Gooch, _Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor_

WHEN I WAS complaining a few weeks ago about the drying-up of biography as a pursuit among the last couple of generations of academic literary scholars, I had forgotten all about Brad Gooch, author of a fine biography of Frank O'Hara and this more recent volume on O'Connor.

Gooch fills the gap left when Sally Fitzgerald died without finishing what was to have been the definitive life of O'Connor, and does so skillfully; the research is thorough, the writing graceful. Gooch gives utterly persuasive accounts of O'Connor's family, of Georgia State College for Women during O'Connor's time there, and of her largely correspondence-based friendships with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, Betty Hester (the "A." of Habits of Being), and Maryat Lee.

However--the spine of O'Connor's fiction was her faith, and as a reader I just wasn't sure Gooch got it.  Hard to blame him--O'Connor's faith was one of a kind.  Not exactly straight-down-the-pipe Baltimore Catechism orthodoxy...but not exactly not that, either. Deeply excited about Teilhard de Chardin...but not exactly a Vatican II modernizer, either. Apparently deeply acquainted not only with the strongest Protestant theologians--Barth and Tillich--but with the wild-eyed bizarrerie of storefront churches, the itinerant self-ordained prophets banging down the back roads of the deep South. Mix in whatever she picked up about modern continental thought from hanging out with Partisan Review types.

To be honest, I don't know who could have done justice to all this. Roman Catholic critics tend to smooth over her idiosyncrasies and make her too orthodox, Protestant critics probably feel desperately under-prepared and unqualified for the attempt, secular critics can't be bothered. O'Connor's readers will never have the nuanced. historically informed, theologically sophisticated analysis of her faith that we need.

But I still want one, damn it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

David Markson, _Wittgenstein's Mistress_

WITHOUT INTENDING TO, I started at the end with Markson. Years ago, having heard often about how good his stuff was, I picked up what was at the time his most recent novel, The Last Novel, which later turned out to be, for Markson, exactly that.  I loved The Last Novel, so I started working chronologically backward through the previous several books, which seemed to be a tetralogy of sorts, each a collection of biographical minutiae about painters, composers, writers, etc.,  as redacted by "the Writer," whose own circumstances and concerns very gradually become apparent as one reads.

Wittgenstein's Mistress works with a very similar template; we get a lengthy, unpartitioned series of one-sentence paragraphs (some of the sentences are, technically, sentence fragments) written over an unspecified amount of time--months, probably--by a woman, Kate, living alone on a beach.

Like "the Writer," Kate has a deep store of information about painters, composers, and writers, some of which, as she notes, she could easily have gleaned from reference books, jacket copy, and album liner notes, and some of which may derive from actual encounters with, e.g., Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, and William Gaddis.

Kate also gives an occasional description of the house she is inhabiting, of the pictures on its walls, the books on its shelves, or that seem to have disappeared from its shelves. No one else seems to be living in the house.  Indeed, Kate seems to see no one at all. Has there been some nuclear apocalypse, with Kate the sole survivior? Is Kate a hermit?  Is Kate...not right in the head?

Kate is brilliant and articulate, and we come to care for her as deeply as one can for a fictional character, but yes, Kate is not right in the head. The reader becomes unsure which of her adventures happened and which are imaginary.  Did she really visit the site of ancient Troy, the ground zero of western literature? Did she really camp out in a series of great museums? Did she really roll dozens of tennis balls down the Spanish Steps? Did she really lose a child, a son, to a house fire, for which she feels in some degree responsible?

The answer to that last one, we eventually feel, must be yes, and the fleeting glimpses we have of what must have been an unspeakable pain make the book heartbreaking, even though Kate is almost always writing of something, anything other than her loss.

It would be silly to go on at length about this book in the wake of David Foster Wallace's epic review, now widely available in the posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, but let me end by noting that Wittgenstein's Mistress, triumph of fictional experiment that it is, is also a triumph of good old fashioned mimesis, for Kate's writing sounds uncannily like what a genuinely disturbed person would produce.

Compared to the technique of Poe in "The Tell-tale Heart"and its uncountable epigones, Wittgenstein's Mistress is startling for its refusal to let its disturbed narrator have a greater propensity for exposition, description, and narrative that disturbed writers really have. Instead, Kate gets tangled in misplaced modifiers which she then apologizes for, in ceci-n'est-pas-une-pipe type conundrums, and in corrections of past misstatements, all the while resolutely and intently steering us away from what we most want to know, away from the explanation for her state that we, as dogged readers, feel we have coming. I can't think of another novelist who has gotten this right the way Markson has.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ladette Randolph, _Haven's Wake_

I DON'T READ a lot of novels about the Great Plains, because I have lived in the midwest my whole life, and though I am happy to be here, living and working on the Great Plains more than satisfies my daily adult requirement for Great-Plains-ness.  I would much sooner pick up a novel set in the Hapsburg Empire at the turn of the 20th century, or Paris at the time of Louis Philippe, or Chile in the 1970s than I would one about my neighbors and me, with our long low horizons, old grudges, and taciturnity. It suits me fine as a place to live--I'm just not keen to read about it.

I am prepared to make the occasional exception, however--Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf--so I was good to go when the book club my spouse and I belong to chose Haven's Wake.

The Haven of the title is Haven Grebel, a farmer of the present day in Seward County, Nebraska--Mennonite, husband, father, grandfather, much respected in the community. The book is set in the days following his accidental death. The narration moves among three points of view: that of Elsa, Haven's widow; that of Jonathan, younger son, now of Boston, a successful lighting designer, estranged from the family's religion and way of life; and that of Anna June, Haven's granddaughter, youngest daughter of older-son-who-never-got-it-together and possibly bi-polar Jeffrey, ten or eleven years old, artist and visionary.

Haven's death has brought the whole family back together for his funeral; old tensions pull tight, old wounds ache again, long-kept secrets emerge. The main characters are distinct and realistic, but simultaneously seem to be fulfilling archetypal roles: Jonathan as Prodigal Son, Jonathan and Jeffrey as Cain and Abel, Elsa the grimly tenacious matriarch, Anna June a kind of mystic.

