Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it?

You might take the realist’s approach to that question and have your protagonist make an issue of the horror, the repulsion, and not least the indignity of being served a plateful of hair. You might take the fabulist’s approach, having your protagonist consume it delicately and delightedly and without further comment from anyone else in a world in which it is widely known that a plateful of hair makes an exquisite meal. Or you might take the approach of Amelia Gray, which basically involves splitting the difference between those two possibilities. “Do try something,” the inwardly horrified but outwardly courteous protagonist says to her partner in ‘Dinner,’ the opening story in Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird. Implicitly inviting the gentleman to try the hair before she tries it herself, she manages simultaneously to register her disgust at the unusual meal she has been served and to show the social graces so crucial to the success of the date. Unfortunately, though, the gentleman, Dave, declines the woman’s seemingly generous offer:

Dave shook his head. He was still smiling, but his gaze had dropped to her lips, meaning either that he wanted to kiss her — she had read about this technique in magazines — or that he wanted her to take a healthy chunk of hair with her fork and choke it down with a swallow of red wine, forcing the clogged mass down her throat like an obstruction through the pipes of a bathtub.

What exactly does Dave want her to do? How exactly is she supposed to behave in the scenario she faces? The answer to such a question doesn’t really matter. The sheer mystery undergirding the question itself, a mystery unresolved and in fact spun out into an extended period of irresolution, is what makes ‘Dinner’ a typical Amelia Gray short story. It’s a question that similarly plagues the incredulous narrator of ‘Babies’ when she wakes one morning “to discover I had given birth overnight,” as well as dogging the perturbed and exhausted townsfolk of ‘Vultures,’ who struggle to make accommodations for the violent and predatory carrion birds that have taken up residence in their streets. And it’s there, too, in ‘Fish,’ which focuses on the awkward social standing of two men, Dale and Howard, who have decided to marry inanimate objects and who expect the people around them to view their marriages as not only legitimate but also unremarkable. “When anyone asked Dale if he had dated actual women before making the decision to marry a paring knife,” Gray writes, “he would look at that person with such incredulity that the stranger would feel as if they had been rude to inquire,” while Howard, who is a little more accommodating, admits that even though “a bag of frozen tilapia was different in many ways from a woman… in many ways it was the same.” Time and again in Gray’s short stories, characters either encounter or give rise to some monumental absurdity, some rupture in the logical ways of the world, and yet, while they do not follow the fabulist’s route and treat the absurd as anything but, they also don’t quite follow the realists in making an issue of it. They are realists in most respects but for their reticence to permit themselves an authentic reaction to absurdity, their insistence on facing the absurd with composure and decorum.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Gray’s body of work, one might assume that she churns out the sort of hip, disaffected, droll, vaguely snarky and often precious stories that tend to populate venues like McSweeney’s and Vice, both of which have published her. In fact, though, she doesn’t do this at all. Throughout Museum of the Weird as well as her first story collection, AM/PM, and her ingenious novel Threats, Gray has carved out a space all her own — concocting a tone all her own and steadily perfecting her recipe — and the trajectory she has followed in the course of doing this has reached a sort of apotheosis in her latest collection, Gutshot. More so than ever before, there’s something unsettling and beguiling to the cumulative effect of watching one character after another acknowledge absurdity in a way that is both laconic and stoic, and yet it’s less off-putting than hypnotically engaging. The result of the whole is an experience of uncanniness without the sense of spooky disquiet: a little like what you might get from watching a simulacrum of human interactions created by extraterrestrials, or from watching primates at play in a zoo and recognising some ancestral kinship in their more human mannerisms.

The opening story of Gutshot, for example, focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman perfectly suited to one another until, halfway through a sentence, they begin to lose their memories of their life together. Rather than asking what might be happening to their memories, despite their awareness of a profound loss, they simply ask questions of the world around them, questions intended to help them find their way back to themselves, so that the simple act of asking becomes the new common denominator of their life together. ‘The Lark’ is a similarly bizarre yet heartfelt story focusing on a man who cannot speak more than a few words without vomiting into a bucket, but it is less about his suffering than about the chance encounter that brings him true love in spite of his condition. ‘The Labyrinth’ offers a sketch of a father who succeeds in replacing the children’s maze at his daughter’s birthday party with the mythical structure patrolled by the Minotaur, but it is less about the motives that lead him to do that, or the means by which he does it, than about the pride he feels for having done it and his yearning to share his pride with other parents. And in ‘Date Night,’ whose setup has echoes of ‘Dinner,’ a couple are out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the man excuses himself from the table and the woman, left alone, accidentally begins to disassemble her body. She “scratches her forearm a little too hard and a slice of skin peels up with her fingernail,” and with this she sparks a craze of deliberate, artful bodily decomposition that spreads to her fellow diners:

A woman screams until someone slips a dessert spoon under a muscle in her neck and flings her larynx to the floor, at which point the woman grasps both breasts, rips them from her body, and applies them to her throat. … Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.

