Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 30, 2014

The YA Question, Part 1: John Green, _The Fault in Our Stars_

THIS PAST SPRING, I taught for the eighth or ninth time a course called "Modern Novel." As usual, for the final paper, the students had to read, research, and write on a recent (since 2000) novel of their own choosing. No student had before proposed reading a Young Adult novel, but this year four of them did, nominating The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and this one.

I decided to let all four projects proceed, although I asked the students to include in their papers discussion of the question of YA's relationship to other literary fiction. Basically, they all decided YA was OK.

The question has been circulated a good deal lately, thanks to Ruth Graham at Slate, who took the not-all-that-OK position, and the many people who responded to her. Since, in the line of professional duty, I actually did read The Fault in Our Stars, I figured I was qualified to ring in.

The novel is the first person narrative of a 16-year-old girl who has cancer. In a support group, she meets a boy her age who is in remission after a leg amputation. They fall in love, partly out of shared fandom, both being devotees of a (fictional) novel, An Imperial Affliction. Mystified by the novel's lack of  a proper ending, they use a Make-A-Wish Foundation sort of gift to go to Amsterdam to interview its famously reclusive and curmudgeonly author. No luck on that front, but they do consummate their relationship. However, it turns out the boy's cancer has returned; the last third or so of the book is about his dying.

I would say this is certainly an above-average YA novel. The narrator had her appealing side--she's a reader, obviously, and she was attractively impatient with cliché and even snarky about the support group's drumbeat of positive thoughts. I also appreciated the message that love, even when brief, temporary, and abruptly terminated, even with its promise of inevitable pain, is worthwhile; "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all," as Tennyson wrote, or, as Eliot wrote of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," "by this, and this only, have we existed." As it may not be a good idea for a 14- or 15-year-old to tackle In Memoriam or The Waste Land, it's good to have something like The Fault in Our Stars around.

However--if one is a grown-up, and capable of reading grown-up books, one is better off doing exactly that, methinks. Given that in this brief, temporary, likely to be abruptly terminated life, one has only so much time to read, you should choose wisely how to spend that time. I acknowledge that my position goes against our broad American follow-your-bliss ethos, but suppose you had a 40-year-old friend who every day had Froot Loops for breakfast, macaroni and cheese for lunch, and pizza for dinner.  Suppose further this friend got no exercise.

Wouldn't you say, "You can't keep eating like a teenager"? Doesn't that guy (has to be a guy, don't you think?) need to re-evaluate how he follows his bliss?

One has to be mindful of the nourishment one takes in and the exercise one gets, no?

The mind too needs nourishment, and the mind too needs exercise. The adult mind is not going to get what it needs from YA.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hilton Als, _White Girls_

HAVING READ ALS'S reviews here and there for many years, I expected to enjoy this, and some of it I had already read, but I was not at all prepared for anything as ambitious and outside-the-box as the two longer pieces here, "You and Whose Army?" and "Tristes Tropiques."

"You and Whose Army?" seems for a while to be a short story written in the voice of an actress who does vocal overdubs for porn, but then we tumble to the speaker's being Richard Pryor's sister...and then, about the time we realize, "oh, he's re-working Woolf's 'Shakespeare's Sister' passage," we hit a major dismantling of Woolf... and a far from wholly undeserved one, since Woolf has tended to get a free pass on the more rebarbative observations about servants and her Jewish in-laws that show up in her letters and journals. Things only accelerate from there.

Even more inventive and audacious is "Tristes Tropiques," about a... friend? companion? one hardly knows what to designate Als's relationship with the person he calls SL (for "Sir or Lady") in this sustained essay of not quite ninety pages; Als needs that much room to give us the dimensions of this relationship, and by the end of the essay you will know a lot about that relationship while still not having a name tag for it. The references and allusions throughout tend to be esoterically private, completely transparent only to a handful of people, one guesses, but as with James McCourt the insider-liness of the piece somehow manages to be enchanting rather than off-putting.

"Tristes Tropiques" ought to become a stable of ethnic, gender, and sexuality courses all over this land of ours--probably too much to hope for, but who knows?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jim Walsh, _All Over but the Shouting: The Replacements: An Oral History_

ON THE EVIDENCE of this and McNeil's and McCain's superb Please Kill Me, the oral history form admirably suits the task of chronicling the fortunes of the Cool-but-not-Big rock band.

The Cool-vs.-Big dynamic has defined rock music in my lifetime, I would say. In the 1950s, Cool and Big tended to align: Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everlys, Little Richard...all both Cool and Big.  Thanks to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and quite a few others, Cool and Big kept frequent company throughout the 1960s, even though we also saw such Big-but-not-Cool phenomena as Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon at the beginning of the decade and  the Grassroots and Three Dog Night at its end. More importantly, though, the 60s saw the advent of the first important Cool-but-not-Big band, the Velvet Underground.

The rift really opened in the 1970s. In addition to the usual wave of Big-but-not-Cool acts (the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Boston, Peter Frampton), we had an unprecedented wave of the Cool-but-not-Big: Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, the Modern Lovers, Television, Patti Smith.  (The Sex Pistols would make the list in  the USA, but in the UK I gather they were actually pretty big.) The Big-and-Cool category was getting underpopulated. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, perhaps Pink Floyd. (Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, it seems to me, only became Cool later. Critical respect for them was sparse at the time.)

By the 1980s, Cool and Big had essentially divorced. Prince was Cool and Big; Madonna, possibly, though the only Madonna song I myself love is "Ray of Light." Some basically Cool 1980s bands hit the jackpot in the 1990s (REM, U2), but by and large the Cool Bands--Husker Du, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, and the irreplaceable Replacements--came not within miles of being Big. (Partly because a Cool band that betrayed any glimmer of a wish to be Big got pilloried in print by Steve Albini or Gerard Cosloy or some other self-appointed guardian of integrity.)

