November 28, 2011
The last few weeks have offered some stellar coverage of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights — read Mary-Kay Wilmers, read Cathleen Schine, read Matthew Specktor, read the Didion interviews by Emma Brockes and Boris Kachka — but then, to spoil the party, there’s the coverage of the book in Australia, and particularly the review by Andrew Riemer in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. These two Fairfax publications aspire to be the national papers of record, each one a snapshot of the best local analysis of current events and discourse, and Riemer, usually a reliably good essayist, is the Herald‘s chief book reviewer. Yet what Riemer has written, and what Fairfax has published, is a report of Blue Nights which is labelled as a review but which is so poorly written — so evasive, repetitive, and unspecific — that it leads me to suspect that Riemer hasn’t actually read the book he purports to review.
Here’s the review in question. It runs to 900 words. The first 300 words comprise a summary of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a precursor to Blue Nights. The next 150 words comprise a summary of the circumstances in which Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, the difficult months following the death of her daughter Quintana, which now occupy the foreground of Blue Nights. At this halfway point of the review, however, Riemer still hasn’t mentioned Blue Nights itself: Quintana’s death is folded into his coverage of The Year of Magical Thinking. Only after 550 words does he mention that Blue Nights is “an account of the illness and death of Quintana” — that’s after he expresses moral misgivings about The Year of Magical Thinking and after he discusses its stage adaptation — and then, almost two-thirds of the way into his review, he devotes only one paragraph to a description and evaluation of the book he is reviewing. At 154 words, it makes up just seventeen per cent of the entire review:
Didion’s skill is as evident in her new book as it was six years ago when she was working on The Year of Magical Thinking. The form and style are identical. This account of Quintana’s death, coming as it did at a time when Dunne’s sudden death was still raw and immediate, is surrounded by Didion’s memories: her marriage; the years during which the couple worked on screenplays; Quin-tana’s childhood; the fate of relatives, friends and their children. A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking. There is, in addition, a new note sounded here: the panic of old age, the suspicion that both body and mind are decaying, the awareness that the familiar life — the people you had known and loved — has come to an end.
In my experience with book reviews and book reports, there are three key flaws that suggest that a writer hasn’t actually read the book they’re writing about.
First: an absence of quotes from the book itself. Despite his remarks on “Didion’s skill” and on “[t]he form and style” of Blue Nights, Riemer does not use even one of his 900 words to quote Didion so that she might speak for herself, relying instead on paraphrasing and summarisation.
Second: a disproportionate focus on authorial biography and historical context, combined with a tendency towards contextual repetition, at the expense of a focus on the book. One-third of Riemer’s review of Blue Nights is a summary of The Year of Magical Thinking. One-third of the review is a summary of the context in which that book was published and adapted. Of the remaining one-third, half consists of the paragraph quoted above and half consists of Riemer’s repeated misgivings about Didion’s work combined with his repeated acknowledgement of her stylistic gifts. “[S]peaking here personally,” he writes, “I think the choice [to write publicly about the death of her husband John in The Year of Magical Thinking] was questionable.” “As I have said,” he continues, “Didion’s skill, sensitivity and intelligence go some way towards redeeming this book. … I cannot, however, banish my sense of uneasiness.” Didion is a brave and stylistically skillful writer but her choice of subject matter makes Riemer uneasy: he repeats this notion three times in his review. Whether the stirring of such uneasiness might be part of Didion’s aesthetic project in Blue Nights — whether she is carefully preying on some innate voyeurism in her readers in a way that calls attention to it — doesn’t seem to occur to Riemer, much less to add complexity to his existing moral misgivings.
Third: factual errors which suggest that the writer has relied on his or her memory of an event rather than consulting a record of it. Riemer, as quoted above, has this to say of the adoption of Quintana: “A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking.” Now here’s Didion “hint[ing] at” Quintana’s adoption, at the end of chapter ten of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I’d call it a lot more than just a hint:
In 1964 and 1965, when we were living in the gate house with the beach and the peacocks but could not afford even to tip the parking boys at restaurants, let alone eat in them, John and I used to park on the street on Canon and charge dinner at The Bistro. We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old. They had given us Sidney Korshak’s corner banquette and placed her carrier on the table, a centrepiece. At the courthouse that morning she had been the only baby, even the only child; all the other adoptions that day had seemed to involve adults adopting one another for tax reasons.
Other flaws are added spice. Didion’s career as an esteemed essayist and political analyst falls by the wayside — you’d never know from Riemer’s review that she has written anything other than screenplays and The Year of Magical Thinking — and the last word goes not to Didion, nor even to anyone writing about Didion, but to Ludwig Wittgenstein, halfheartedly invoked. Riemer’s review of Blue Nights offers no sense of Blue Nights beyond the barest consideration of its subject and the fact that Riemer is unsettled by it. You won’t get a taste of Didion’s own words; you’ll only get an overlong survey of The Year of Magical Thinking and a factually erroneous one at that. The whole review smacks of the sense that this writer has written about a book that he has only read about, rather than a book that he has read directly and with care.
It’s possible that Riemer wrote something closer to 1,500 words before some senseless editor axed the better part of his review and ripped out a fistful of Didion quotes for good measure. For Riemer’s sake, I certainly hope that’s the case, not that the rest of us would be any better off. This sort of review does a disservice to everyone associated with it: Didion’s work isn’t given the respect of careful consideration, readers who may or may not turn to that work are not given any sense of it, Riemer looks a fool for attaching his name to something so underdeveloped, and the Sydney Morning Herald tarnishes its own prestige by pretending that this sort of writing deserves a place in a paper of record. Can’t Australia do better than this?