One way of sorting the characters is by their relation to the family's faith.  Elsa is a by-the-letter enforcer, even resorting to the (generally abandoned) traditional Mennonite sanction of "shunning" Anna June to make her surrender the index cards on which she has been recording various awkward episodes in the lives of the local Mennonite congregation.

Jonathan has outright rejected the faith, but this has left him feeling incomplete and disconnected, as in the old Senegalese proverb at the heart of Mariama Bâ's Scarlet Song: "When one abandons one's own hill, the next hill that one climbs crumbles."

Anna June is not only an historian, but also an artist: she has been executing (with Haven's  indispensable help) a series of baked-clay statues of angels around the edge of a pond on the farm. This would not be okay with Elsa--graven images, etc.  Jonathan's wife Nina takes it as evidence that they need to get Anna June away from the benighted influence of rural Nebraskan fundamentalists and get her to an art school. 

Only her now-dead grandfather understood that Anna June is making her faith visible in her interactions with the world, trying to live in, be in, and possibly move the world by living in the light of her faith.  With Haven gone, who will understand this?  It will take a lot, I suspect, to get Elsa, or Jonathan, or anyone else in the novel to reach this sort of realization. But the novel leaves us with a least a tablespoon of hope that it is not impossible.

I do have a complaint, though. Occasionally I felt the author was over-explaining. Here is Jonathan in his father's barn: 

In the barn Jonathan always felt the same feelings of reverence he experienced in the great cathedrals of Europe. He hadn't been a believer for almost half a century, but every time he entered that space he felt an irrational urge to pray.

The image of the cathedral gets a lot done, suggesting the height of the ceiling, the fall of the light, the sensation of a place hallowed by work and hope. The references to reverence and prayer feel like unnecessary underlining to me. This happens a few other times--but generally this is a pretty darned good novel, as we say here in the midwest. Anyone who likes Marilynne Robinson, especially Robinson's capacity for getting into the depths of relatively inarticulate and overlooked lives, will  like Haven's Wake.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Font Dissonance

I HAVEN'T FINISHED a book in a while--I keep starting on new ones. I must be up to a dozen or so. Well, soon enough there will be plenty to report.

In the meantime, here is an observation on an odd coincidence.

Two of the dozen or so books I am midway through are My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman and May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes. Two quite distinct reading experiences, to say the least, Wiman's book being a collection of very short essays or journal entries about his religious/spiritual life, Homes's being a novel about a deeply fucked-up guy in a deeply fucked-up family in ever-more-deeply fucked-up circumstances.  Apples and oranges, in other words. Chalk and cheese.

Yet--the running heads of both books are in the same font--that is, "MY BRIGHT ABYSS" shows up at the top of every other page in exactly the same font in which "MAY WE BE FORGIVEN" shows up at the top of every other page, in their respective volumes. It's a fairly distinctive font: sans-serif, but with contrasting stroke-widths, and the upper-case "W" looks like two overlapping "V"s rather than two adjacent "V"s. I haven't been able to find out the font's name, but it's quite handsome.

I doubt I would have noticed the coincidence, but for my reading the two books at the same time--still, having noticed it, I keep thinking about it.  How did this happen? Different publishers--Farrar Straus Giroux for Wiman, Viking Penguin for Homes--so presumably different designers. It can only be coincidence, yet the coincidence seems meaningful, as though Wallace Stevens and Kierkegaard somehow share a wavelength with characters who say things like "I want your cock in my hole" and kill each other with lamps.

Some of the greatest literature of the 19th century navigated a secret, subterranean river that connected the sordid to the sacred: Baudelaire, Dostoevsky. This deep, dark river has been mostly unexplored since--though Flannery O'Connor and Mary Gaitskill seemed to know it was there. And maybe some designer-for-hire also knows, and planted a clue in these two could-not-be-more-different books, wondering if anyone would even notice. And I have, and the sacral overtones in Homes's title suddenly seem all too appropriate....

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Stephen Hudson," _Tony_

"STEPHEN HUDSON" IS the pen name of Sydney Schiff, the real-life prototype of Lionel Kein, a character in Wyndham Lewis's Apes of God.  For reasons not perfectly clear even to myself, I decided to have a look at some of the work of the various artists and writers pilloried in Apes.

I had low expectations going in, amply confirmed by my first foray, Edith Sitwell's novel I Live under a Black Sun, which happens to contain a character based on Lewis. A case can be made for Sitwell's poetry, I would say, though I am not the person to make it, but I Live under a Black Sun was genuinely dreadful.  Real, pure dreck from its first godawful sentence to its last.

Accordingly, I lowered my expectations even further for Schiff/Hudson. He was reasonably well-known in his lifetime--he translated the final volume of Proust into English after C. K. Scott Moncrieff died, and Beerbohm drew a caricature of him--but as far as I know, none of his fiction got much attention after the first ripples dispersed. Tony (1924) seems to have gone to a second edition in 1931, but nothing since. Thanks to inter-library loan, I got a copy from San Francisco State, and lo and behold, it was inscribed to Stella Benson, no less, friend of Virginia Woolf, Winifred Holtby, and Vera Brittain, by "S. H." himself. I was a little surprised they had shipped such an item out--but Schiff/Hudson's stock is just not that high, I suppose.

Turns out, though, that Tony is a very good novel--not an undiscovered masterpiece, but skillful and interesting. Tony--Anthony Kurt--is the narrator, and the whole novel is written as if delivered to "you," that is, his brother, Richard Kurt. Richard was the subject of one of Schiff/Hudson's earlier novels, so immediately we have a bit of Lawrence Durrell Alexandria Quartet-ish things going on (presumably--I haven't read Richard Kurt), well before Durrell had had the idea himself.

We do not find out why Tony is writing, or possibly talking, to his brother at such length, which is a flaw of sorts--but Schiff/Hudson does a great job of conveying the texture of events that Tony does not fully explain because his audience of one already knows all about them.

