Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 13, 2014

David Shields, _How Literature Saved My Life_

IN ONE WAY, this book belongs to that narrow and in some respects self-indulgent genre that includes Jim Bouton's I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life, and Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound--the genre, that is, of books about the fallout of having written a somewhat scandalous bestseller (Ball Four, Fear of Flying, and Carnovsky, the fictional shadow of Portnoy's Complaint).

Shields's previous book, Reality Hunger, was not an enormous bestseller, exactly, but it was much discussed (including here at LLL, December 30, 2010), and was sort of scandalous both in technique (the larger part of it was an assemblage of quotations) and in argument (the novel, for the present, is an exhausted form). Reality Hunger got loads of positive attention (deservedly, I think), but whenever I brought it up in my limited circle of acquaintance, people seemed pissed off about it, especially if they had not read it.

For example, something over a year ago or so Mark Greif gave a lecture here in the town where I live, broadly on the topic of how responsive we are to Traces of the Real and that sort of thing. The argument reminded me of some aspects of Shields's, so in the question period, I asked what he thought of Reality Hunger. I was quite a ways away, almost in the back row, but I swear I saw him wince. He quickly began putting as much distance between himself and Shields as he could, insisting that while their arguments seem similar, they are in fact quite different, principally insofar as he thinks novels are perfectly okay.

So I can understand that Shields now feels obliged--perhaps as, in a different realm, Derrida did--to point out that he is not some rampaging, ravaging Hun putting literary culture to fire and sword and wantonly defaming everything good people value and cherish. Roughly the first half of this book is about how important writing and reading have been to him for virtually his whole life. See? I'm not so scary as all that, he seems to be saying.

In the second half, though, he returns, not-ready-to-make-nice fashion, to the argument that, at the moment, what is going on in non-fiction writing is distinctly more interesting than what is going on in novel writing, even though novel-writing retains its place at the top of the prestige-heap, remains the kind of writing a real writer supposedly ought to be doing. On pp. 141-56 there is even a list of some fifty-five non-novels (or idiosyncratic novels, like Moby-Dick and Á la recherche) to make a kind of case-by-example.

Since I already mostly agreed with Shields, this book did not have a lot of impact on me, but it did have  some pithy provocations ("The novel was invented to access interiority"--wrong, but interesting), the list of "fifty-five works I swear by" had some great tips, and it does praise Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, which I keep trying to get people to read.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bradford Tice, _Rare Earth_

ONLY VERY RARELY these days does a book of poems put me in mind of James Merrill, but this one did.  The social milieu evoked is very different--there is a poem in here about driving around in the back of Tice's dad's pickup, on the lookout for aluminum cans they can sell for seven cents per pound, a circumstance one can not even begin to imagine the young James Merrill in--but there is nonetheless something of the pre-epic-ambitions Merrill here.

There is the iambic pentameter cadence, for one thing, that lingers even though the poems tend not to be mechanically metrical.  There is the elaborate syntax, packed with subordinate clauses and absolute phrases. There is the attention to the play of light on surfaces, soft and glowing on woven ones, gleaming on metallic ones. And there is the music of the lines, a sound that gets through to you sooner than the sense of the lines does, and stays with you longer:

           the fields are banshee-dressed;
ice glinting in the ape of stars.


Along this spine of iron, slag glistens in lots of stone--
cinder-like the waste of earth when everything of use 
is melted away.

Rare Earth is Tice's first book, and a lot of it is about classic coming of age themes: memories of his childhood, of his parents and grandmother, of discovering his sexuality, of falling in love. One highlight is "Silicone," a sequence of ten sonnets juxtaposing the speaker's accompanying a transexual friend to the Silicone Ball with his reaching a watershed moment with a lover who insists, "Even gay men / should act like men."

As with Merrill, one sometimes begins to feel that the poems may be a little too civilized, a little too well-behaved, but as counterweights we have ten poems, each of ten unrhymed couplets, in the voices of various demons and devils. In the devil poems, which are spaced throughout the volume, Tice conjures up a voice startlingly different from that of most of the other poems--older ("I was here at the beginning"), wickeder ("I have slept with all of your women"), full of ominous announcements ("Once I was unique, // and for this I was wronged") and curt, mystifying imperatives ("Send me back").

