Loads of Learned Lumber

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.