To say Tony is an unreliable narrator is putting it mildly.  He's boastful, self-serving, unrelievedly cynical, unwilling to give anyone the benefit of a doubt; he's an asshole, in short. But assholes, as we know, can make entertaining narrators. I wouldn't put Tony in the same class as Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester's Debt to Pleasure, but he is well-realized.

Also intriguing is the possibility that the Kurts are assimilated Jews. Not that Tony says this--but his father and uncle came to England from Austria, they are in high finance, their associates have names like Kahn and Thal, and we have this passage of Tony considering his son, Cyril: "He was growing into a splendid youngster, there was hardly a trace of the Kurts in him. Instead of those dark, beady eyes, he had large blue ones, bluest of blue, with long dark lashes, and a nose that tilted up instead of down." Hmm.  Sounds like Tony is relieved to see his son does not look Jewish, doesn't it?

The Kurts, if they are Jews,  are non-practicing; in fact, since Richard at one point goes to church, they have probably converted.  But there is not all that much literature from this period about British Jews written from the inside, as it were--Israel Zangwill is about the only name that comes to mind--so it's interesting to have something even as indirect as Tony.

This leads to the topic of Lewis and Jews...but I'm not feeling strong enough for that today. Or any day soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Blake Butler, _Scorch Atlas_

NOT AS ABSORBING as There Is No Year, I would say, but more than good enough to keep Butler on my must-read list. A recent book of his, I notice, shares a title with a song from Eno's Another Green World--that's recommendation enough all by itself.

Scorch Atlas loiters in that indistinct territory between collection of stories and novel.  On the one hand, the episodes/chapters work as free-standing stories and there do not seem to be recurring characters or chronological development; on the other, there are In Our Time-like prose passages between each chapter/episode, and each story is set in the midst of a large and unspecified natural catastrophe that combines plague, the slow rot of all human-made objects, and climatological chaos, so the book seems unified.

(Kudos, by the way, to the designers at bleachedwhale.com, who created a multitude of apparent stains, smudges, warpings, and mold-spots for every page of the volume, giving it the effect of having been discovered at the bottom of a midden after years of abandonment.)

Are there more post-apocalypse fictions circulating these days than usual? Not a new genre, of course, and more keep arriving, but I detect an upswing: MacCarthy's The Road, the two last Margaret Atwood novels, Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet, Gary Shteyngart's recent one with the long title, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse...and those are just those I can think of off the top of my head, and sticking to literary as opposed to genre fiction. And the volume before us, of course, which was published in 2009.

The world in Butler's book is so convincingly deliquescing that I actually found it difficult to read more than a story or two at one sitting. Each story sucks you into something gangrenously viscid, and everything you thought might prop you up--wall, ground, family--subsides slowly to sheer ooze. Consequently, Butler's book is much, much scarier, more horrific, than the Lovecraft novella I read a few weeks ago (At the Mountains of Madness).

Lovecraft seemed to place all his faith in adjectives and adverbs, but Butler goes for nouns and verbs: "The day the sky rained gravel I watched it drum my father's car."  Or "my abdomen ballooned." Letting the nouns and verbs do the job of scaring the bejeezus out of the reader allows Butler to preserve a deadpan stoicism in his narrators; unlike Lovecraft's characters, who keep announcing their internal barometric pressure, who are "disturbed," or "chilled," or "horrified," Butler's seem to all be doing their damnedest to act like nothing, really, is wrong, that we're going to be all right, even when it's glaringly plain that everything is wrong and nothing is going to be all right.

Randall had a head the size of several persons' heads--a vast seething bulb with rotten hair that shined under certain light. Several summers back he'd driven to a bigger city where smarter men removed a hunk out of his skull. They'd said the cyst grew from the wires hung over the house. Randall's son hadn't ended up so well off. The crap ate through the kid's whole cerebellum. Radiation. Scrambled cells. One had to be mindful of these things in these days, the doctors said.

Yes, the globe and its inhabitants are gradually becoming pestilent goo--so you have to be mindful.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Zadie Smith, _NW_

GOOD GRIEF, ZADIE Smith, not another WTF ending. Did Nathan really murder Felix? How did Keisha/Natalie figure that out so suddenly? How did she and Leah so quickly come to the decision to tell the police their suspicion? And what happened after they did?

Four novels in, I should expect the last several pages of any Smith novel to be a curveball (or googly) at which I lunge and miss, throwing myself so completely off balance that I tumble red-faced in the dust. Only months or years later will I think, "Oh...right.  Of course."

But I will keep coming back...because NW, like the previous three, hooked me early and held me fast until the last buck of the bronco sent me crashing against the corral fence (to alter the metaphor).

For page-by-page texture--the grain of the prose, the weave of the dialogue, the density of the observed detail, characters with the singularity of a fingerprint--no one alive does it better than Smith. Well, maybe Philip Roth, but he's retired. So, effectively, no one does it better than Smith.

Here, she even has a new narrative format for each chapter, from interior monologue to close-third-person to flash-fiction-montage, and she makes each of them dance.

The title refers to a section of London, the one in which Smith and the book's characters (and the younger characters of White Teeth) grew up and went to school. It was also home to the Kinks, whom I was delighted to see get a shout-out here (29-30).

By an odd coincidence, I bought Nick Hasted's book on the Kinks about the same time I bought NW, and they sat side by side on the to-be-read shelf with their matching red, white, and black cover schemes for several months before I noticed I had unwittingly placed my two Willesden Green/Muswell Hill acquisitions in each other's company.

The Kinks' Ray Davies holds the gold metal for British pop music commentary on class (silver: Mark Smith, bronze: Jarvis Cocker), and Smith sails over that high bar (third sports metaphor of the blog entry--don't know what's gotten into me) as well.

She's been convincing on the topic before, certainly--the Chalfens and Irie and Millat, Howard Belsey--but I knew NW was going to be a great novel before it even began when I encountered the epigraph from John Ball, the radical priest who helped inspire the Peasants' Uprising the 14th century England. Like Bleak House, NW is about how the English social classes are impossibly distant from each other and right in each others' laps at one and the same time.