So back to my first point: would anyone ever want an oral history of Bon Jovi, which would be from the outset a tale of ambition, aesthetic compromises, opportunistic positioning, and eventual poisoned success?


But an oral history that included the one cool record store in town, the bands practicing in basements, the xeroxed homemade flyers and zines, the van knee-deep in empty beer cans, the sticky-floored dives with a two dollar cover, the wing-and-a-prayer record labels...and, crucially, the passion? That is a story made for oral history, my friends, and Walsh puts together a nice one here. It was a story happening in much the same way all over the country, as Michael Azerrad's beautiful Our Band Could Be Your Life illustrates, but the Minneapolis version has an appeal uniquely its own.

Who knew Slim Dunlap was so thoughtful and articulate?  He is the real revelation here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn, _At Last_

BEFORE WE PROCEED to what is now St. Aubyn's next-to-most-recent novel--I found the normally reliable John Banville annoying when reviewing the most recent (Lost for Words) in NYRB.  Banville keeps his distance, for instance, from the praise St. Aubyn has won from his fellow novelists:

Edward St. Aubyn is a fine writer, much respected by his contemporaries. The five Patrick Melrose novels—the first of which, Never Mind, was published in 1992, and the last, appropriately titled At Last, in 2012—have received remarkable praise within the guild and without.

Calling St. Aubyn "lavishly gifted" at one point, he complains about "an impatient and unfinished quality" and "a not quite satisfactory mélange of styles and artistic attitudes," and so on. 

The new one is about a Booker-like novel prize, so perhaps they asked Banville  to write about it because he won a Booker…? (Cf. Anne Enright getting the invitation to review from the New York Times.)  Whatever it was, it's too bad. St. Aubyn deserves better.

Banville mentions Waugh, an almost inevitable touchstone for St. Aubyn's reviewers, only in order to get in a cheap shot:

St. Aubyn is regarded by many, including himself, perhaps, as the direct heir of Evelyn Waugh, and indeed, the Patrick Melrose series has many extended bravura passages of heartless comedy worthy of the master. But if St. Aubyn is no Proust, he is no Waugh, either.

Even though the Waugh comparison immediately suggest itself, At Last reminded me most of a different English novelist--Christopher Isherwood. First of all, there is the poise and control of the prose; Isherwood does not have quite the reputation in that department that Waugh does, but he deserves to, and he is just as witty as Waugh, too, when he chooses.

More crucially, Isherwood and Waugh are both insightful in their satire of the class in which they were raised, but Isherwood is more honest and intelligent about the way it fucked him up than Waugh is, and it is here--that insight into one's own fucked-up-ness--that St. Aubyn rivals Isherwood and surpasses Waugh. Again as in Isherwood, the intelligence that permits the insight into one's own fucked-up-ness cuts both ways, as it also slices and dices whatever suggests itself as a remedy to the fucked-up-ness; having seen through one's own problems, one also sees through whatever is sham or hypocritical about religion, or therapy, or philosophy…but then, in both Isherwood and St. Aubyn (and, I think, e.g., in Infinite Jest) the intelligence is also keen enough to understand its own limitations, self-justifications, subterfuges, and  the like.  Waugh almost got there once, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, but not the way Isherwood does in A Meeting at the River or St. Aubyn does in the final chapter of At Last, which is a strong conclusion to an amazing series of novels.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thomas Pynchon, _Inherent Vice_

IT TOOK A while, as I was reading this, to decide whether I was enjoying it. In the early going, it seemed to be an (early-ish) Jonathan Lethem novel set in California. Eventually it occurred to me that Jonathan Lethem novels could be seen as Thomas Pynchon novels set in New York City, at which point I decided, well, okay, let's just have a good time.

To venture a broad generalization, I am going to say that through Inherent Vice (I have not read Bleeding Edge), Pynchon novels have tended to be either encyclopedic, immersive projects that span continents and embrace historico-philosophical themes (V., Gravity's Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against  the Day) or relatively focused exercises in California Noir that tried to understand the 1960s:  The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and now this one.

The novel is set in 1970, and private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello...actually, there seems little point to summarizing the plot. It has the usual noir elements: mysterious clients, sleazy clubs, cars, cigarettes, low-pH wise-cracking dialogue, sexual opportunities, fisticuffs, deepening revelations, twists, betrayals, even the scene where a bad guy tells the bound hero, slated for execution, some important plot points and then leaves him alone for a few minutes in which he can engineer an escape. Behind it all, corrupted authority--"the Mob behind the Mob"--which indicates the true Pynchonian theme uniting his longer and his shorter projects: the Paranoid American Sublime.

Accordingly, we can read Inherent Vice as a pendant (admittedly, at 369 pages, a heavy pendant) to Against the Day, asking the larger novel's question about why some historical possibilities thrived and others withered, about what became of the possible liberation that was the blighted twin of the atrocity-ridden 20th century, but asking it about the 1960s. What happened to the 1960s? Heroin and COINTELPRO, which are linked in the plot in the character of Coy Harlingen.

Doc Sportello cannot un-do the wreckage of the 1960s, but Marlowe-like he does what he can, gets Coy back together with his wife and child and off the crypto-fascists' payroll. And in the novel's beuatiful coda, he follows an impromptu community of taillights through the fog blanketing the freeway, in an image that infallibly called to mind for me the close of Auden's "September 1, 1939." We must love one another or die. Amen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shirley Jackson, _The Haunting of Hill House_

AN APPROPRIATELY ODD kind of convergence led me to this.

First, my mother, who died a little over twenty years ago, really loved Shirley Jackson. I never read any, though, save that middle school standby "The Lottery"--just wasn't that curious.  Still, when we packed up the paperbacks at my parents' house a year ago, most of them to return to the Planned Parenthood booksale from whence years ago they had come, I set aside We Have Always Lived in a Castle, thinking it might be a way of keeping up ties with Mom, in a way. (I still haven't read that one, though.)

