Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. One of the seventeen stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river. Continue reading

Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a beautiful novel for a number of reasons, although as I read it I often found myself wondering how much of its lustre would be lost on readers unfamiliar with Gilead. Unlike readers of Home, its immediate predecessor in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, readers of Lila will find much to appreciate even if they are not familiar with the other two titles. In part this is the case because Home replays many of the events already depicted by the narrator of Gilead, albeit from the perspective of a different character and therefore in a way that imbues them with new meanings, while Lila covers events that occur many years before the action of Gilead and that have been, until now, almost entirely unexplored. If a novel that requires its readers to possess knowledge of another novel thereby places a burden on their shoulders, Lila arguably leaves its readers at greater liberty than Home, and yet, while reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that liberty comes with its own sort of price. Continue reading

Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?” Continue reading

A Revisionary Postscript: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

After a while, I decided he might be on to something. I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow. In between wallpapering, I wrote The Wallcreeper. Then I started on the floors. Then I took up playing the piano.

So begins the final paragraph of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, positioning the work as another of those novels that finds its protagonist and narrator “in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth” and finally “justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis.” Zink’s narrator has good reason to plunge into crisis: in an unforgettable opening line, she recalls riding shotgun in a car with her husband and “looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Despite the depth of her trauma, however, she is much more acerbic and irreverent, much less leaden and melancholy, than Julius, Adam, Faye, and their ilk. Continue reading

Rachel Cusk and the Revisionary Imperative

“Call it autofiction, metafiction, or the post-Sebaldian novel,” as Stephanie Bishop writes, or, if you prefer, follow Charles Finch and call it the “granular introver[sion]” of those who write “barely novels, all in an ambiguous first-person indistinguishable from the author’s own voice.” Whatever name it goes by now or at some stage in future, there’s no denying that the last few years have seen the growth of a body of literature in which — among other things — truth and fiction begin blurring together, long stretches of essayistic contemplation marginalise conventional modes of character development, and scenes and events are sequenced in an associative way rather than being bound to the rules of narrative causality. Continue reading

On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies. Continue reading

The Wick Within the Flame

After recently re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Richard Crary found his appreciation of the novel undimmed a decade on from its first publication. “It is, in many ways, what used to be called ‘wisdom literature,’” he writes, “yet it is also a marvelous, and subtle, literary performance. And, it seems to me, a wholly appropriate literary response to our current situation, in the sense in which I have here attempted to channel or expand on Josipovici and others.”

I agree with both judgments and especially the last. Perhaps due to the vividness of its pastoral setting or the sophisticated and convincing ventriloquism through which Robinson breathes life into her narrator, the Reverend John Ames, Gilead tends to be read as a work of regional realism, a skilful observation of life in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. But there’s a conceit to both the narrative and the act of narration that imbues every word with extra complexity. “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett,” Josipovici writes in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, “is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.” In Gilead, Ames is similarly impelled to write and similarly suffers a sense that he is being false to himself, although his suffering comes with a twist on that of the writers named above. Continue reading