Attentiveness and Devotion

I confess I’m a fan of Mary Oliver, but my reading of contemporary poetry isn’t informed enough to have made me aware, before today, that someone could admit such a thing “unashamedly.” That word appears in Ruth Franklin’s review of Oliver’s latest bookDevotions, when Franklin declares her affection for Oliver in the face of criticisms levelled against the poet. The review is titled “What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand,” and although, by the end of it, I don’t quite understand what it is that Oliver’s critics don’t understand, I think it does a good job of at least pointing to some of the things I like about Oliver’s work. Continue reading

In Memoriam, John Ashbery

Following the death of John Ashbery earlier this month, a number of eloquent, incisive memorial essays have been appearing on the web. Given Ashbery’s long history of publishing in the New Yorker, it’s no surprise that some of the best would come from others involved with that magazine. Here, for instance, is Ben Lerner, a great admirer of Ashbery and effectively his protégé:

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such — that there are other people, that there might be a common language.

Lerner’s remarks on the experience of reading Ashbery’s poems, which appear in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station and should rightly be attributed to his narrator Adam Gordon, have also been haunting me since Ashbery’s death: Continue reading

Mary Gaitskill’s Mechanicalness

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

What Could Have Been

Colson Whitehead, "The Colossus of New York"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

Fugitives and Followers

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

Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

George Saunders, "Lincoln in the Bardo"James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:

Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.

And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a  morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds: Continue reading

Rumrill’s Rhythms

Jeremy M. Davies’ second novel, Fancy, is the sort of thing you’d be likely to get if Thomas Bernhard had submitted himself to the stylistic and structural constraints of the OuLiPo. Like most of Bernhard’s novels, it takes the form of a long, meandering monologue, essentially an unhinged rant. The ranter is an old man named Rumrill, and he is ostensibly delivering his monologue to a young man and woman who have agreed, perhaps only provisionally, to house-sit his two dozen cats. The visitors remain silent and unnamed throughout the novel, although after Rumrill suggests that they smell like pickled cucumbers he begins to openly disparage them as “Mr. and Mrs. Pickles” and even as members of the species “Homo cucumis.” As he lays out his instructions for the Pickles to take care of his pets – instructions that become so meticulously detailed, and so outlandishly elaborate, that they tumble from the physical realm into the purely metaphysical – Rumrill intertwines the day-to-day business of pet care with an account of the time that he, as a young man, agreed to house-sit the three dozen felines belonging to an elderly cat-fancier named Brocklebank. As he rambles on and on, the reality of the situation becomes progressively murkier. Did Brocklebank really own three dozen cats or just a plurality sufficient to make it seem as if he owned that many? Was there in fact a man named Brocklebank at all, or is he some sort of hypothetical construct that Rumrill creates for purposes unknown? Is there even a Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, or is Rumrill perhaps only ranting into a void? And what’s the deal with his obsessive recall of a long ago instance of serendipitous fellatio? Continue reading