Second, this past semester I supervised an independent study on the Gothic--Walpole, Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and so on up to Dracula--not because I know a lot about the Gothic, but just because I was willing to help the three Gothic-hungry students out. Their enthusiasm made an impression on me. I'm still not all that fond of the Gothic, but I did have a chance to see what its devotees find exciting about it.

Third: a few weeks ago we were visiting Elder Daughter in her new home in Tennessee. Wherever we go, I insist on visiting the local bookstores, which in this case took us to a large used book store called McKay's. Browsing the fiction shelves, my eye fell on this. Things seemed to click into place. Okay, I thought, this is the right time to read this.

I started that afternoon, and finished a couple of days later--obviously, it worked for me.

For one thing, Jackson's prose is really good--which cannot be said of the prose of Radcliffe, Lewis, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker, or even Mary Shelley or Poe, if you ask me, however inventive their imaginations are. Jackson's writing is lean, undecorated, its music subtle.

For another, the book passes the Bechdel test, thanks to the relationship between Eleanor (our point-of-view character) and Theodora.  Theodora's resources and strategies for attracting and holding male attention are multiple and effective, Eleanor's few and feeble, but the rivalry one expects to develop out of this discrepancy never quite materializes as they find each other somewhat more interesting than the available male company.

Finally, like my other favorites in this vein (James's Turn of the Screw and Blake Butler's There Is No Year), The Haunting of the Hill House never does explain what the hell is going on, what the source of the various noises and disturbances and psychic disintegrations is. Explanations, I find, always disappoint. Puzzles are more interesting than solutions. We never do learn what is haunting Hill House, and that's just as it is should be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Paisley Rekdal, _Animal Eye_

FUNNY THING, GIVEN Paisley Rekdal's age and background, but as I read this book I kept thinking of Seamus Heaney.

Consider the opening of "Ballard Locks":

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
      upon ladder of them thrashing
through froth, herds of us climb
     the cement stair to watch
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
     so much twisted light
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles: [...]

Note the virtuoso command of syntax, the compound-adjectives, the scrutiny of wildlife--the wildlife in Animal Eye is often so turbulent and sharp-toothed as to be more that of Ted Hughes than that of Heaney, but nevertheless we're out there where the plants and animals are, as Heaney so often was.

Something about the play of the consonants puts me in mind of Heaney, too, in the above lines or here:

[...] like a spray of feathers from the bird
that has begun feasting now on the apples
in a corner of the orchard. Its dark head darts
into the branches for the fruit before the bird rises
again, flies off, its wings shuddering their streaks of blue
that fade into the darkness.

As in Heaney, we hear the rhythm of that old accentual-syllabic music:

[...] otherwise how would the green
     or red or blue body fly,
how hover like the compass point
     over the hyssop's

sweet stamens?

That's from "Dragonfly," which you ought to find just so that you can read it aloud.

Sometimes I thought, "this is darker than Heaney," but Heaney could get dark, as in "Punishment," with its fatal triangle of young adulteress, murderous crowd, and poet-observer-voyeur, its mobile identifications; and oddly enough, one of the more striking poems here, "Yes," has its own triangle, its own take on adultery and punishment, its own mobile points of view.

Of the two long poems here, "Wax" seems, in its conjunction of art and illness, more Mark Doty circa My Alexandria than Heaney, but the versatile and inventive modernization of terza rima and honest self-appraisal of "Easter in Lisbon" took me right back to Station Island.

I re-read some Heaney when he died a while back, but I don't know that I have looked at him again since. But I should.  This whole book somehow served to remind me vividly how much I loved his work. Probably not at all what Rekdal had in mind, but I feel as though she has done me an important favor.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, _Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine_

CRITCHLEY IS A philosopher and Webster a psychoanalyst, and their book on Hamlet scants the ponderously large amount of work done on the play by professional literary scholars, as C. & W. acknowledge in an apology-cum-vaunt in their closing paragraph:

It is not without bucketfuls of shame that we write about Hamlet. The Shakespeare Industry is heavy with cultural gravitas, to say nothing of the mountainous literature that exists on Hamlet alone. It should take a scholar a lifetime to master it. We are but inauthentic amateurs, like some of those we have undertaken to work with in this book. [...] We write as outsiders, for shame, about Shakespeare, with the added shame of doing so as husband and wife with the implicit intent of writing about love.

Do you get the feeling they actually think rather highly of themselves, in spite of all the shame, etc.? After all, the fellow "inauthentic amateurs" that they "work with in this book" include Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt, with cameos by Bataille, Schopenhauer, Mallarmé, Adorno... that kind of amateur. In short, C. & W. are way too in with the cool kids to be hanging out with a bunch of dryasdust Shakespeare scholars.  I mean... euuuh.

Which is too bad, because one can think of literary critics who would have gotten them a lot farther along in their arguments than does, say, Schmitt, whose speculations about the play as a political allegory are as dazzling as soap bubbles and about as sturdy. Janet Adelman. Marjorie Garber. Stephen Greenblatt.  (Greenblatt does get a participial phrase on p. 66.  One wonders if their editor insisted.)

Still, though somewhat grudgingly, I have to admit the book is worth reading, for they draw heavily on a new and apparently unpublished translation, by Cormac Gallagher, of Lacan's seminar "Desire and its Interpretation"--significantly different, they say, from the version that appeared in Yale French Studies in the 1970s. I tend to think of Lacan as someone who has passed his sell-by date, but the chapters in which Critchley & Webster engage Lacan on the play (basically, a latter half of Part Two) are enlightening.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mars-Jones on Roth: WTF?

