April 12, 2014
Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth and December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something approaching conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?
January 29, 2014
I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.
“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:
[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—
But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:
the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.
Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,
there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.
Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.
January 7, 2014
As well as spending my own time this term teaching AP Literature and Composition, I’m happy to see that my article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg principle is being used as a resource in AP Literature classes elsewhere.
December 13, 2013
The recent flurry of ‘best of’ lists that appear without fail at this time of year has reminded me of many of the wonderful books I read in 2013 and alerted me to others I hope to turn to in 2014. Equally, though, it has made me aware of just how many of the best things I read this year appeared not in book form but in a handful of recent literary publications, most of them online, which have helped to prepare fertile ground for the flourishing of longform criticism with a focus on literary aesthetics.
Music and Literature is far and away the most valuable new publication to appear this year. It caught my attention with its third print issue, one half of which focused on Gerald Murnane and included a long letter by Murnane, an excerpt from his forthcoming novel A Thousand Windows, and a critical roundtable on his body of work. At present, the preparation of the journal’s fourth issue coincides with the creation of a space for online content which includes, most recently, provocative interviews with László Krasznahorkai and Steven Moore as well as a peek inside the Murnane archives. Given each issue’s tight focus on the aesthetics of the work of one writer and one composer, and the length and variety of the critical considerations of those aesthetics, Music and Literature is a must-read for anyone whose curiosity about the life and times of an artist is subordinate to an interest in the subtleties of their art.
Aside from Music and Literature, Douglas Glover’s Número Cinq, online since 2010, was a wonderful new discovery for me this year, and I also found pleasure watching the Sydney Review of Books establish itself as a venue for the meticulous consideration of prose fiction following its launch in June. Most impressive about Número Cinq is the material being collected in its Book of Literary Craft, especially Jason Lucarelli’s two long pieces on the aesthetic legacy of Gordon Lish (one, two) which led to an equally impressive discussion on that subject between Lucarelli, David Winters, and Greg Gerke, available at The Literarian. It’s harder to pinpoint a single shining star in the Sydney Review. The best piece published there so far is easily Julian Novitz’s review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries: a review that not only contextualizes the novel and elaborates on its merits but also reviews the reviews it has received and approaches all of the above in light of John Barth’s speculations on “the literature of exhaustion.” The best writer on that site, however, is surely Brian Castro, an Australian novelist whose work I dearly hope will someday attract the international appreciation currently being lavished upon the work of a Gerald Murnane. His review of W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country is beautiful, as are his ruminations on the writtenness of literary theory and the mysterious inner forces that spark the act of writing.
My one big disappointment this year was Hannah Kent’s début novel Burial Rites, hyped for having received a seven figure advance from Little, Brown. Ben Etherington at the Sydney Review published a fantastically detailed examination of Kent’s use of language and its aesthetic effects in Burial Rites, putting a finger some of what I found disappointing about the novel, although what made my sense of disappointment even more pronounced was what Kent herself wrote for The Guardian as an introduction to the reprint of a short extract. When she muses on the reasons why her imagination was so captured by reports of an Icelandic woman put to death in 1830, she tells a very short story — a story of herself, a story of obsession, a story of her compulsion to tell the story of someone else — which is far more captivating than the bland verisimilitude and strained lyricism of the novel she went on to publish. Why the belief that a work of historical fiction should be so seemingly free-floating, severed from the motivations that resulted in its writing and cleansed of all traces of the inner urge that forced its author to attempt to reconstruct the past via words on a page? By effacing herself from her work, a work born from the powerful connection she felt towards her subject, Kent drained all the vitality from a novel whose genesis was bursting with it.
November 7, 2013
If the novel can be said to have a centre, a still point upon which the seer intensifies its focus until it loses interest in other people and other places, that centre would be the grotesque monstrosity known only as Judge Holden. A man very literally larger than life, Holden is a seven-foot-tall albino, “outsized and childlike” and “bald as a stone,” with a command of apparently every language ever spoken and with knowledge of every subject ever considered by the human mind. It is said of the Judge that he is “a hand at anything,” able to “turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it.” He can “outdance the devil himself” and he can play the fiddle more gracefully than anyone else who picks it up. “He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer,” and, according to hearsay, “[h]e’s been all over the world.” He is, in addition, a paedophile, a murderer, a man who kills puppies for fun, and he demonstrates a store of supernatural abilities. He seems able to teleport from place to place and to manipulate reality to suit his needs. He can stand in raging flames without doing harm to himself and he can wield a Howitzer cannon as if it is only a pistol. He hurls a downed meteorite an impossible distance through the air, he concocts a fistful of gunpowder from the elements of the desert sand, and, by the end of the novel, he appears to have not aged a day despite the passage of some thirty years. In his presence other men speak “with circumspection among themselves as if they would not waken something that had better been left sleeping.” The seer bestows lavish attention upon him, far more than upon anyone else, and thus enables the Judge alone to articulate a unique worldview that echoes the way in which the seer itself seems to see the world.