There's a richness in Tice's language that we get too rarely in these austere, low-cholestrol times. I hear Merrill, but perhaps the truer source lies farther back: "In the summer of my sixteenth year, I fell in love with Auden." I was twenty-eight when it happened, but I read that line and thought, "Me, too."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Renata Adler, _Speedboat_

ALTHOUGH IT WAS, indeed, the NYRB Classics reprint that inspired me to read this, it so happened I already owned a copy, picked up at a garage sale in the Chicago suburbs in the mid-1980s for, I think, a dollar.

It's a first edition, second printing, from 1976 or 1977, I suppose; to judge from the book's spine, its original purchaser never got past the first dozen pages. We've all been there, no? A book gets an avalanche of rave reviews or wins a prize, we buy a copy, congratulating ourselves for making the effort to keep up with cultural developments, find the opening pages tough sledding, give up without ever admitting to ourselves that we are giving up, and then some years later the book is in a box at a garage sale, along with Diet for a Small Planet and a Jane Fonda workout tape.

Which may go to explain why the book feels like a road not taken. In 1976, one could have read Speedboat thinking that in ten or twenty years time most novels would be like this--but no such luck. Is there, I wonder, an alternate universe a few clicks to one or the other side of ours where the author every American woman writer born after 1970 reveres is not Joan Didion, but Renata Adler? And is there, I wonder, a way to get there?

Like Didion (like Nora Ephron, for that matter), Adler did her apprentice work not in an MFA program but as a journalist, so like Didion's, her writing carries the feeling that she has been places and seen things and met people. Like The White Album, Speedboat is about the hangover that tightened like a C-clamp on the national temples after the intoxication of the 1960s (though we are on the East Coast in Adler, not the West). Adler's prose, like Didion's, is quick, graceful, knowing, edged. But there are also here a lot of qualities one doesn't often find in Didion--humor, audacity, self-awareness, sexiness--and that one wishes we had a little more of nowadays.  (Actually, maybe we do have enough self-awareness--hold that order.)

It could be a novel composed of short stories--one of its chapters won a short story prize--except that these chapters don't read like classic Munro-style short stories, but rather like short stories composed of short-short stories, or what might have been called "vignettes" once, arranged in discontinuous, disjunctive collage fashion. You have to be very alert to catch the narrator's name--it's Jen Fain, apparently--and there are only a handful of names that recur at all (Aldo, Jim). Each chapter has a kind of center of gravity (a setting, a time period) but no story line, per se, nor is there a lot in the way of obvious development from chapter to chapter, or from beginning to end. But every sentence counts, every episode lands somewhere new. It's a really, really good book.

It's a novel that may be a lightly disguised memoir, one suspects, its journalist/teacher narrator a doppelgänger of Adler herself, its characters quickly recognizable to anyone who happened to share her milieu. In that alternate universe, no doubt there is a richly annotated critical edition for classroom use, identifying who the model of each character was.  If I ever acquire a copy, the first thing I'm checking is whether Manley DuBois is Truman Capote.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chris Ware, _Building Stories_

THE NOW-FAMILIAR TERM "graphic novel" has a kind of special pleading to it, avoiding as it does the words "comics," thus distancing the work in question from its real historical antecedents (Krazy Kat, Carl Barks), and claiming kinship with a genre whose legitimacy is long-established and secure, even though the work in question is not much like a novel. Is Maus a novel? Fun Home? Persepolis? Great as these books are, why do we feel we can only honor them by calling them something they are not?

Chris Ware's stuff, however, does seem to be in dialogue with the novelistic tradition, in the present instance even more so than was the case with Jimmy Corrigan.