I ALWAYS READ Adam Mars-Jones's pieces in the London Review of Books, even when I am not at all curious about the book he is reviewing, because he is consistently intelligent and often provocative.  I also just like the way he writes. I had been waiting to read his review of Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound, which appeared in January, until I had read the book, so I only got to it a few days ago. The review is lengthy, eight 4-columned LRB pages, more about Roth's career than about Pierpont's book, and, it seems to me, utterly wrong on a number of points.

Okay, my seeing M-J as wrong probably simply has to do with my liking Roth's novels much more than Mars-Jones does. This can happen with one's favorite critics.

But a number of pronouncements in Mars-Jones review seem bizarrely ungrounded. His final sentence, for instance:

   Even allowing for some overcast days, Philip Roth's writing life since Sabbath's Theater represents an extraordinary Indian summer of creativity, balancing the long strange stretch, becalmed in mid-career, when he tried to deform his raging talent into subtlety.

First of all, I though they called it "St. Martin's summer" over there.  Second, I'm relieved that Mars-Jones was impressed by Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain, at least. But, on the whole--what the fuck?! 

Now, I can see that The Ghost Writer and Patrimony attempt (and achieve) subtlety, even though Zuckerman stands on a copy of Henry James to eavesdrop in the former and a holocaust survivor recounts his sexual escapades in Hitler's Berlin in the latter, but My Life as a Man, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, Operation Shylock...too subtle? Sophisticated, sure, lots of metafictional fast-and-loose going on, but has Roth really left his rage, his extravagance, his humor, his willingness to go too far out of these books? The author who lets his fictional alter ego get the last word in his autobiography, who comes up with "Diasporism," with Alvin Pepler, with Mordecai Lippman, was straining and failing to achieve subtlety? No.  Nope. No way.

Speaking of Lippman...Mars-Jones is not impressed with Roth's willingness to let various beyond-the-pale characters get up on a soapbox and stay there for pages.

What this method produces in The Counterlife is a gridlock of voices. Only if drama is defined as the grinding together of opposites, each intensified to the highest pitch, does Roth count as an accomplished dramatist. 

"The yoking together of of extreme positions and a cryptic indeterminacy," Mars-Jones goes on to say, is unlikely to "produce either a sophisticated model of the world or a satisfying experience of reading."

Or is it? It strikes me that what Mars-Jones is talking about here is the tension Hegel found in Antigone that made it the greatest of the Greek tragedies, or the polyphony Bakhtin saw in Dostoyevsky. A sophisticated model of the world is exactly what it produces, according to Bakhtin on the novel.

Then there's this: "Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel's flesh." No, they don't. Calvino? Perec? Auster? Any technique can go dead when practiced without imagination, when ham-fistedly imitated, but postmodern "games" only make novels more interesting when a master is playing the game, and the Roth of The Counterlife was such a master. To dismiss this whole approach of fiction so off-handedly is the gesture of a know-nothing, and I still can't quite believe M-J stooped to it.

As for The Plot against America, according to M-J, the "development of the situation" lacks "relentlessness." What, I say again, the fuck? That book was so relentless it scared me into an insomniac night or two. Roth made something that did not happen so believable I was waiting for the knock on the door. If it had been any more relentless, I would have had a stroke.  Maybe you have to live here...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rusty Morrison, _After Urgency_

RUSTY MORRISON'S WORK again shows a gravitational pull towards form here, as in the true keep calm biding its story (LLL, August 4, 2010). All the poems in that book were written in a fixed form created for the occasion of that project; After Urgency contains several such forms, as well as having an overarching symmetrical or chiasmic structure as a volume.

The volume begins and ends with poems called "After urgency," written in couplets, each line with (to my ear) six accented syllables. Of the five sections thus bookended, the first and the fifth have poems written in eight to twelve longish, widely spaced lines, with titles that vary a theme (e.g., "In-solence" and "In-solving" in Part One, "Derivations in agriculture" and "Agriculture of derivatives" in Part Five).

Parts Two and Four have fifteen poems apiece, but the poems share five titles: "Commonplace," "An intersection of leaves not likeness," "After urgency," "Field particulars," and "Aftermath." We go through the series of five titles three times in Part Two, and again three times in Part Four. Additionally, each title-group has its own form.  For instance, all the "Commonplace" poems have four three-line stanzas, the first and fourth usually containing a reasonably ordinary and simple poetic perception, the second and third, inset a little farther, usually bending that perception a bit, questioning it, re-directing it.

Then, in Part Three, a kind of center pivot: a poem in four sections, each section in three two-line stanzas.

What raises the stakes is that, just as the true keeps calm biding its story revolved around the final illness of her father, After Urgency revolves around losing her mother as well. So, on the one hand, we have fairly specific and demanding self-imposed formal restraints--on the other, an unchartable stormfront of inchoate emotion.

The book enacts a kind of drama.  The forms visibly insist on being followed, page after repeating page, but the speaker also objects that the forms are inadequate to the emotions, de-naturing or falsifying them. "How to demand of composition that its contrivance come apart // but leave the pieces intact? // How might I live death all the way to the edge of its form?" one poem asks; another imagines the relief of being "Released from the guilt of order and arrangement." But how can we be released from that guilt, when poetry moves towards form the way water runs downhill, and form always begins to generate its own meanings?-- "perilous, sometimes, to make any motion at all. //Any movement becomes design. // Any design an ethos."

The opening poem places the speaker on a house's threshold, "neither // immersed in nor protected from the suffusion / in the air of nearly imperceptible rainfall," and for much of the volume we are looking out at the natural world, principally skies and trees, for clues or reassurance or just something that seems adequate to the emotion of the moment.  Occasionally we are indoors--Morrison captures with what was for me scary accuracy the feeling of going through the possessions a dead parent has left behind, in an arboreal image that could almost be the nucleus of the book:

I fill cardboard boxes with my mother's things,

which are almost porous to time's passage

through this nearly emptied house.

I stop several times--a form of branching.

Which is also a form of being severed.