Which leads us back to the ending.  What does it mean that the striving-&-arriving Keisha/Natalie and the probably-stuck-where-she-is-for-life Leah turn in the never-figured-it-out Nathan for the murder of might-have-managed-to-turn-it-around Felix? What do we do with Leah's envy of Queen-of-Having-It-All Natalie, given Natalie's sordid secret life?  Or of Felix's affair with the déclassé junkie Annie?

Well, perhaps I'll have it all sorted by the time the next novel. with its own curveball, rides in.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fifth of five notes on Sheila Heti, _How Should a Person Be?

5) I'M STUMPED OVER why I keep coming across examples of intelligent and gifted young women assuming stances of sexual abjection.  In the present instance, the chapter titled "Interlude for Fucking" includes passages like the following:

I'll make you your meals and serve you them, leave you alone to paint while I go into my room. Then in the morning when we wake, you can look down, touch your cock. It's hard. Do you need me then? Tell me, as you did the first time I woke in your bed, I like to have my cock sucked in the morning.

All right, Israel. I will put it in my mouth. You just close your eyes. I will do my work for you in the morning.

There's more, but you get the idea. Later in the book, Israel makes some more peculiar requests ("fucking a disgusting old man in a portolet").  Is he actually expecting Sheila to do this, or is it a kind of porn scenario he finds compelling? Hard to tell, but in either case, he seems a man better avoided.

I could think of comparable moments in Ariana Reines's Coeur de Lion, and Lena Dunham's character in Girls occasionally finds herself in similar predicaments, and is similarly obliging.

But why?

I may just be too old.

Having grown up with second-wave feminists as mothers and teachers, are women of this generation finding abjection is the most potent transgression of all?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fourth of five notes on Shelia Heti, _How Should a Person Be?_

4) AS THE NOVEL has a tie to Ticknor in its handling of the tragi-comedy of having a superior friend (as discussed in third note), so it has one to The Middle Stories, Heti's previous book, in its renunciation of complexities of syntax and diction. The sentence constructions and the vocabulary usually remain at the level of Young Adult novels...excepting such phrases as "blow your smoke up my cunt so I can taste it with my dizzy little puss"... though, who knows, the boundaries of YA are not where they used to be.

This chosen simplicity goes against the grain of the thinking of the fiction writers in my own personal contemporary pantheon--Gary Lutz, say, or Ben Marcus or Miranda Mellis--who tend to emphasize that sentences ought to be interesting. Heti's sentences do not even try to be formally interesting, and this has an undeniable effect. For me, it's rather like that of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat--not a very dignified precursor, I suppose, but her writing of adults with decidedly adult problems in the guileless prose of the Betsy-Tacy books created a new frisson, one would have to say.

Heti's rudimentary syntax and vocabulary are all the more striking in that she is writing about contemporary artists, artists moreover often talking about their art. Since the 1980s, I would say--the MFA era, we could call it--artists have gone in for a lot of heavy conceptual lifting and dense continental-philosophy terminology in their artists' statements, and often (especially if they are male and have been drinking) in their conversation. Either Toronto has been immune to this development (fat chance!), or Heti has consciously chosen to make her artists honest, plain-spoken, and soapbox-averse.

Margaux reports a conversation with an American gallery owner: "He asked if in Canada people liked paintings small, and I said yes, and he said well here in America we like our paintings big, and we don't like them painted on wood, or when the paint is thin--."  Sheila breaks in: "He must have been so happy with you!"

Big?  Small? Painters talk about big and small, not about, you know, what Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss and Barry Schwabsky talk about? Can this be true?

In the judging of the Ugly Painting Competition, Scholem chimes in: "And I find the drip ugly, because nothing upsets me more than seeing a drip."  This comment resonates with Margaux: "I like this critique!  This is awesome!"

Being upset by drips...this is a critique? Moreover, an awesome critique?

The novel may be a critique in its own right, a call (of sorts) to dial the discourse of art back...way, way back, and just say, e.g., "I like this because it has blue in it!" It would be a change, certainly.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Third of five notes on Sheila Heti's _How Should a Person Be?_

 3) HETI'S FIRST NOVEL, Ticknor, is superficially quite different from How Should a Person Be?--it's historical fiction, set in 19th century Boston, with a bookish male narrator--but George Ticknor and Sheila share a dilemma.

How does one manage a friendship with a person who has better work habits, more native talent, a more far-reaching imagination, more striking accomplishments, and more insight into her- or himself and others than one has oneself? How do you carry on under the realization that your frtiend is, by any fair criteria, just simply a better person than you are? What if the mere fact that this person is great to be around makes them...hard to be around?

Ticknor faces this dilemma in regard to William H. Prescott, perhaps the greatest American historian of the 19th century (Conquest of Mexico, et c.).  The real George Ticknor was Prescott's first biographer and a personal friend of his, and Heti's novel depicts the envy-&-admiration sauce in which her narrator stews for years and years.

Sheila--that is, our narrator in How Should a Person Be?--draws sustenance of many kinds from her good friend the painter Margaux: support, inspiration, companionship. Margaux's disciplined commitment to work is a model that Sheila wishes to emulate, but Margaux seems also able to keep fresh energy pouring into her relationships. Margaux seems to have things figured out; Sheila (recently divorced, unable to complete the play she has been commissioned to write, partying a bit more desperately than she used to) plainly does not.

(I am ignorant as to whether Heti's own character falls or ever fell similarly short relative to that of the painter Margaux Williamson, and hope to remain so.)

Thus one possible answer to the question posed in the novel's title is, for Sheila, "as much like Margaux as I can pull off." But Sheila, like Ticknor, puts a foot wrong occasionally, graceless and over-literal in her attempts to follow Margaux's example--incorporating bits of Margaux's conversation into her own work, purchasing the same dress that Margaux recently purchased--thereby straining the friendship. The tensions generated by this All-About-Eve-ish behavior eventually make Toronto too uncomfortable for Sheila, who hops down to New York for a few chapters.