Aside from the obvious point that Building Stories is fiction, it is fiction about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, the very thing that enables us to discern the novel as distinct from the romance.  The (unnamed, so far as I could tell) main character of Building Stories is unusual, true, in having had a leg amputated as a child, but most of what happens to her--an affair that ends abruptly and painfully, anxiety over her abilities, marriage and a child, the loss of her parents, acquiring a house--is as ordinary as it gets.  Yet Ware knows, as Defoe, Austen, Flaubert, Woolf, and Wallace knew, that the ordinary well-scrutinized ceases to be ordinary, becomes revelatory, prophetic. The real is stranger, more powerful, more dazzling than anything in romance.

There's the handling of narrative time, in which memory and anticipation, and the awareness of roads not taken, turns every moment into a cross section of geological strata.  Since we get the woman's life not in any straightforward chronological order, but in the order in which we happen to pick up the several elements of Building Stories, each panel carries some gravity from panels we have already seen or have not yet seen, with effects almost Proustian when everything works.

And the variety of the elements--some pieces like a newspaper, some like books, some like pamphlets, one like a gameboard--constitutes a kind of Bakhtinian comics heteroglossia. As the novel is a discourse composed of many discourses, so Building Stories is a comic that draws on all the ways comics come to us.

That Ware understands how we come to comics, how they come to us, is the project's greatest triumph. Like Joyce, who did new things with the novel by understanding with extraordinary intimacy how novels worked and where we as readers could be led, Ware knows in his bones how the eye-path of a comics reader works, what the visual logic of comics is, and uses that knowledge to coax us out to places where new illuminations can occur.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Denise Duhamel and David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2013_

IN RECENT YEARS, I have taken to reading BAP not just to enjoy the poetry (which I usually do) but to see how far the aesthetic of the poems selected conforms to that of the poems of its editor. Hard to that approach in the present instance, however, as Duhamel contains multitudes--or, at least, she's stylistically unpredictable. It is hard to say a poem is like a Duhamel poem, when Duhanel poems are so often unlike other Duhamel poems.

One can say, however, the contents for 2013 have the same range and versatility that Duhamel's poetry does: funny, but sometimes in a scary way; edgy, but usually in a friendly way; formally deft, but idiosyncratic in their development; sometimes arch, sometimes disarmingly honest.  Some of the volume's most... Duhamelian poems were among my favorites, actually--John Koethe's "Eggheads" ("In the fifties people who were smart / And looked smart were called eggheads"), A. Van Jordan's "Blazing Saddles" ("What's so funny about racism / is how racists never get the joke"), and Mitch Sisskind's "Joe Adamczyk," the story of a bartender who in late middle age discovers philosophy ("The vigor with which he / Once devoured Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels / Now energized his attack on Gottlob Frege's / Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik, which he read / Using Langensheidt's German-English dictionary").

I was also struck by Anthony Madrid's "Once upon a Time," with its wacky riffing on Prince's "When Doves Cry":

Maybe I 'm just like my mother.
She's never satisfied.
Maybe I'm just like my father.
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Maybe I'm just like my cat:
Licking invisible balls.
Perhaps you'll reflect upon that,
Next time you're screening your calls.

Turns out, though, Madrid himself doesn't really care much for "Once upon a Time."  In his note on the poem, he writes, "I sent it to Poetry as a joke. And now it's in this thing, and people are going to think this is how I write." Interesting problem, no?  Madrid probably got a boatload of congratulations for making BAP, and every compliment was perhaps like that paper cut on your finger that bangs against something every few minutes all day long.

Quite a few periodicals represented that I had not so much as heard of before: Fifth Wednesday Journal,  Harpur Palate, Vitrine, which suggests to me that Duhamel took her job seriously, and good for her. The most intriguing one, though, is Gulfshore Life, which sounds like one of those tourism magazines that come free with your hotel stay. I myself would not page through such a thing looking for poems, but apparently Duhanel did, and she found a really nice one, Jesse Millner's "In Praise of Small Gods."  The poem's gentle, lyrical gratitude might get a rough ride in the average of MFA workshop, but it worked for me:

I praise this morning.
I praise drainage ditch and mosquitoes,
I praise the tiny insect stings,
which argue for my own life.