Among the oldest of poetic forms is the elegy, with its movement from grief to acceptance, and something like that happens here, but Morrison resists letting the logic of the form overrule the particularity of her feeling. Feelings subside, the normal resumes, but are we really reconciled to our loss?  Maybe not: "What passes for understanding is just the restored anonymities in summer rain." Nonetheless, the world is changed for us, wears a new aspects: "Background is stealing out toward the wood myth, // more treeful now than ever."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Paul Auster, _Winter Journal_

I'M OBVIOUSLY IN summer catching-up mode. Deep catching-up mode, in fact, since this appeared in 2012; in fact, its sequel has already been out for a while.  If you want up-to-date lit talk, you'll just have to go to Bookslut or something.

First question: what do we have here? Despite the title, it does not seem like a journal, exactly, since journals ordinarily range widely and randomly over their topics, and this text seems to stay on the topic of things that happen to bodies, Auster's in particular.  At the same time, it's much looser than a memoir.  Among Auster's other texts, it most reminds me of "The Book of Memory," the second part of The Invention of Solitude: a sort of free essayistic movement around a well-defined constellation of concerns.

Composed, we learn, around the tine of Auster's 64th birthday, the book seems prompted by Auster's own aging; as one eventually has to acknowledge that one is no longer young, so one has eventually to acknowledge that one is no longer middle-aged, either, and that death will be along presently. This is not a new thing for Auster, I would say--The Book of Illusions, Man in the Dark, The Brooklyn Follies, and Travels in the Scriptorium all had something valedictory about them; somehow, Auster has always been about departures, especially the more abrupt and inexplicable ones. But he does introduce some new notes.

For instance, part of the book is about mishaps Auster's body has experienced, auto accidents, near misses, that sort of thing, and one anxiety attack. The anxiety attack occurred in particular circumstances (a phone call from a deeply annoying relative) at the time of Auster's mother's death--and this incident opens up the topic of Auster's mother, a mostly unexplored realm for him. Fathers are a recurring topic in Auster; mothers, not so much, so this is a new note for him, and very much the best thing in the book, I'd say. Quite a few pages on his second marriage, too, which as nearly as I can tell has left little impress on his fiction, perhaps because it has been such a happy one.

Another highlight, for me, was the annotated catalog of places he has lived--a simple list that uncorks long trains of association. An arresting entry:

5. 25 Van Velsor Place; Newark, New Jersey. A two-bedroom apartment not far from Weequahic High School and the hospital where you [Auster refers to himself in the second person throughout] were born, rented by your mother after she and your father separated and then divorced.

Weequahic! It intrigues me that Auster and Roth have roots in the same locale, born fourteen years apart...both Jewish (Auster has more to say about this in Winter Journal than he has before), both deeply influenced by continental writers...presumably they have met, or at least read each other. I found myself asking if Auster's mentioning Weequahic by name (Auster didn't himself go there, sticking with his high school in the suburbs) was a flag waved at the Roth readers out there. Probably not--but for me, it's as if he mentioned Clongowes, which is a real school with a real history, but for me screams Joyce! Weequahic screams Roth! What does Auster think of Roth, Roth of Auster? For some reason, I find myself caring.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wong May, _Superstitions: Poems 1971-1976_

SO, HERE IS an interesting story. A poet born in China, raised in Singapore, but writing in English, publishes three books with a major publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) in the 1970s, but then stops publishing. A young poet, Zachary Schomburg, accidentally comes across her first book in a public library, tracks her down, brings out a new collection 36 years after the poet's previous book. I learned all this from the short interview that Schomburg conducted with Wong May and published in the May issue of The Believer.

That is one hook-y story line, I hope you will agree. I, for one, had to go straight to the Octopus Books website and order my copy of Picasso's Tears. There are few publishers I trust more than Octopus, in any case.

I also thought I might pick up some of Wong May's earlier collections while they were still bargains--but I was late to the party, it seems. I had no luck at all finding her first book, A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, and her second (Reports) and third (this one) were already fetching high-gravity prices. I got this one relatively reasonably, though ($16).

So, here I am, with $40 spent on books by a poet I have not read a word of.  All because of a romantic story of artistic vindication. There's one born every minute, you are probably thinking…

…but it does turn out that Wong May is worth reading. Superstitions arrived in the mail yesterday--a substantial hardbound volume, 135 pages, 7" by 10" (you'd have to be Ashbery to get that kind of presentation from a trade publisher these days), deaccessioned (what a word) from the Salt Lake County LIbrary system--and I immediately sat down with it.

Is it astonishing, revelatory, transformative? Well, I wouldn't go that far. Wong May writes out of the territory that, for me, is broadly defined by the Pound of The Cantos, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis: paratactic, imagistic, engaged in various ways with the physical space of the page, cosmopolitan, chary of explanations. She is well to the left of Pound, though, if the poems here on Victor Jara and the death of Franco are anything to go by, and more a Williams than a Duncan on the visionary/grounded spectrum.

She must have been traveling a lot in these years--the poems are set all over Europe and sometimes in Asia. Glimpses of personal history are few and brief, even though almost all the poems are closely based on her own perceptions; they document not so much her circumstances as her sensibility--its patterns of attention, its varying intensities, its commitments. The actual first-person pronoun does not occur that often, but the sensibility and its voice unify the book.