By novel's end, however, here is a great clearing of the air, mainly at Margaux's instigation, and the friendship resumes in a less obsessive and more constructive key. A less dramatic ending than someone dying, but it works.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Second of five notes on Sheila Heti, _How Should a Person Be?_

2) PART OF AN august tradition by virtue of its balletic negotiation of the border between novel and memoir, How Should a Person Be? also joins a long and distinguished line of novels about young artists in the metropolis who anxiously juggle life, love, money, and their work.  Hard to say where this line begins--satire of modestly-talented writers just barely scraping by in the city goes back at least to Pope's Dunciad--but I am going to say the tradition begins with the middle section of Balzac's Lost Illusions, when Lucien de Rubempré hits Paris. From there, we could point to Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème, the earlier chapters of The Sun Also Rises, Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed, a lot of Dawn Powell, perhaps On the Road (the peripatetic version of the type), Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony... and the line continues.

Some moments in the novel thus seem like figure skating's compulsory figures: Sheila's vaulting ambition and sense of election ("I am writing a play that is going to save the world"), the characters' experiments in elective neurochemistry (Chapter title: "They Wander the City on Drugs"), the parties, the ridiculous jobs, the urban characters.

What is different about the Bohemian Metropolis novel in the 21st century? The new possibilities for celebrity in these cable-&-internet days, for one. Every review of How Should a Person Be? that I encountered quoted the line from page three: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists." Gertrude Stein is a touchstone, but so is Keanu Reeves.

Another new note: alongside the traditional humble jobs by which young artists make ends meet (Sheila works in a hair salon), we have art as multi-million-dollar bonanza (Sheila and Margaux drop in on Art Basel in Miami).

Finally--not that the book lacks seriousness, but no one dies. No one gets tuberculosis or AIDS, no one succumbs to addiction, no one starves, no one commits suicide. No one utterly, irrevocably fails. This is a wide departure from the Bohemian Metropolis tradition. Somehow, it's a bohemia with safety nets; everyone is going to be all right.

Friday, June 7, 2013

First of five notes on Sheila Heti, _How Should a Person Be?_

ONLY NOW AM I getting around to the novel was so widely discussed a year ago.  This was not my plan.  I bought it a year ago, fully intending to...well, never mind.

1) The principal character in Heti's novel is Sheila Heti, a writer who lives in Toronto, as is and does Heti herself.

(For simplicity's sake, let's refer to the author as "Heti" and the novel's main character as "Sheila." They obviously have a great deal in common, but are just as obviously distinguishable.)

A number of Heti's friends also appear in the novel under their own names as Sheila's friends, the crucial one being painter Margaux Williamson.

Novel or memoir? (Rabbit or duck?  Wave or particle?) How Should a Person Be? obviously dances along the novel/memoir divide, hence (I am guessing) the blurb from David Shields, whose Reality Hunger is a recent landmark in the discussion of the nature of that divide. The dust jacket bears the phrase "A Novel from Life," but we can't tell whether its presence there is, as it were, official (it does not appear on the title page) or merely added by the publisher for publicity purposes.

Official or un-, does the description "novel from life" clarify the text's standing?  I would say no. Most novels are "from life," after all, and a great many asymptotically approach memoir.  Let's see... Philip Roth, Christopher Isherwood, Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Samuel Butler... what the hell, let's run it back to Aphra Behn, whose Oronooko (1688) is presented as events she heard about or witnessed, and perhaps did...who knows?

Daniel Defoe apparently wrote Robinson Crusoe hoping the suckers would think it the actual memoir of a man stranded for years on a desert island.

The origins of the English novel are inextricable from the history of hoaxes. Truth and fiction were always already grafted inseparably to each other. How Should a Person Be? embodies this grafting in a contemporary key, but the grafting itself is as traditional as having chapters, as having dialogue, as having characters.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

n + 1, Bourdieu, Rancière

JUST NOW GETTING around to  n + 1 number sixteen--struck by this statement at the end of the first paragraph of the opening piece: "Few things are less contested today than the idea that art mostly expresses class and status hierarchies, and only secondarily might have snippets of aesthetic value."

That sound right to me.  I can think of colleagues who would be willing to argue the superiority of Beer X to Beer Y, or the inferiority of this restaurant's taco compared to that restaurant's taco, yet would not under any compulsion concede that reading Proust is more worthwhile than watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The author of this piece goes on to mention Foucault, saying his posthumous cultural stock price is a bit higher than that of Derrida--hard to argue with that, too. Even now you often see Foucault cited with the implicit assumption that if Foucault wrote something, it must be true; I notice this even with students who were born after Foucault died. Derrida's thought is still with us, but undergraduates seem more excited about Foucault's ideas--or at least about what they think his ideas were.

But Bourdieu, especially the essay on distinction, is the heavyweight on the question of  whether the aesthetic boils down to one more guise of class and power. And there is something liberating about this idea.

I would like to see a little more room made for the aesthetic, however, which is why I have been finding Rancière so compelling; he finds persuasive ways of talking about what is liberating in the aesthetic. And sure enough, who gets a quick little nod in the n+1 piece? Who but Rancière, for having pointed out that sociology, as the new boss, can sometimes be just as noxious as the old boss, aesthetics.

I think of n+1 as a bellwether of sorts, often in ways that dismay me, but if this piece indicates a Rancière groundswell on these shores...that would be good news.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Jacques Rancière, _Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique_

HAVING READ THREE of Rancière's books, I thought it was time I tried reading him in his original language. This book seemed like the right opportunity that attempt--brief, for one thing (74 pages, and 6" x 4" pages at that), and for another it is primarily about Rancière's theory, with relatively few specific illustration.

In fact, it might have been best for me to have started with this one, rather than having to piece together the theory from his discussions of particular texts/works/objects. But it was his insights into particular texts, etc., that truly hooked me, so it's probably just as well I began as I did.

The book is arranged around five questions, formulated by Muriel Combes and Bernard Aspe, concerning (1) the "partage du sensible," (2) Rancière's theory about "régimes of art," (3) the "arts mécaniques," e.g., photography and film, (4) the relation of fiction to history, and (5) how the category "art" fits (or doesn't) into the broader category "work."