November 27, 2011
For her first nine years on the planet, Big Red had lived a life of compromise. She wanted to be beautiful, but she’d had to settle for being nice. She wanted to see the Aquanauts for her birthday, but she’d had to settle for the gimp lobsters at the Crab Shack. She wanted a father, but she’d had to settle for Mr. Pappadakis. Mr. Pappadakis smells like Just for Men peroxide dye and eucalyptus foot unguents. He has a face like a catcher’s mitt. The whole thing puckers inward, drooping with the memory of some dropped fly ball. Big Red’s mother has many epithets for Mr. Pappadakis: “our meal ticket,” “my sacrifice,” “vitamin P.” He is an obdurate man, a man of irritating, inveterate habits. He refuses to put down toilet seats, or quit sucking on pistachio shells, or die.
Karen Russell, ‘The City of Shells’
November 25, 2011
When I write literary criticism for publication in an academic journal or a collection of essays, the experience feels like the intellectual equivalent of hauling a boulder to the top of a seaside cliff, watching it plummet over the edge, and then letting it sink, unseen, into the depths. It’s rare that more than a handful of people will ever read a given academic article, and rarer still that any of them will offer a response to it, and rarest of all, in my experience, that any article that might attract attention should have my name attached to it. Occasionally someone will remark on the effort that goes into throwing the boulder, but more often than not the boulder disappears without a trace while I set off in search of another.
No such luck with my most recent article, though, which was published on September 11, 2011, and has since drawn a response from Lars Iyer, author of Spurious, who scores a mention in the article itself. The article, as its publication date suggests, was commissioned as part of a broader academic consideration of American culture in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With my general research area being American literature, I was asked to write about the literary legacy of ‘9/11.’ The usual suspects sprang to mind — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Falling Man, Netherland, and so on — but rather than trying to find something new to say about these ‘classic’ post-9/11 novels, which invariably leave me underwhelmed, I tried to make the case that critical analyses of ‘post-9/11 literature’ should expand the scope of that term to encompass much more than simply literature about 9/11.
I attempted to bring Spurious into the fold, for reasons too convoluted to summarise here, alongside a few other recent novels including Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Lee Rourke’s The Canal. I wish I had more space to discuss the particularities of these novels. Given the constraints of the journal format, though, I had to settle for pointing to them as symptoms of the greater literary phenomenon that I did set out to discuss. That phenomenon had to do with the favourable American reception of these three novels and other works like them. Obviously these novels were not written by American authors, but they have benefited immensely from the institutional apparatus of the American literary scene — American publishing houses and critical venues — even as they seem to me to stand opposed to the prevailing mode of American literary responses to 9/11 and its aftermath. In other words, I think they represent something that is essentially what American post-9/11 literature is not, and the fact that they have been warmly received by an American readership suggests to me that many readers are not content with what post-9/11 literature supposedly is. They are a type of post-9/11 literature that is the negative image of literature about 9/11, a type that formally internalises the crisis of 9/11 rather than externalising it for narrative purposes.
I titled the article “Rebirth of the Nouveau Roman” and made the suggestion that these sorts of novels adopt a stance towards what is now called post-9/11 literature which resembles the stance of the mid-twentieth century nouveau romanciers towards the social realism of Balzac, Stendhal, et al. Lars Iyer and his interviewer at 3:AM Magazine, David Winters, have been generous enough to take seriously an article that I wrote in sincere anticipation of a readership of zero, although neither one of them is sold on what I see as a resemblance between the novels mentioned above and the nouveau roman. “Wood,” Lars says of me, “is quite elastic with respect to his notion of the nouveau roman, which seems, for him, to name a free-floating suspicion of realism and a messianic promise for literature.” That’s true to an extent, and I’ll wear the criticism, except to quibble with the words “free-floating” and “messianic.”
The sort of fiction I’m trying to identify here does not exhibit “a free-floating suspicion of realism” in the sense that the work of David Foster Wallace, for instance, exhibited such a suspicion. Its suspicion of realism manifests in a way that is much more contained or constrained, more austere, more obsessive or self-obsessive — one might say, more like the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet — than that of the sprawling, discursive, digressive, and self-consciously ‘difficult’ novel. There’s a reason I make no mention of Steven Moore in my article: the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify does exhibit a suspicion of realism, but not all fiction that exhibits such a suspicion is the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify. Nor would I say that this sort of fiction — or any sort of fiction — advances what Lars calls a “messianic promise for literature,” a promise which I presume he sees as the impossible antidote to the situation he sketched out in his recent literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos. A promise for literature? Really? Here and now, in this day and age? And a messianic promise at that? No, not a chance: just a brute hope that the literature of circling the drain — Spurious, Remainder, The Canal — can show literature itself how to circle the drain in style.
November 24, 2011
So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke. Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: “a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.” Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.
Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (“why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?”) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason.
Yikes. Max Dunbar grants me far more authority than I can actually claim to grant certain people the authority to speak.
November 18, 2011
In her historical novel Utopian Man… Australian author Lisa Lang… seems to propose a certain savage truth about the march of history: that, at bottom, it is the simple unfolding of entropy. With this in mind, she approaches historical fiction aware that narrative cohesion is destined, or doomed, to be upset by the sloppiness of the unvarnished historical record. Rather than attempting to overcome the entropy of history, Lang entertains it. She offers a novel whose acceptance of the chaotic events seems designed to frustrate readers who expect an orderly narrative in the vein of Byatt, Mantel, and their cohort. Ostensibly setting out to shape the life of a man into an entertaining and accessible story, Lang abandons that enterprise and begins to shine a light on its inevitable shortcomings. The result is a minor triumph: not without its share of failures, but a captivating, challenging, and rewarding work of fiction that succeeds despite the weaknesses of its final pages.
My review of Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man is online at The Critical Flame.