Expanded Horizons

This week, I reviewed Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures for Splice:

Linda Mannheim’s second collection of stories, This Way to Departures, is appropriately titled. All the stories in Mannheim’s début, Above Sugar Hill (2014), were bound to a specific site: the ethnically mixed, economically deprived neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, hemmed in by the Hudson River on one side and the Harlem River on the other. Set mostly between the 1970s and 1990s, Above Sugar Hill is an assured evocation of a very particular time and place — the streets of Mannheim’s youth, in an era of “squalor” and “brutality” — although it lacks the dexterity of style with which it might have offset the feeling that some of its stories are hobbled by the limited horizons of the locale. In This Way to Departures, however, Mannheim embraces a broader canvas and takes a bolder approach to the form of the short story. Although the new book still retains connections to Washington Heights, the action here extends across the United States, down into South America, and even briefly overseas to Europe, and there are comparatively more formal innovations and provocations. As a whole, the collection reads like the work of an increasingly ambitious and confident writer, striking off in a range of new directions.

Against the Takedown

New on Splice this week, there’s a vexed review of Helen Phillips’ The Need by J.S. DeYoung. I’m proud to be able to publish it. It articulates a mixed-to-negative response to this novel, running against a lot of other responses (eg. The Guardian: “one of this year’s most necessary novels”), but it’s no single-minded takedown. I know that Jason wrestled with it a bit, I think his discomfort comes through, and I’m glad that it does. It’s a mark of respect to an author’s labours and intentions to seriously think through the issues they raise, and to seriously consider one’s own limitations, even if one finally finds something lacking in the work. I also think Jason gives the book a fair hearing, showing sympathy to its premises and appreciation for Phillips’ other work; and his misgivings are sober, on-point, and reasonable.

How to write a generous negative review? I’ve been thinking about this question intensely for the better part of two years now, which was when I first started writing the review of J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays that I published in April 2019. Last December, the question arose for me again when I published Alec Dewar’s unfavourable take on Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator.

It’s such a difficult thing. I don’t like to write negative negative reviews, because I think that at bottom I really only write reviews and essays for myself. Doesn’t matter if they end up being published elsewhere. I am my own audience, and I use the essay or review format to clarify my own thoughts on whatever I’m writing about. In fact, I often don’t have any thoughts on what I’m writing about until I start writing, or talking it out. All I have, to begin with, is an inchoate feeling that gradually assumes the form of expressible thoughts. Which means that if I have a negative negative reaction to a book — if I just flat-out dislike it — then I feel like I’ve made a loss on the investment of my time. So I wouldn’t write a negative negative review, because ultimately I just want to cut my losses and move on. I’m not against negative stuff per se, and I’ll happily dole it out in conversation, but if I’m going to put my energy into writing about something, then I’m pretty much in an exploratory frame of mind, not an advisory one; hence, no pressure to warn other readers away from a bad book.

But occasionally there are books that I don’t like, or I don’t admire, even though I value in some other way — for the contrast they provide to still other books, or for their unrealised potential, for the suggestions of what they could have been. That’s the territory on which I feel comfortable writing a negative review, because it still allows me to work my way into the book deeply and give respect to some part of it. A la Coetzee.

This year, some months ago, the question of the value of negative reviews arose anew when Bookforum published Andrea Long Chu’s incandescent takedown of Bret Easton Ellis’ White. We all had fun reading it, didn’t we? I did, at least, and I happily agreed with most all its conclusions. But I felt rotten afterwards, greasy, and both Jason and I wanted to make sure that his review of The Need didn’t have that effect on its readers, didn’t come from the same fierce and declamatory place as the Bookforum essay. Writing a negative review is always something of a tightrope walk, and Jason’s is one that maintains its balance — even when Jason holds up a mirror and wonders whether his misgivings aren’t more a result of his position. Obviously I’m hoping other readers agree with this! But even if not, I think this is a good example of how to make a less-than-positive review work well. Don’t be afraid to come to a negative judgment. Do be aware that the credibility of the judgment — to not be written off as anger or snark — rests on careful thought, and a clear identification of where the problems lie, and why they are problems on the book’s own terms. Which might require a slower, more in-depth reading than a book that gratifies with pleasures you can pinpoint easily.

Whiteness

This week, Splice is running a two-part essay by me on the very niche subject of white space in prose fiction, with a focus on the uses of white space in two recent “novels”. Here’s how it starts:

What are the uses of white space in prose? A paragraph break prompts a renewal of focus; it asserts, in advance, the significance of some element of a scene or sequence. A section break swallows time, disrupting chronology in ways that sometimes take a leap to another moment and sometimes pause the unfolding action, withdrawing from the flow of things. Chapter breaks combine these effects while also opening up a refuge, a place to rest, offering readers an opportunity to catch their breath and take stock of events before proceeding.

But what about a space that both shatter a tract of prose and encompass its shards? What about those spaces that break a text into fragments and then encase each one in its own carapace of silence? The text appears as a series of disjointed, discrete segments of prose, but the whiteness that runs through it is also a force for its integrity. Its lacunae devour the words that would forge clear connections between its segments — by explication, by causality — and for that reason they become, collectively, the locus of the unity of the prose, the silence from which readers might extract connective threads.