Rancière, unsurprisingly, says some really smart things in response to last three questions (I wish, however, he had brought in Hayden White while answering #4 as he does Walter Benjamin while answering #3), but it's the first two that go most directly to his own work and accordingly get the most space (35 of 73 pages).

"Partage du sensible" is tricky to translate, which I imagine is why the English translation flips the title and subtitle to give us The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (As a bookstore browser, I would not pause long at a volume called Distribution of the Sensible, so I'd say the translation's publisher made a good call.)  The idea is not that tricky, however, if you just keep in mind that we can refer to all that we perceive with our senses as constituting "the sensible," and that we have an undefined number of categories for sorting and interpreting--or "dividing up," we might say-- what we perceive with our senses.

These categories change over time, and these changes have a lot to do with how political and cultural power make themselves felt in different historical periods. Rancière is especially interested in the category "art" and the ways it has been redefined; political and cultural power have had a lot to do with defining the category of "art," or "good art," or "important art," of course, as any number of Marxists and other historically/sociologically-minded critics have pointed out.

These analyses ordinarily find that art reflects/reproduces the assumptions of the prevailing hegemonic power, but Rancière argues that art can also anticipate, in a John the Baptist precursor-like way, shifts in political and cultural power that may be in the offing. What's great about this (to my mind) is that art is not just a superstructural element dictated by the nature of the base, no longer the tag-along little brother trying to catch up with the prevailing mode of production, but is actually in the driver's seat occasionally. (How's that for an ungainly set of mixed metaphors?)

Art, according to Rancière, has had three great historical dispensations in the west: the "régime éthique," roughly the ancient and medieval eras, the "régime représentatif," roughly the early modern period, and the "régime esthéthique," roughly the period of the French Revolution to the present.

Rancière does not have a lot that's interesting to say about the first two--the "regime of the ethical" (if I may so translate) amounts to a few maxims from Aristotle and Plato, the "regime of representation" is not much more than essence of Boileau. You won't get much help from Rancière if you are trying to understand the continuing power of Dante, Milton, Racine, or Swift. But when it comes to the 19th, the 20th, and the present centuries the explanatory power of his theory is overwhelming. Why do attempts to draw a line between the modern and the post-modern always end in a jumble of squiggles? Pick up on some Rancière, and you'll know.

As to how my experiment worked out--Rancière is clearer in French, but takes me much longer to read, so I expect to go back to the translation for the one that just appeared in English.  Which looks great, by the way.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

D. T. Max, _Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace_

THIS IS A fine, serviceable biography. Max seems to have done a thorough job of the interviewing and the legwork the project required; he conveys an idea of the importance of Wallace's work without going overboard in summarizing or describing the work; he is candid about Wallace's shortcomings without sensationalizing them or doing a hatchet job on the dead man's reputation.  He writes clearly and gracefully.  My recurring thought was, "wow, this is good, this will certainly do until the definitive life comes along."

But then I thought--will a definitive life, in fact, be coming along? Do American academics still go in for that sort of thing? Way back in the 1960s and 1970s, writing the definitive life of a canonical writer was one way to get to the top of the profession--Richard Ellmann, Walter Jackson Bate, Leon Edel, R. W. B. Lewis, and so on.  But High Theory came along, and pfft, the road to prizes and named professorships lay elsewhere. Paul De Man, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler...no one like that was going to put ten years into writing the definitive life of anybody.

Things were different in Britain--lots of outstanding biographers of writers: Hilary Spurling, Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, Jenny Uglow, Claire Tomalin--but I don't think any of them were primarily academics. The only great writer's biography of recent vintage by an honest-to-god academic that I can think of off the top of my head is Brian Boyd's life of Nabokov...and he's Australian, I believe.

All due applause to Lisa Jarnot (Robert Duncan) and Mark Scroggins (Louis Zukofsky), but since they are poets, I don't think of them as full-fledged academics, exactly, though I certainly appreciate their excellent biographical work.

In short--unless the wind changes (and Lisa Cohen's staggeringly great All We Know may be the creaking of the weathervane), the old doorstop academic definitive life of a writer may be as gone as the passenger pigeon. There may never be one about Wallace--to say nothing of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al.

Well, we do have the Max, so it's a very, very good thing that it is as good as it is. Rather more interesting (more new info, perhaps) on the pre-Jest years than the post-, but if you, like me, are someone who cares about Wallace, Max's book is well worth your money and  your time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lisa Cohen, _All We Know: Three Lives_

A NOTABLE BOOK of 2012, according to the New York Times, but that is putting it mildly--All We Know is destined to be a classic.

How do I know this? well, here's one indicator. Cohen mentions that Esther Murphy, the first of her three subjects, was the model for a character in Sybille Bedford's first novel, A Visit to Don Otavio, which was based on a trip the two took to Mexico during the time they were lovers. Having fallen a little in love with Esther Murphy, thanks to Cohen (much as Lytton Strachey had gotten me to fall a little in love with Queen Victoria), I repaired to Amazon.com, only to find that used paperbacks of Visit to Don Otavio were fetching sixty dollars apiece. Since used copies of Bedford's other books were going in the 5-10 dollar range, I concluded that (a) quite a few people are reading Cohen's book and (b) all of them decide they must must must get a hold of a copy of Don Otavio. (My tip: try abebooks.com; I found a very reasonably priced one there).

All We Know, as its Steinian subtitle suggests, contains three linked biographies, but the linkage is hard to categorize. The book is not exactly a group biography, like Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men or Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, for although its subjects all knew each other, they were not a collective in any way. As in Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, the relationships of the subjects are in the foreground, but Cohen's book is not built around a thesis, as Rose's is, and is attentive to other aspects of its subjects' lives. Like Strachey's Eminent Victorians, it uses biographies to draw the portrait of an age--but Cohen comes not to knock the busts off their pedestals, but to make us see a world long occluded: the interwar transatlantic lesbian milieu. And does she ever--not by dusting off the brighter stars, like Stein, or Barney, or Barnes, or Hall, but by bringing to life three women who might but for her efforts have easily been forgotten.