Among the passages that struck me was this from "Iona, 73":

&          Grace
                     the adjournment of
                           to a later
date               (Who

              vouchsafes this:
All escapes
               being one
being equal

Will,      the will of
                       the vortices

& the hem of spray flung in the sun
             stiff breeze decorous with the smell of thyme

Brecan   Brecan
Gather moss  &   bracken

&       morning to find
            pebbles on the windowsill
                             like eyes
           that hath once shone for
                              St Columba

Effective, no, the way the abstract, slightly bureaucratic diction is suddenly broken by the sea imagery, and the ancient mythic names are placed next to the humble pebbles of the windowsill?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Brenda Shaughnessy, _Our Andromeda_

As I was reading the first half of this, I kept thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Shaughnessy certainly does not sound like Millay or share much with her thematically, so I was at a loss for why the connection kept suggesting itself, but eventually I came up with the hypothesis that like Millay, Shaughnessy has the knack of presenting her own experience on a frequency that many people of her roughly her age and roughly her educational background would find resonant. Without specifically intending to do so, she seems to be speaking of lots of people, as Millay did in the 1920s, or Joni Mitchell did in the 1970s, or Tori Amos in the 1990s.

My impression partly derives, I am guessing, from Shaughnessy's way of ending poems with an aphoristic snap, frequently a rhyming one.  "Miracles" ends this way:

fire out of water, blood out of stone.
We can read us.  We are not alone.

As does "Big Game":

O that roaring, not yet and yet
and not yet dead.

So many fires start in my head.

As does "All Possible Pain":

hanging like the sentenced
under one sky's roof.

But my feelings, well,
they had no such proof.

Do people still read Barbara Herrnstein-Smith on poetic closure?  Probably not. But Shaughnessy's closings convey authority without resorting to pronouncements.

So when, in the closing sections of the book, Shaghnessy marries that authority to close-to-the-bone candor, the blend is potent. The three poems to her younger selves should be mentioned in this regard, but it is above all in the closing title poem, twenty-two pages long and addressed to her son, who suffered a traumatic birth injury with serious and enduring consequences, that she seems to find a way to speak for a whole generation of women while writing about her own very specific and far from typical circumstances. Like Millay, in fact, even though it now takes a special imaginative effort to hear what the 1920s heard in Millay.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Trey Moody, _Thought That Nature_

THERE IS A vein of phenomenology in this, Trey Moody's first book, that reminded me of another recent volume by a young poet that I also liked, Robert Fernandez's Pink Reef; stylistically, as is also the case with Fernandez, Moody tends to zero in rather than zoom out, working in a relatively narrow range, but achieving intensity within it.

Moody's poems begin with something present, something occurring, but the poems' attention tends to bend towards the perceptual apparatus that brought that presence or occurrence before us, and then on to consideration of the awareness in which those perceptions seat themselves. Perceptions occurring in the present line up alongside remembered ones ("What memory performs as opposed to, / say, the sounds outside this window"). The organs of perception themselves are somehow a part of everything that takes place:

                In the history of human suffering
this must be what we meant:
                                      an eye or an ear
replaced with hard clay, or a plum.

We have some ability to affect what occurs, but not such that we can control what occurs:

                                  The river, crystal-clear

between the floorboards, under
my feet, and under your feet, and the way we stand may
or may not alter its course.

Consider the weather: we cannot control it, but we are capable of an infinity of adjustments to it (shelter, clothing); we are both a part of it and apart from it; as the adage famously has it, we can talk about it at any length, but do nothing about it.  Twelve of the pieces in Thought That Nature are titled "A Weather," each a prose poem (although a lot of unpatterned rhyming occurs) carefully noting hot and cold, moisture and dryness, and their effects on animals, plants, and ourselves.

Worth singling out are two instances in which Moody's fascination with perception and awareness combines itself tellingly with particular circumstances: "Dear Ghosts," a ten-poem sequence that put me in mind of Frost's "Hill-Wife," a narrative enigma involving a house, a landscape, and (I'm guessing) a marriage; and the middle section of the book, "Lancaster County Notebook," a kind of palimpsest in which the spaces in the poet's notes about his exploration of a new territory afford glimpses of the journals of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Keith Richards, _Life_

THIS ONE WAS a bit disappointing, too.  As usual, no one is going to catch up with Dylan.

Begins well--an account of being arrested in Arkansas on the 1975 tour, as loopy and shaggy a British narrative as we have had since Tristram Shandy. Literary minder James Fox (or somebody at Little, Brown, perhaps) takes over the wheel in chapter two, however, and things begin to unwind in more or less coherent chronological order, unfortunately.

Chapters 3 through 10 (pages 67 to 421, about two-thirds of the book) cover the arc from the Crawdaddy Club to the Toronto trial and Some Girls--that is, they cover episodes that, if you are the sort of person who reads books about the Rolling Stones, you already know a lot about. Not much new here. We do learn that Keith is still sore at Brian Jones for being an asshole, still sore at Donald Cammell for coming up with the idea for Performance, and still sore at Mick for having sex with Anita while making Performance.

I was hoping Keith would come clean about his debt to Ry Cooder and the open G tuning (speaking of the making of Performance). No such luck. According to Keith, what he does is a whole 'nother thing than what Ry does, because Keith takes off the sixth string.  Okay.  Right.

On the plus side, Chapter 12 was worthwhile: a beguiling account of the Great Glimmer Civil War of the mid-1980s, Keith's participation in the Chuck Berry concert film, and the making of Talk Is Cheap, the only great solo album by a Rolling Stone.

For my money, the best thing to read about Keith Richards is that long interview he did with Robert Greenfield in 1971, published in consecutive issues of Rolling Stone. (Ironically, that interview was crucial in forming the Brian Jones mythology, a mythology Keith has since set himself to piss all over whenever he can.)  Find that, and skip this.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Patti Smith, _Just Kids_

GOOD ON HER for winning the National Book Award, certainly, and she is plainly still a force to be reckoned with--I love Banga--but I got this when it came out (late 2010?), started it almost immediately, yet finished it only this week. In other words--not that compelling, is my own private assessment.

Just Kids is like the first half of Mulholland Drive without the darker second half, where we get the underside of the story of a wide-eyed kid with a crazy dream coming to the cultural capital. In Just Kids, one has the feeling, we are only getting the parts of the story that Smith would tell her grandkids. While Mulholland Drive went on to pull the myth inside out, Just Kids never does.

