Clark’s Quiet Masterpiece

At the beginning of last trimester, I decided to teach a class centered around Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. My motives were, above all, selfish. I had read the novel once before and found it so impressive that I had barely put it down before it began gnawing away at my thoughts and demanding closer inspection. First published in 1940, The Ox-Bow Incident arrived on the heels of the early successes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and it is very much a novel of the pedigree represented by their work. Its prose is plain and laconic. Its characters are sharply defined. Their interactions lead them to articulate and debate the moral dilemmas that would otherwise amount only to subtext, and the dramas that develop between them are staged so precisely, yet with aspirations to realism so insistent, that the absence of ragged edges underscores the artificiality of the whole. When appreciated as a novel of this sort, The Ox-Bow Incident must be hailed as one of the very best. As much as its artifices may constrain it, its characters and their dramas remain electrifying from the first page to the last. But its sophisticated approach to the demands and limits of its genre was not what appealed to me when I first read it. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that appealed, but I could sense that it was something else, some textual undercurrent, some motivational force that propelled the whole thing along. When I decided to teach it in class, then, I set aside several weeks in which to read it closer, page by page, to find out what that something was. Continue reading

A Questionable Haziness

“What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—

“xx,” he said.

“xxx,” she said.

How she:

How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx—

How he, and also she—”

So begins chapter nineteen of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. “The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996,” Didion explains. “I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” The symbols that anticipated words to come were not random, she says, but were “arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

“I supposed th[e] process [of writing over the arrangements] to be like writing music,” Didion continues. “I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. All I know now is that writing, or whatever it is that I was doing when I could proceed on no more than ‘xxx’ and ‘xxxx,’ whatever it was I was doing when I imagined myself hearing the music, no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it as frailty.” Continue reading

Green Hair and Nose Bones

Literary rejoinders don’t often appear as bluntly as this one in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.

From Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, the soft-spoken Sheriff Bell wallows in soul-searching nostalgia as he approaches retirement:

I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.

From Meyer’s novel, published in 2009, here’s Glen Patacki, chief of police in Buell, Pennsylvania, indulging in nostalgia with the world-weary sergeant Bud Harris:

“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore. … We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the [fault of the] kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”

Meyer’s novel is pretty clearly a response to McCarthy’s, an attempt to provide a corrective to Sheriff Bell’s assessment of what ails the United States. Continue reading

Speech and Stoner

Appreciations of John Williams’ Stoner have been floating around the blogosphere for a while now, thanks to John SelfdovegreyreaderEmmett 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

Pay Attention!

You can’t devour it in a single sitting. You can try, but sooner or later your eyes will sting, your stomach will grumble, your body will crave sleep, your bladder will threaten to burst. You can try, but sooner or later you’ll need to get up and go places — to work, to the shops — or you’ll need to take a breather and listen to music or watch television, or you’ll need to make, change, or keep your plans to meet up with others, friends, colleagues, in the world beyond the novel’s pages. Infinite Jest, as a physical object, is so constituted as to compete for your attention with the demands of the body you inhabit and the stimuli of the world you occupy. Moreover, it competes with those things so strongly, and over such a length of time, that what it ends up calling to your attention is just how completely your attention is at the mercy of phenomena beyond your conscious control. At the core of Infinite Jest, then, is an issue that David Foster Wallace took, here and elsewhere, as the preeminent problem of human experience: what he calls in his recently-published posthumous novel, The Pale King, “the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.”

The Ian Potter Museum of Art website has just published a transcript of a public lecture I gave at the museum last week. The lecture attempts to connect Adam Kalkin’s latest art installation, Tennis Academy, to its source of inspiration: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Nabokov’s Nasty Tricks

Of the hundred or so titles recently reissued as Popular Penguins, the most taboo and thus the most notorious is arguably Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was controversial from the moment Nabokov first tried to commit it to print. Although he completed the novel in 1953, publishers refused to go near something so deliberately provocative until a Parisian press ordered a small run in 1955; and yet, even then, another three years passed before it was at last made available in Nabokov’s adopted homeland of America. It is true, of course, that the controversy subsided with the passage of time — but it has not disappeared entirely, as I learned earlier this year when I picked up Lolita in the Popular Penguins edition and felt the sting of its notoriety first-hand.

My short essay on the disparity between popular perceptions of Lolita and its aesthetic complexities appears in the latest issue of Philament.

Faulkner’s Structural Imagery

Returning to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for last week’s reading group, I was struck by this passage in Darl’s eighth monologue (page 89 in the Vintage Classics edition) which appears just as Anse, Cash, Jewel, and Darl first attempt to raise and bear Addie Bundren’s coffin:

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, balancing it as though it were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it ain’t balanced now. We’ll need another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.

Although Faulkner claimed to have hammered out As I Lay Dying in a single six-week burst of creativity, examinations of the original manuscript have since put the lie to that story. In our group discussion, then, one of the questions raised was whether the novel as published also undermines Faulkner’s claim insofar as its evident complexities and nuances make a six-week creation implausible. I pointed to the above passage as one nuance that seems to me to show enough self-reflexivity on Faulkner’s part — enough consciousness of what his novel was doing as he went about piecing it together — for the novel to then display some self-awareness, via imagery, of its own structure. Continue reading