Those words, together with the title of the collection, suggest a preoccupation with viscera that extends throughout Gutshot and gives it a vividness and a force that make it altogether more powerful than AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. So too does the general compression of the stories, with only the true rarities running to more than three pages in length, and so does a modification of tempo that generates a creeping insidiousness, a slow burn rather than a sudden shock, which the short and punchy title otherwise conceals. Entry for entry, story for story, Gutshot is more focused than Gray’s previous collections, more confident and reportorial in its style, more dedicated to perfecting the qualities of the typical Gray short story, and more powerful in its protracted explorations of bemusing responses to outlandish events. It is also, on the whole, the work of an author more secure in her aims and more assured of her own abilities, particularly as she manages to achieve her preferred effects through a number of structurally experimental stories. ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover’ is exactly what it sounds like, a woman’s list of strategies for carving up, cooking, and consuming her partner, one body part at a time while he is still alive, implicitly to achieve a more thorough, more sensual appreciation of his corporeality. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ begins as an earnest essay on the titular subject before it takes an abrupt self-reflexive turn and points out the absurdity of swans, the absurdity of love, the absurdity of looking for compatibility between the two, and the absurdity of continuing any discussion of it. In the title story, a dying man who repeatedly laments that he has been “gutshot” is visited by Jesus, who attempts to comfort him in his final moments by calling to his attention to assorted elements of his surroundings that become imbued with a poetic elegance simply by virtue of context, and, in ‘Viscera,’ Gray pieces together a visceral description of the material history of the page on which the story is printed, rendering the page itself an object of both disgust and wonder.

It would be easy for a writer working with this sort of subject matter to submit to temptation and allow her work to slip into one of the tones favoured by other writers mining similar territory. It would be easy for a writer of Gray’s calibre to mimic the self-deprecating irony of Dave Eggers, the overweening whimsy of Karen Russell, or the increasingly contrived yuk-yuks of George Saunders. That Gray doesn’t submit to temptation is impressive enough, but more impressive is that she has charted a fresh, distinct, and sharply defined alternative path across such well-trodden terrain. Her tone — if that’s even the right word for the quality of her stories that makes them identifiably hers — comes from the sense that she is simultaneously looking askance at her awkward characters and yet looking at them in a resolutely non-judgmental way. While this tone suffuses all of the stories in Gutshot, each one advances an ever-so-slight variation on it and allows Gray to replace the irony and whimsy and yuk-yuks she has rejected with something altogether rarer, less prefabricated, and more potent.

Halfway Between That and the Other Thing

Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?

Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges.

I wish I could have shared the appreciations of both prize-giving bodies, The Guardian and Goldsmiths, but I was disappointed to find the novel with so firm a footing in each camp that it struggled to do justice to the virtues of either one. It establishes a set of broad narrative and aesthetic premises that would allow for detailed, nuanced, and complex explorations of grief as a subject in its own right and of the structural and symbolic possibilities for articulating an experience of grief, yet it doesn’t do much more than skim the surface of these premises. Often, in fact, it reads like an outline for a better novel than the one it is, a series of notes assembling a reservoir of narrative and aesthetic potential which, if exploited, would have filled many hundreds of pages — but it doesn’t dive into the depths of its potential, and it doesn’t even really consider the notion that there are any depths to what is depicted in its pages and the ways in which the depiction has been constructed. The experimentalism of the novel somehow obstructs its own access to a detailed meditation on the nature of grief, and yet, without some way of protracting the experiences of its grieving characters, the narrative doesn’t have sufficient length or scope to allow its aesthetic idiosyncrasies to develop into more than what they seem to be on first appearance. In the end, although there’s a lot to like about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the parts of the novel are more intriguing than the whole, since the whole doesn’t allow its parts to interact and to produce effects more manifold and stimulating than those they generate as parts. It’s a sadly wasted opportunity to do something very special — it’s a novel that could have integrated two typically antithetical ways of approaching fiction, but that settles instead for simply and fleetingly introducing them to one another.

A Revisionary Postscript: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

After a while, I decided he might be on to something. I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow. In between wallpapering, I wrote The Wallcreeper. Then I started on the floors. Then I took up playing the piano.

So begins the final paragraph of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, positioning the work as another of those novels that finds its protagonist and narrator “in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth” and finally “justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis.” Zink’s narrator has good reason to plunge into crisis: in an unforgettable opening line, she recalls riding shotgun in a car with her husband and “looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Despite the depth of her trauma, however, she is much more acerbic and irreverent, much less leaden and melancholy, than Julius, Adam, Faye, and their ilk.