Smith and Mapplethorpe certainly qualify as crazy kids with dream, though, dropping themselves into Manhattan without any connections, credentials, or accomplishments. All they had, really, was the conviction that they were Artists.  They did not even know, when they arrived, what they were good at--Mapplethorpe had not yet done any photography, Smith had not yet fronted a band.   Yet they both become legendary, thanks to persistence, chutzpah, and willingness to attempt more than they had good reason to believe they could pull off. They Leaned In.

 (Something that can only occur in what Rancière calls the aesthetic regime of art, I would say, this having the conviction that one is an artist even before one has discovered in oneself any unusual talent for any art.)

It's a great story, so I wish Smith had had the nerve to really tell it.  This story of a south Jersey Lucien de Rubempré needs a Balzac. But where will we find one these days?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Claudia Roth Pierpont, _Roth Unbound: A Man and his Books_

NOT A BIOGRAPHY, Pierpont emphasizes--a full-dress, authorized one is apparently in the works by someone else--but "an examination of Roth's development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts, and his language." Sounds like a work of literary criticism, then, or literary criticism circa 1957, but as one reads one finds that Roth Unbound is not really literary criticism, either. What it is, I would say, is a New Yorker profile, one from the expansive William Shawn days when a New Yorker article might be spread over several consecutive issues and then appear as a book.

And a New Yorker profile of Philip Roth, let me immediately go on to say, is an excellent thing to have.  For one thing, Pierpont is a master of the form, as her previous book Passionate Minds amply demonstrates. For another thing, New Yorker profiles are a cultural institution in themselves, sometimes capable of becoming a definitive portrait: Wolcott Gibbs on Henry Luce, Lillian Ross on Hemingway, Truman Capote on Marlon Brando (the May Believer had a good article by Anne Helen Petersen that discussed Capote on Brando).

This is not one of those classic New Yorker takedowns, though.  Pierpont is respectful, almost reverential, throughout, which is fine by me. Much more importantly, she is perceptive, intelligent, and knowledgeable, her prose lucid and graceful. This will certainly do for anyone interested in Roth's life until the definitive doorstop comes out--and it may do for even longer than that, since definitive doorstops occasionally turn out to be unreadable.

What I would really like to see, though, is Roth criticism that just leaves the biographical dimension alone. I would like to have something like Hugh Kenner on Joyce, Gerard Genette on Proust, criticism that took the various links to the life for granted, that did not see finding the links as sufficient explanation for the power of the fiction, that instead got down in the paragraphs and asked, what is this fiction doing that makes it so distinct from the other fictions of its era? That's what we need. Not another reading of I Married a Communist as payback for Claire Bloom. Perhaps it is, but at the same time, that is the least interesting thing about it. What about its portrait of the American left? What about its narratological structure? What about Zuckerman's perspective?  And does Eve Frame come off looking all that bad even, really?

There is a good article on Roth by Loren Glass in a recent PMLA (!), about how celebrity and authorship played out in the Zuckerman novels--but it was still basically a biographical approach, though of a sophisticated and (I will concede) illuminating kind.  What I want is a rigorous reading of The Anatomy Lesson that does not even mention Irving Howe, of The Human Stain that does not even mention Anatole Broyard. Leave it to the biographers to tell me who Elstir, or Bergotte, or Buck Mulligan, or Coleman Silk was. What I want to know from you, literary analyst, is how Coleman Silk becomes as real to me as my neighbors.

Anyway--hats off, Claudia Roth Pierpont.  A terrific profile. And how about a shout out for Charlotte Strick?  What a great cover! That curlicued, somehow playfully libidinous font that graced every Roth cover from Portnoy's Complaint to Reading Myself and Others, a photo of Roth at, I would guess, forty, seeming to address you head-on but actually, once you look at the face, looking down at you from a commanding height.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Margaret Atwood, _The Year of the Flood_

I WOULD HAVE bet money that Margaret Atwood would be the first Canadian writer to get a Nobel Prize (I'm not counting Bellow, mind you).  Alice Munro is a tremendous writer--but the Swedes usually look past the short story writers and go for novelists with big ideas, e'g., Atwood. Three cheers for Munro, richly well-deserved, but I hope Atwood is still alive and eligible next time Canada's turn comes around.

As often happens here at LLL, I did not get around to the second volume in this trilogy until the third had already appeared.  I try to keep up, but... you know... it's hard.

I read this after having recently re-read Oryx and Crake (which I assigned in my "Modern Novel"course this past spring), so its nicely-tuned complementarity to the first installment especially struck me. Like its predecessor, it alternates between time-frames, the before and the after of a catastrophe that wipes out most of humankind and instantly deprives the survivors of all the technological infrastructure they had come to depend on. The key difference, of course, is that this time we know from the outset what the catastrophe was, but beyond that--

1. In Oryx and Crake, the pre-catastrophe episodes are ,mainly set in the privileged world of the "compounds," the corporate-owned city-states, where the livin' is easy, the bio-engineered fish are jumping', and the genetically-modified purple cotton is high. In The Year of the Flood, we are out in the "pleeblands" and the filthy, teeming, blaring, consumption-fuelled megalopolises where the 99% live, eating suspect food, swallowing suspect drugs, locked into the bottom-end of the chain of human predation... more or less where almost all of us will be in a generation if we don't wise up, one might say.

2. The narrative perspective in Oryx and Crake is consistently male, from the point of view of Jimmy/Snowman. In The Year of the Flood, our perspective is both dual and female, sometimes that of Brenda/Ren, formerly a sex worker in "Scales and Tails," sometimes that of Toby, one of the staff in the upscale "Anoo Yoo" beauty spa.

