I’m wary of anyone who suggests that there are only “two paths” forward for a particular genre or form of art, so I cast a jaundiced eye over the thesis of Merve Emre’s assessment of the future of the personal essay in the Boston Review. But Emre is a lively, impassioned writer who makes a lot of sharp points about the books she turns to. She takes down Durga Chew-Bose’s new book with acerbic glee — she finds “nothing unique about [author’s] pose,” a shallow pose that the author adopts by way of “pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing” and serve only to “‘clinch’… the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood” — and, better, she pinpoints the animating force behind the pose that Mary Gaitskill adopts in her less egocentric, more ambivalent new collection: Continue reading
I clicked over to Margot Singer’s recent post at the Paris Review in a bit of a panic. Singer asks whether a novel can be a fugue, or can be structured akin to a fugue, and she offers up her own début, Underground Fugue, as an example of a novel built upon a fugal framework. Since I’m in the midst of writing a novel that also takes its cues from the fugue, I worried that Singer had beaten me to it and undercut me before I could even finish. Not that either one of us imagines that we might be the first writer to take this particular path (Joyce, Burgess, et al) but still, nobody wants to exhaust themselves labouring over a book that ends up reading mostly like an echo of someone else’s. Continue reading
I had been a poet for quite a long time, and then stopped writing for ten years. I wrote a novel. I put it in the drawer. The next morning, I woke up with this voice in my head, the voice of Alvaro. I began writing and I wrote, very quickly, a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages… in six weeks, let’s say. The novel, so everyone knows, due to mistakes that I made along the way, took seven days a week, 365 days a year, seven years to write. I made a terrible mistake late in the book. I had to rip out a year’s work and it took a year and a half to replace it. But it was a daily — getting up at three-thirty or four in the morning to write. And I had invested so much in the book that I wanted to answer basic questions in my own life, in the course of writing the book.
in interview with Michael Silverblatt
One of the other oddities of The Underground Railroad appears in the author’s biography, the very first sentence on the very first page of the book. The last words of the bio describe Colson Whitehead as the author of half a dozen novels as well as “a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.” It doesn’t matter to me whether Whitehead himself wrote the bio or whether it was written for him. What matters is the extraordinary underselling of what is arguably his best book. The Colossus of New York is, as its title suggests, a love letter to a metropolis, but in no sense does Whitehead express his affections for Manhattan in the form of essays. You could maybe get away with calling Colossus a book of prose poetry, although even that label doesn’t fit well. There’s no easy way to say exactly what it is. Part of its power comes from that fact. To familiarise this unfamiliar thing by describing its contents as “essays” is to rob the book of its charms, shoehorning something idiosyncratic into the mundane. Continue reading
The underground railroad was a real historical phenomenon given a metaphor for a name. In his novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead pulls the magical realist’s trick of literalising the metaphor. He repurposes the secret network of safehouses, waystations, and channels of conveyance for runaway slaves, and transforms it into an actual, physical network of subterranean trains that carry runaways from one station to the next. This is the novel’s central conceit, and no shortage of critics and judges of literary prizes have expressed their admiration for its cleverness.
It is clever, I think, but it’s nowhere near clever enough to sustain the entire novel and it is eventually upstaged by other, more minor conceits. More cleverly, for instance, Whitehead sweeps his heroine along a journey away from a cruel plantation in Georgia and through an alternate version of the United States, and en route he transforms the literal scenarios encountered by his African American characters into metaphors for aspects of the African American experience after emancipation. In South Carolina, the runaway Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in a museum depiction of a slavery plantation. She makes suggestions on how to improve the accuracy of the scene and essentially becomes condemned to “freely” perform the torments of her old life in bondage. Other set pieces in other states offer variations on this conceit — this sort of dialectical self-subversion of daily life in antebellum America — applying it to things like lynchings, bounty hunting, abolitionist proselytising, earned manumission, and so on and so forth.
The result is a perfectly well-written novel. It’s almost the ideal of the well-written novel. There’s hardly a single sentence in The Underground Railroad that doesn’t issue straight out of the broad contemporary sense of how a novel ought to be written and what it should aim to do. It’s been years since I’ve come across such a flawless embodiment of the concept of “literary fiction” as booksellers and the marketing departments of publishing houses understand that phrase. You don’t have to squint in the slightest to see why this novel landed the Pulitzer Prize. It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel before it even won. Continue reading
Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:
Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.
“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. Continue reading
Two years after the last time we spoke, an old friend of mine was convicted of having committed a terrible crime.
I’m thrilled to say that I have a long short story, or perhaps a short novella, in the latest issue of Numéro Cinq. It’s called Unspeakable. Resistance is the word that first springs to mind when I think back over it. It’s a story that in some ways resists being read at all, beginning in a dizzying rush before it shifts gears to a more bearable momentum, and by the end it resists being brought into existence by the events it depicts. A lot of those events are true. Most have been distorted. Some have been exaggerated, others reined in and restrained. Names have been changed throughout. I’ll leave my explanatory remarks at that. To say more would be to cross the lines the story draws around itself.