The simplest way to describe Esther Murphy is that she was the sister of Gerald Murphy, the model for Fitzgerald's Dick Diver--a slender claim to posterity's attention, but thanks to Cohen we now also know that she was erudite enough to match Edmund Wilson conversationally, could keep listeners enthralled with a party piece on the Hanseatic League, and appears in a novel that is quite a bit more fun than Tender Is the Night.

Mercedes de Acosta was, briefly, a groupie, specializing in Hollywood icons--Garbo, Dietrich--but before you draw any ungenerous conclusions, let's note that there is a special class of groupies--e.g., Anita Pallenberg, Miss Christine, Bebe Buell--whose attentions are crucial to certifying that one is an icon in the first place. If you don't think being maîtresse en titre demands an extraordinary skill-set, you need to think harder about life at courts.

Madge Garland is the one of three who was relatively famous--longtime editor of the British Vogue, the first Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art.  Garland is the subject who makes most visible what may be the closest thing to an explicit thesis that the book has: that modernism was not just the works that wound up in museums and on syllabi, but a temperament that altered perceptions in clothes, in politics, in personal relationships as well as in painting, music, and literature. There are Picasso, Woolf, Stravinsky, et alia, but they also serve who keep the parties lively.

Everything reminds me of Ranciére these days, but he certainly seems germane here, as his conception of the "aesthetic régime" has to do with artists insisting on claiming for art various objects, processes, and subject matter that had previously been, for art, beyond the pale. From our vantage point, it's easier to see that Esther Murphy, who never got any of her projected books written, was creating performance art; that Mercedes de Acosta's archives, including "a blank card that Greta Garbo sent her with flowers," would now seem entirely appropriate in an MFA exhibition; that clothes are art.

Cohen re-establishes the truth, somewhat kicked-about and covered over lately, that biography is an art.  She writes like a goddess. Here's how one of the chapters on Garland opens:

Look at her again: It is London in the early 1950s. She is teetering down the street on enormously high Ferragamo shoes ("as soft an easy to wear as a pair of gloves," she said), draped in a broad-shouldered coat of skunk pelts, drenched in Worth's Je Reviens.

The abrupt imperative opening, the flash of rhyme in "teetering" and "street," the brand names, the perfectly-dropped-in dollop of Garland's own voice with its own little rhyme, the specificity of the brand names, the alliteration of "draped" and "drenched"...all this and "skunk pelts" too.  There is a treat like this on virtually every page. Sometimes several.

This is a book that could re-set the course, like Queen Victoria or Quest for Corvo.  Or so one can hope.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Elizabeth Taylor, _Angel_

THERE IS A LENGTHY list of great mid-century British women novelists whose books tend to go in and out of print in the United States, sometimes available, lots of times not, as I have noticed with chagrin twice yearly when I order books for courses. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sybille Bedford, Olivia Manning, and Molly Keane come to mind, for instance. Thanks to NYRB Classics, we are currently in a window of time when you can actually buy new copies of the books of several of the novelists on that list, as well as a couple by Elizabeth Taylor, a name previously unknown to me. Since to be published by NYRB classics is recommendation enough for me (and since the infallible Hilary Mantel wrote an introduction), I anted up.

Angel is the story of a truly awful child who in due course becomes a truly awful young woman and then a truly awful adult, but one who from childhood has the knack of spinning wish-fulfillment fantasies that resonate with a broad range of listeners/readers. Her education is spotty, her background humble (her mom keeps a small village shop), her default mode cluelessness (since Oxford University Press publishes the Brontës and Thomas Hardy, she sends them her first novel, The Lady Irania), but her novels have the secret ingredient that separates Gone with the Wind or The Fountainhead from the great horde of near-misses. A publisher detects the magical scent, and puts out The Lady Irania; the critics sneer, but the public devours, and Angel is suddenly famous and wealthy.

Famous and wealthy, but also narcissistic, ungrateful, and ever and always clueless. She marries a handsome failed painter and sets up for him a studio in which he never paints, acquires and takes shameless advantage of a loyal and selfless factotum who sincerely believes Angel is a genius, purchases the house she longed for when she was a girl, but never, ever gets a clue.  She has no more idea than anyone else why her novels hit that sweet spot. Time goes by, and gradually they no longer do--she becomes a novelist one's mother reads, then a novelist one's grandmother used to read. After her husband dies, she accidentally comes across evidence that he was seeing someone else; the factotum dies; the dream house succumbs to entropy; utterly alone, the public having moved on long ago, she finally dies as well.

How in the world does Taylor keep us interested in such a character? Deft management of point of view, brisk pacing, lucid prose, an abundance of penetrating details--the whole panoply of the inheritance from Austen, we might say.  That, and keeping it frosty. A comparable American novelist--Anne Tyler, say--would have warmed up even to Angel eventually, given her a break, would have suggested that she had seen the light, etc. But as my spouse, who works with the elderly, says, "People don't become wise and serene just because they're older.  If you were an asshole all your life, odds are you'll still be an asshole when you're elderly." The novelists across the pond tend to do more justice to such bare, uncomfortable truths.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Helen DeWitt, _Lightning Rods_

THE PREMISE OF this novel, on first blush, seems that of an airport newsstand farce, destined to become a direct-to-video movie: an enterprising young man decides the solution to sexual harassment in the workplace is, in a word, prostitution: having specially hired female personnel who receive double pay and who in addition to their ordinary duties are available for anonymous sexual intercourse at set times during the day.

Initial prospects are discouraging, but the entrepreneurial spirit prevails; he finds women willing to work on this basis, a company willing to try "Lightning Rods" (safely discharging potentially dangerous sexual energy, you see), and after a few struggles and unanticipated problems, the business  is sailing into profitability.

Knowing only that much, you would expect a lot of bawdy humor in the first half, then a second half where the entrepreneur falls in love with one of the "lightning rods," sees the error of his ways, settles into monogamy, and so on.

