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.Read More »

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.Read More »

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.Read More »

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.”Read More »

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. Read More »

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:Read More »

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.