3. In Oryx and Crake we inhabit the gleamingly brilliant world of elite education and bio-tech labs, but Ren and Toby were, pre-catastrophe, part of "God's Gardeners," a fringe group glancingly alluded to in Oryx and Crake but here presented in its full weird glory, with its braiding of Thoreau, neo-Ludditism, belief in scriptural inerrancy, and whole-hearted embrace of Darwin. Inventing the Gardeners' hymns and Adam One's sermons was, I very much suspect, the most fun Atwood had in writing this novel.

Altogether, the book gives us a convincing and illuminating reverse angle shot not only on the fleetingly-glimpsed Jimmy/Snowman and Glenn/Crake of the earlier novel, but also on the whole world of Oryx and Crake, here both immediately recognizable and intriguingly different. As Dr. Johnson said of The Rape of the Lock, "In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new. " 

And I don't even have to wait for the next one, having bought Maddaddam the month it came out.

How about you, Swedish Academy?  Have you been keeping up?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nicholson Baker, _Traveling Sprinkler_

PAUL CHOWDER, THE closed-forms poet from The Anthologist is back, as are the indignation over the USA's murderous foreign policy from Checkpoint and the daily-journal-like pacing and oblique forays from A Box of Matches and the love of Debussy from any number of places in the oeuvre of Nicholson Baker.

In the course of The Anthologist, Paul's beloved, Roz, left him for failing to finish the overdue introduction to his poetry anthology, Only Rhyme. That novel's closing pages, once Paul finally does get the intro drafted, hint at reconciliation, but when Traveling Sprinkler opens, Roz is seriously involved with a serious fellow with the serious first name of Harris.  Paul is about to turn 55, is stuck with his latest manuscript, is drinking too much, has taken up cigar-smoking, and is Roz-less.  He is in a parlous state, in short.

His solution is to re-invent himself as a songwriter.  He gets a cheap acoustic guitar, gets nowhere with it, then discovers Logic (I'm a GarageBand person, myself, but I understand the allure) and begins composing protest songs to dance beats. Well, why not? What he mainly needs to do, as is blindingly obvious even to him, is to get back together with Roz. Just as he somehow found a way to get his introduction written in The Anthologist, so in this novel he takes a lot of twists and turns and feints and dodges to get exactly where he was bound to be going all along, just like a…traveling sprinkler. Ah, ha!

We do not read Nicholson Baker for his plots, though, do we? No, we read Nicholson Baker because no one else is going to give us sentences like:

On top I snuck in a flatted sixth chord for an extra magic-ass squirt of funkosity. (165)

You're starting to get strange purple interference patterns, fringe moiré patterns, at the edges of each metaphor, where it overlaps its neighbor. (41)

I went to Planet Fitness and parked next to an empty beer bottle. (204)

I admired him very much even before we played basketball together, because of how well he drummed on his algebra textbook. (211)

Up through the tractor the water goes and out the little holes at the ends of the spinning whirlies, flying in a glittering bagel of sinusoidal shapes out over the garden. (239)

You do not, as a reader, worry much about Paul; he will muddle through, or he won't, and if he doesn't, it's his own damn fault. You will keep reading, though, for always around the next corner will be another authentic Bakerian gem.

It also turns out the Baker has really good taste in modern songwriting. Hey, Nicholson Baker!  Check out Julie Byrne!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Witold Gombrowicz, _Ferdydurke_

MY EDITION OF this is the the one that appeared in the "Writers from the Other Europe" series edited by Philip Roth. I remember seeing these show up in bookstores (late 1970s? early 1980s?) and thinking it seemed like a deeply quixotic project, which tells you how out of synch with the zeitgeist I was (am, for all I know). Within a decade, several novels in the series were canonical: The Joke, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Street of Crocodiles, and this one.

Ferdydurke--if I may so designate the narrator even though in the text he is only called "John," and "Ferdydurke"does not look like a Polish name--Ferdydurke, I was saying, is a thirty-year-old man of unspecified circumstances who finds himself suddenly forced back to school. Biologically an adult, he finds himself beset by the frustrations, incomprehensions, and mortifications of a schoolboy--and if that does not describe you and most people you know at ages 27-32, you most not be a liberally-educated middle class American. It's a brilliant conceit.

A professor I knew back in grad school used to think about writing a book to be called "Rameau's Nephews"--he never got around to it, apparently, but he had the terrific idea of analyzing the literary progeny of the compellingly cranky, frenetically articulate failure in Diderot's dialogue, Le Neveu de Rameau. Dostoevsky's Underground Man, the narrator of Hamsun's Hunger, Beckett's Murphy, Nicolai Kavalerov in Olesha's Envy, the narrator of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, Holden Caulfield, and a few Paul Auster characters could all be called Rameau's nephews.  They are intelligent, educated to a fare-thee-well (though perhaps lacking in formal credentials), talented, but somehow just jarringly enough out of key with the world they inhabit to keep themselves forever adrift at its margins--or perhaps it is all their own choice, perhaps they are withholding some final consent out of some scruple only they understand. If you stand still on a corner in Chicago's Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, for a quarter of an hour, you will likely see about a dozen Rameau's nephews.

Ferdydurke is a Rameau's nephew, one of the unassimilables, and Gombrowicz seems to be his character's match in that department from what I read--the Polish Wyndham Lewis.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Rachel Zucker, _The Pedestrians_

I WROTE A review of this for a (much) more reputable website, and that review is scheduled to pop up some time this summer, so rather than risk scooping myself I will say here simply that I feel I should be reading more Rachel Zucker. I had already read the collaborative book she wrote with Arielle Greenberg on home birth, which gave me one idea about her. The first half of The Pedestrians is a sustained almost-narrative-poem-in-prose on the difficulties of marriage, so spare and precise that it feels like the bones of the bones of a novel, which gave me a completely different idea of her.  The second half is a series of poems set mainly in New York City, as pop-eyed and loquacious as a Long Island housewife on really, really good diet pills...giving me yet another idea of her. Rachel Zucker contains multitudes. I need to find some more.