But this is Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai and one of the nation's most fiercely intelligent fiction writers, so nothing of the sort happens. Most of the novel is written from the perspective of Joe, the entrepreneur, in a scarily accurate reproduction of motivational-speaker-ish business talk (e.g., the title of first section, "Failure Is Always the Best Way to Learn")--so relentlessly upbeat and so intent on solving problems, meeting challenges, overcoming barriers and the like that all the moral and ethical questions of the business are kept well out of sight. You would have to go back to Swift's "Modest Proposal," I think, to find another speaker so wholly attuned to some aspects of his subject and so utterly blind to certain others.

DeWitt shows a perfect ear for the classic rhetorical moves of the business profile--the ominous-minor-chord chapter ending, for instance, setting the stage for the next challenge to be met ("In fact, his problems were just beginning").  She is a past master at the Jaw-Dropping Prolepsis:

What he didn't realize was that all that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind would one day lead directly to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Years later, when Renée was making constitutional history as a Supreme Court Justice, she was sometimes asked to identify the thing that had made the single biggest contribution to her career.

Since the novel is satirical, we ought not to expect DeWitt to come up with "characters we care about," to adopt a phrase from my students, but DeWitt nonetheless conjures up some compelling singularities here: Roy, the M&M-peanut-popping human resources officer who accidentally discovers what his superiors have put into place at the office and doesn't know whether he can trust his eyes; perfectionist Renée, unflappable Lucille; even Joe becomes individualized for us when he makes it his mission to develop the adjustable-height office toilet.

I found myself laughing often, but as with "A Modest Proposal," you feel like you're laughing all the way up to the edge of an abyss. For most of the novel, you are (as it were) seeing the world through the eyes of capital, and it's outlandish until you realize how much of our world this perspective explains.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

H. P. Lovecraft, _At the Mountains of Madness_

I USUALLY AVOID genre fiction, but I have heard/read about Lovecraft so often that I decided I should read one. He's even in the Library of America now, and if he can keep company with Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Chandler, he's worth a try, right?

So I tried him on a recent flight--this novel comes in at just about 100 pages, so it seemed a good bet.

Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid.

The setting is an antarctic expedition. A scouting group transmits reports of an astonishing discovery--the remains of a wholly unknown species--then falls silent. A second group sets out and finds the camp of the scouting group, who have almost all been horribly killed. Looking for the single possible survivor, they come across the ruins of an abandoned city, built long ago by an ancient non-human race, presumably extinct, but no (spoiler alert!)... some have survived (!), and it was these survivors who, once thawed, killed the scouting party (!!) unless they were killed by the even worse slave-race this non-human society created to do their dirty work, the Shuggoth (!!!).

According to my edition's introduction, by China Miéville--incidentally, much more interesting than the novella itself--Lovecraft is more famous for his mood and atmosphere than for his plots. The plot of At the Mountains of Madness, to my mind, is not that interesting, and the mood and atmosphere I found positively irritating, due to what I think of as Adjective Over-reach.

My composition students often fall into Adjective Over-reach. For instance, they assume that if they write, "It was an amazing trip," the reader will be duly amazed. The poor lonely adjective "amazing" is expected to all by itself, without further detail,  affect the reader as overpoweringly as the writer him- or herself was affected by the trip. But, when you come down to it, "amazing" amazes no one. You have to give the reader more than that if you hope to amaze, or even convey that you were yourself amazed.

Lovecraft too seems to expect adjectives to get the whole job done.  For instance: "The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie." H. P. is not giving us readers a lot to work with here; the buildings are big, dark, made of masonry, and they don't look like anything we have ever seen. He's hoping to give us a chill by throwing in "grotesque," "monstrous," and "sinister," but, like "amazing," such words only name an effect they had on an observer without giving us a clue as to why he was so affected. Even the key nouns here--"aggregations," "perversions," "extremes," "bizarrerie"--give us nothing sensory at all, nothing to see, hear, touch. If I were Lovecraft's editor, I would have told him to take it down to "masonry" and start again from there.

This is exactly why I can't read Mark Danielewski, by the way. He is the contemporary Adjective-Overreacher par excellence.

I did get a chuckle, though, when a few pages later Lovecraft mentioned "geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name," among them "shafts with odd bulbous enlargements." A shaft with an...odd bulbous enlargement? Hmm, I bet Euclid, or anybody, could find a name for that one.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sam Lipsyte, _The Fun Parts_

OUR CUP RUNNETH over--new story collections by George Saunders and by Sam Lipsyte, separated by mere weeks.

Saunders, as noted in LLL a little while back, seems somewhat mellowed to me, but Lipsyte's characters remain the underachieving, unassimilable, unprepossessing, still-sort-of-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better men that populate HomeLand and The Ask. They are also still hilarious, still compellingly articulate, still occasionally capable of candid self-assessement between bouts of delusion. Four of these stories--the New Yorker ones--I had read before, but they were all just as good, maybe better, the second time around.

Lipsyte's collection of not-quite-together males who are nonetheless capable of fascinating us with their rhetorical performance set me to wondering where they would fall on the Roiphe Index.

At least some of you, I imagine, recall Katie Roiphe's NYTBR essay of I think four years ago, praising the oft-condemned male characters of Roth, Updike, Bellow, and Mailer for their no-apologies sexual swagger:

There is in these scenes rage, revenge and some garden-variety sexism, but they are — in their force, in their gale winds, in their intelligence — charismatic, a celebration of the virility of their bookish, yet oddly irresistible, protagonists. As the best scenes spool forward, they are maddening, beautiful, eloquent and repugnant all at once.

By contrast, in Roiphe's eyes, the male characters of the current hegemonic American male novelists--Eggers, Franzen, Wallace, Chabon--seemed a bit over-polite, unassertive...wimpy, in effect.

So, what of Lipsyte's characters, brazen in their Guyishness? Would Lipsyte's male characters, in their sneaking off to get stoned, their addiction to games, their bluffing, their readiness to lie and their reliance on bullshit when trouble looms, count as "maddening, beautiful, eloquent, and repugnant all at once"? 

I'm guessing Roiphe's answer would be "no." Or even "NO!"  But why not? I, for one, would much rather hang out with one of Lipsyte's narrators than with, say, Rabbit Angstrom. They seem a lot more fun, and they are undeniably more verbally ingenious.