Persistently and unambiguously the most intelligent person in any room she might walk into, Tiffany is alert to the idiosyncrasies of others and ruthless in using them to cut her enemies down to size. She zeroes in on their quirks and foibles with an exacting attention to detail that transforms them into caricatures of real people, undermining any claim they might make to any sort of sincerity of conduct. After the lonely wife of a male friend confesses that she wants to sleep with Tiffany’s husband, for instance, Tiffany notes that “[h]er hands were pressed against her heart and she was taking the feeling of emptiness there very, very seriously — a hole in her heart only Stephen’s dick could fill.” Yet even as that sharp and wicked line proves stylistically pretty typical of The Wallcreeper, there is also a deep vein of despair that runs throughout the novel and surfaces not in any one of its lines but only in their totality.

Tiffany is a woman who endures a whole succession of traumatic events: a loss of self to an egotistical husband in a torturously loveless marriage, followed by infidelity, psychological abuse, joblessness, cultural dislocation, a sense of general purposelessness, and worse. Rather than resisting these events or ameliorating their effects, however, Tiffany simply submits herself to them and then, as she says above, sits down to recount her experience of them. If in the retelling of things — in the act of writing The Wallcreeper — she had taken a characteristically acerbic and unsympathetic view of one of these events, or even two or three, the result would be far more mannered, the pacing of the emotional highs and lows more carefully modulated. But Tiffany’s piercing tone never wavers, her abrasive approach to events never falters, even as the traumas of her life accumulate and intensify. The whip-smart wit that saturates every sentence of the novel therefore comes to seem less like an ingrained aspect of her character than an affect, a stance, a determination of her will, and therefore a strange sort of stylistic coping strategy.

The engine that powers The Wallcreeper is the tension between, on the one hand, Tiffany’s need to revisit her experiences with enough sincerity and serious intent to painstakingly distill them all into a book and, on the other hand, Tiffany’s aversion to treating much of anything with sincerity or seriousness. She cannot not write about the events of The Wallcreeper, embarking on the composition of a work that demands lengthy concentration on past experiences in order to reconstruct them vividly on the page, and yet, sentence by sentence, the demand is met in a way that is basically, hilariously, and gratingly flippant, diminishing the scale of significant events simply for the sake of a quip. Note the last two sentences of the paragraph above, in which the emotionally and psychologically taxing activity of writing The Wallcreeper recedes in importance until the prose style imbues it with a value comparable to that of “start[ing] on the floors” and “playing the piano.” What the aggregation of sentences like these produces is, finally, a haunting thing, a thing very difficult to swallow, as, with each wisecrack, Tiffany dodges a direct encounter with the sheer turmoil of her life and therefore indirectly conveys a sense of its immensity.

Rachel Cusk and the Revisionary Imperative

“Call it autofiction, metafiction, or the post-Sebaldian novel,” as Stephanie Bishop writes, or, if you prefer, follow Charles Finch and call it the “granular introver[sion]” of those who write “barely novels, all in an ambiguous first-person indistinguishable from the author’s own voice.” Whatever name it goes by now or at some stage in future, there’s no denying that the last few years have seen the growth of a body of literature in which — among other things — truth and fiction begin blurring together, long stretches of essayistic contemplation marginalise conventional modes of character development, and scenes and events are sequenced in an associative way rather than being bound to the rules of narrative causality.

Think, as Bishop and Finch do, of the novels of Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, and Sheila Heti. Each one lights upon a protagonist who very much resembles the author, finding that person in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth. Now thrown back on himself or herself, each protagonist takes to observing the minutiae of the surrounding world and detailing, wherever possible, the invisible forces — historical, cultural, social, political, economic — that shape and even predetermine the trajectories followed by people they know well and by those they encounter only in passing. The protagonist thus strikes out for some sort of stability, some firm footing in the world, by applying himself or herself to understanding intimately a set of surroundings that are both immediate and quite distant and, in the process, tethering himself or herself to the certainties of those surroundings.

The problem, however, is that those certainties are never as knowable or as fixed as the protagonist at first believes. Even on those rare occasions when information regarding certain places and certain people is transmitted to the protagonist in a form more detailed than a fragment, the facts to be assembled into something cohesive and comprehensible are acquired in piecemeal fashion. In each novel, the result is a protagonist continually wrong-footed by the world. The very aspects of the world that he or she hopes to understand incontrovertibly are unstable, forever in flux, so that all of his or her certainties linger in a state of perpetual revision.

The narrative arcs of the novels in which these protagonists appear are, to a greater or lesser extent, pegged to those moments in which the protagonist feels most acutely or realises most abruptly the need to revise his or her understanding of something formerly certain. The narrative drama, such as it is, usually amounts to the protagonist’s search for a place or a moment of stillness and calm, wherein he or she can catch breath and revise his or her understanding of all things and have it be whole and complete, even if only briefly, before the world again undercuts it and it is intruded upon by the need for yet further revision. Since the protagonist of each novel also serves as its narrator, the novel justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis. This is as true of the novels by the writers above as it is of other recent and similarly conditioned novels by Jenny Offill, Catherine Lacey, Valeria Luiselli, and now Rachel Cusk.