Part one looks at white space in Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak.

Part two looks at white space in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9– Fog.

In Memoriam, Stan Lee

Stan Lee died today. His wasn’t exactly an untimely death, but it can’t not affect a person like me. Lee was the earliest and largest of my gods. The other two, from the start, were Stanley Kubrick and Roger Ebert. That probably sounds strange, but there it is; no denying that they were the first three to really open my interest in the capacities of the imagination. I owe a lot to him and his work. That’s not to downplay the importance of his best artistic collaborators (Schuster, Ditko) or the writers who took the baton from him and did better things (Claremont, Miller, Gerry Conway, Peter David). But the originating power lies with him. Continue reading

An Ingress to Egress

Egress is an ambitious new literary journal edited by David Winters and Andrew Lattimer, and it’ss well worth the investment of your time. I reviewed the first issue for Splice:

In their brief preface to the first issue of Egress, the editors claim that we live in “a time of increasing distraction”, a time in which “conventional fiction can no longer detain our attention”, and that, as a result, “the future belongs to those strange outliers, those writers who bend and warp the medium into bold new shapes.” In the journal’s final pages, in an essay entitled ‘Attention and the Future of Narrative’, Veronica Scott Esposito elaborates on this notion: cataloguing fiction that “departs… from the conventions of storytelling” and “relentlessly resists systematization”, she celebrates literature that cannot be appreciated without “sustained focus”, “active attention”. Overall, then, Egress emerges from an aspiration to publish work of such linguistic and/or narrative novelty that the reader’s attention is warranted, held, challenged, and rewarded. How well has this aspiration been realised, now that the ink has dried on the page?

The Dilemma of Writing

In my latest review at Splice, I conclude that John Edgar Wideman’s American Histories might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. That’s due in no small part to Wideman’s unflinching analysis of the ethical dilemma at the heart of his writing practice as a relatively privileged member of an underprivileged minority group:

Broadly considered, Wideman’s body of work reveals a lifelong interest in African American experiences over the last two or three hundred years. Fair enough, and unsurprising in light of the author’s background. But American Histories zeroes in on a more specific and more recent sort of experience, an experience of falling outside the cultural logic that determines the experiences of many others. The logic runs like this. Historically, most African Americans have been at least disenfranchised, and more often outright abused, by white people in positions of power. Currently, many if not most African Americans remain effectively disempowered by political and economic forces that maintain the systemic structures of white privilege. Relative to white Americans, throughout the history of the United States, the majority of African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately disempowered: by slavery, by segregation, and more latterly by a criminal justice system that upends African American lives as effectively as those prior historical forces. But —

But social statistics can’t reckon with the stuff of individual being. While they may be symptomatic of the forces that colour the majority experience of a particular demographic, they’re not able to speak to the demographic in its totality. What troubles Wideman’s conscience in American Histories is the firmness of his claim to a social identity in light of his status as a statistical outlier. Relative to other African Americans, and especially to other African American men, John Edgar Wideman enjoys a social and economic position of enviable privilege. By what logic can he assert a right to speak for African Americans less privileged than himself? Indeed, by what logic can he assert a right even to speak of them?

Experience and Ambivalence

I had an ambivalent response to Jesse Ball’s latest novel, Census, in part because of my closeness to its implied subject matter: being the caretaker of a child with a disability. In my review of the book, available now at Splice, I try to articulate this ambivalence with some reference to my own experiences:

There’s a gentle poignancy to Census which makes the book at once enlivening and yet strangely disappointing. Both its conceptual foundations and the assuredness of its style are the work of a rare creative intellect, but for some reason it doesn’t strive for the more ambitious, more profound things inherent in its premise. This isn’t a criticism meant to dismiss offhand the novel’s poignancy. It’s to wonder why Ball is content to do no more than prolong the poignancy, once it has been evoked, in a way that feels like a plateauing of the aspirations of a novel that has the potential to evoke so many other things. As beautiful and bewitching as it is, Census has been constructed atop a vast reservoir of promise which, beyond a certain point, remains untapped. Perhaps its sense of having been curtailed comes, bluntly, from opportunities overlooked or squandered, but there’s also the possibility that this sense has been created purposefully, that it is a structural expression of the narrator’s inwardness and reserve. Both of those scenarios seem equally plausible to me. I’m genuinely unable to draw a conclusion either way.

I should mention, however, that I’ve arrived at this ambivalent view of Census even though I suspect I’m closer to its base elements than many readers will be. In saying this, I mean to be on guard against the accusation that I’ve responded to the novel as an aesthete when I should be more attuned to its sentimental provocations: the helplessness of the child and the father’s unflagging dedication to his son, even or especially when confronted with the hostilities of others. But I, too, am the father of a child with a disability that affects every aspect of daily life. While my daughter does not have the same cognitive dimensions as Down’s Syndrome, it certainly does erect a wall between her and the world at large, and a large portion of my days — my years — have been spent chipping away at the invisible bricks and mortar around her.