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. Continue reading
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.
‘The City of Shells’
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. Continue reading
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.
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.
Daniel Davis Wood’s argument is very interesting. He claims that, among American readers in the wake of 9/11, there has been growing dissatisfaction with realism as a credible mode of fiction. This, says Wood, has led to increased interest in novels situated within a European literary tradition which is at best ambivalent to realism. He quotes Michael Rothberg: ‘While American novelists have […] announced the dawn of a new era following the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the form of their works does not bear witness to fundamental change’. Flatteringly, Wood selects Spurious, alongside Lee Rourke’s The Canaland Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, as exemplifying a form that does respond to fundamental change. Wood argues that the three of us, British men all, are nouveaux romanciers for our time, and that our work has found a warm transatlantic welcome for that reason.
I am certainly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s famous essays calling for a new novel: for a novel to reject anthropomorphism in its presentation of the world; for a novel to deny the primacy of character; for a novel to present things that Robbe-Grillet describes as ‘hard’, as ‘unalterably, eternally present’, as ‘mocking the “meaning” assigned to them’; for a novel to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’, as Sarraute would have it; a novel to register what she calls the ‘vast, empty stupefaction’ at the world that is appropriate in the wake of the concentration camps. How do W. and Lars spend most of their time but in a state of ‘vast, empty stupefaction’? What else are the damp in Spurious and the rats in Dogma but unalterable and eternally present, mocking any meaning that might be assigned to them? The narrative technique of Spurious and Dogma is intended as a rejection of older forms of character-novel. I want nothing else than Sarraute did: to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’ in the novel and to ‘turn towards what is free, sincere and alive’.
In this sense, one might certainly recognize features of the nouveau roman in Spurious, as well as in the work of Rourke and McCarthy. And, if Wood is right, our novels resonate with American readers because of these features. But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.
In an interview with David Winters at 3:AM Magazine, Lars Iyer responds generously to my recent remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman.
Appreciations of John Williams’ Stoner have been floating around the blogosphere for a while now, thanks to John Self, dovegreyreader, Emmett Stinson and, more recently, D.G Myers and Rohan Maitzen, but another voice in praise of the novel can’t hurt. Stoner is a masterpiece. There’s no use festooning it with superlatives. They can’t convey how great it is. Read it!
More than its perfect prose, tone, characterisation, and narrative momentum, what impressed me about Stoner was the subtlety of its self-awareness. I expected a reprise of the startling but unwavering realism of Williams’ previous novel, Butcher’s Crossing, which is arguably one of the half-dozen or so truly outstanding New Westerns and which offered me my first taste of Williams’ work. What I found instead was a work of literature that acknowledged and justified its own literariness right from the very first page, and continued to do so throughout: Continue reading