Cusk’s latest novel, Outline, signals a significant aesthetic departure from all of her previous work but is very much of a piece with that of Lerner, Heti, and especially Cole. Its protagonist, Faye, a writer very much like Cusk herself, leaves her native England to spend a summer in Athens, where she is slated to lead a creative writing workshop, while suffering the ennui of a marriage that has recently failed. The revisionary imperative arises the opening scene as Faye comes to reassess her understanding of a man she has recently met, “a billionaire [who] I’d been promised had liberal credentials,” and it takes centre stage, becomes almost the protagonist in its own right, as the novel progresses. In a later scene, Faye’s creative writing students are asked to tell an impromptu story about something they observed on their way to the workshop that morning, and, by the time everyone has spoken, those who were first to speak feel the need to revise their contributions because they did not notice as much, did not describe as many fine details, and did not convey as clear a sense of self or as vivid an experience as those who spoke after them. In another scene, the revisionary imperative finds an almost explicit articulation when a fellow divorcée, a Greek man named Paniotis, recounts for Faye the story of the family holiday on which he sensed the impending dissolution his marriage:

[O]ne of the things that happened to me on that holiday, and that I believe has not changed since, was that I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.

But, on that holiday, Paniotis was plunged into a moment of stillness and calm in which he was able to revise his understanding of his marriage and, in doing so, to come to terms with the reality of divorce. With his wife, Chrysta, having left their children in his care, he and the children had plunged into a pool beside a waterfall somewhere far from civilisation:

How cold the water was, and how incredibly deep and refreshing and clear — we drifted around and around, with the sun on our faces and our bodies hanging like three white roots beneath the water. I can see us there still… for those were moments so intense that in a way we will be living them always, while other things are completely forgotten. Yet there is no particular story attached to them… despite their place in the story I have just told you. That time spent swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall belongs nowhere: it is part of no sequence of events, it is only itself, in a way that nothing in our life before as a family was ever itself, because it was always leading to the next thing and the next, was always contributing to our story of who we were. … But there was no sequel to that time in the pool, nor ever will be.

This moment appears to have given Paniotis the space to do the very things Faye attempts to do when she collects and channels the stories of people like Paniotis. So — like the novels of Lerner, Cole, and Heti — Outline consists almost entirely of people testifying to experiences such as the above, experiences whose page-by-page accumulation discloses Faye’s own experience of crisis and her attempt to escape it. At times, the stilted reportage and the syntax of the sentences so closely mimic those of Cole’s Open City that Outline verges on parodying the very sort of literature it so clearly aspires to be, but more often it edges a little further along the line of revisionary logic that animates Open City and its kin. Whereas Cole’s narrator, Julius, is generally sympathetic and credulous towards those whose testimony he reports, and whereas Lerner’s Adam Gordon is self-obsessed and Heti’s Sheila is interrogative, Cusk makes Faye more skeptical and critical of what she is told by others. Julius, Adam, and Sheila report on their conversations with others and their responses to what is said, and subject both to revision. Faye does much the same, but also incorporates into her reports her speculations on the motives of her conversational partners, their possible reasons for saying what they say and presenting themselves the way they do. In a sense, then, she gives the appearance of conducting revisions in something close to real time as, in the act of recounting conversations, she interpolates the back and forth of discussion with revisionary manoeuvres that undercut or overturn the things that are said by others almost as soon as they have been said. It’s not necessarily the case that all this makes Outline in some sense superior to its predecessors, put it does more definitively articulate the logic of the aesthetic that unites them.

UPDATE: a postscript on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and its place in this literary landscape.

The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.”

But by far the best assessment of the film comes from James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books. Paying careful attention to the technicalities of how The End of the Tour portrays Wallace scene by scene, rather than simply in sum or on the whole, Ley finds that “the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist” and, more than that, it works hard to make its viewers aware that they, too, “are no less complicit in [its] process of objectification.” “The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task,” Ley writes:

It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of [Lipsky’s] book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. …

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona — the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute — is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture.

“This is an irony of which the film is aware,” Ley contends, “and which it negotiates with understated intelligence” by appropriating and reconceiving Wallace’s own techniques for “satiris[ing] the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art,” “turning [them] around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.” What I find particularly striking about these words — aside from how respectfully they treat a film that a good number of Wallace devotees have shown no hesitation in trashing — is how in tune they seem with Wallace’s own writings on films and filmmaking. They do him the sort of posthumous honour that the filmmakers were likely aiming for, capturing very acutely the analytical spirit in which Wallace himself approached the artifice of the cinema and picked apart its effects on its audience.