The Judge speaks in a voice that shares the seer’s idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntactical complexities. “These anonymous creatures,” he says of the animals for whom the desert is home, “may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Moreover, as those words suggest, the Judge hungers for power not unlike that of the seer, a power sufficient to render him an omniscient arbiter of all existence. At one point, “plac[ing] his hands on the ground,” he makes an announcement to Glanton’s men: “This is my claim,” he says. “And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. [But i]n order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.” The logic of this worldview extends to plainly ludicrous lengths — “The freedom of birds is an insult to me,” he declares thereafter, and adds, “I’d have them all in zoos” — but, even so, he continues to subscribe to it and later he even lays bare the principles it rests upon. “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear,” he says. “But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.”
Dana Phillips suggests that Judge Holden, being “loquacious, even multilingual, and an intellectual with a great store of both practical and arcane information,” seems to engage in a sort of “implicit dialogue with the impersonal, highly detailed, and verbally ingenious narration.” Similarly, for Joshua Masters, the Judge “provides the coherence, the order, the meaning” of the actions of Glanton’s men via “a totalizing [philosophical] structure based on violence, war, and his own textual authority.” How far does this textual authority reach? Is it possible that the voice of the Judge and the voice of the seer are in fact one and the same? Are the words of the seer a formal projection of the philosophical position underpinning the words of the Judge? At one point the two voices merge together as the Judge speaks words that insinuate themselves into the prose of the seer. “[T]he shapes of what varied paths,” says the seer, “conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant — as he told them — like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring.” But these two entities cannot finally be one and the same because their respective ways of seeing the world also contradict one another. Although the seer has a way of seeing the world which the Judge appears to emulate, the Judge is impelled to emulate it by a desire to overpower all other men around him whereas the seer’s adoption of it reduces the affairs of men to worthless trivialities. In aspiring to make himself “suzerain of the earth,” the Judge both presupposes and promotes a hierarchy of authority amongst worldly things which contravenes what the seer sees as the neutrality of those things. “In the neuter austerity of that terrain,” the seer says of the boundless desert,
all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.
It is on the basis of these remarks that Vereen M. Bell, among others, has described Blood Meridian as “a critique of our culture’s anthropocentrism.” “From [the seer’s] point of view,” adds Dana Philips, “persons are not privileged as subjects. … [T]he human does not stand out among the other beings and objects that make up the world… [and the seer] treat[s] everything and everybody with absolute equanimity.” “Minute details and impalpable qualities are registered with such precision,” Steven Shaviro concurs, “that the prejudices of anthropocentric perceptions are disqualified” and the result is “a kind of perception before or beyond the human. This is not a perspective upon the world, and not a vision that intends its objects; but an immanent perspective that already is the world, and a primordial visibility, a luminescence, that is indifferent to our acts of vision because it is always passively at work in whatever objects we may or may not happen to look at.”
Judge Holden appears to possess some sense of what these readers have pointed out. “The truth about the world,” he says to Glanton’s men, “is that anything is possible. … [M]ore things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.” The difference between the Judge and the seer, however, is that the Judge wants to overcome this “truth” until it is no longer a truth at all. He wants to elevate his consciousness to the omniscient heights occupied by the seer so that his mind, and his mind alone, is not merely “a fact among others” but is instead the supreme fact, a fact that perceives the totality of facts, the world and everything in it, all that is the case. What Judge Holden seems not to realize, however, is that the possession of a consciousness as immanent as that of the seer advances so dramatic a forfeiture of human experience, so extreme a supersession of human scale within the world, that it wholly erodes the very grounds on which the Judge would seek to possess it in the first place. While he hopes to obtain a supremacy over other men sufficient to rival the supremacy of the seer, the seer’s supremacy over the world at large obliterates all conceptions of the hierarchical distinctions between worldly objects on which the Judge’s thirst for it is founded.
The corollary of all this, of course, is that the ambitious and almighty Judge Holden is, for the seer, no more than a joke, an insect trapped in a jar and left to simply rage at the captors who observe it from beyond the glass. And almost as if to breathe life into this notion, Blood Meridian comes to a close with an epilogue that takes a fantastic leap through time to depict the closure and partition of the expanses through which the Judge once led Glanton’s men on their bloody rampage. The final achievement of the seer and its way of seeing, then, is to dwarf and diminish the outlandish megalomaniac who would otherwise dominate Blood Meridian, a megalomaniac whose utmost desires in fact entail an affront to the very nature of the seer. The grotesque philosophy and otherworldly qualities of the Judge may attract the attention of the reader, and the seer is perhaps attracted to him for his wanting to see the world much as the seer does, but the seer eventually undermines the Judge by appending a chronicle of his actions with a vision of a future world in which suzerainty is divided and diffuse rather than distilled into a single man. Perhaps, however, this should come as no surprise, since within the scope of the novel the seer itself denies the Judge his suzerainty from the moment its words begin. “See the child,” it demands. “He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.” The Judge will soon appear, seen by the kid who is seen by the seer, but the first thing the seer sees, and the first thing it instructs us readers to see, is not Judge Holden at all but his adversarial opposite.