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.

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.