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.

Robinson Redux

New on Splice today, I have a long, ruminative essay on the humanist politics of Marilynne Robinson (and the work of Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, and J.M. Coetzee) with a particular focus on Robinson’s most recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?:

Humanism is, for Robinson, the greatest good, the ultimate end of a life whose necessary foundation is productive labour, and it is also absolutely inseparable from serious theology. Robinson’s religious view of humanism thus lends itself to at least a defence, if not a practice, of the liberal arts: the arts and humanities, after all, are an expression of human potential, of the plenitude of the human imagination, and are thereby an implicit indication of the nature and values of a superior being. Insofar as theology aims to understand the divine through the observable world, the arts and humanities are evidence of the capabilities of the creatures at the pinnacle of everything created by divine power: “a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human”.

This is actually the second long essay I’ve written about Robinson’s essays; the last, written upon the publication of The Givenness of Things, is available at Medium.

Bluebird Aesthetics

Alas, I didn’t win this year’s Observer critic’s prize — the rather ostentatiously titled Observer/Anthony Burgess Foundation Prize for Arts Journalism — but I it was an honour to be on the shortlist and I had a wonderful time at last night’s ceremony. Now that the results are out in the open and Felicity James has taken the gong for her review of Nigella Lawson’s At My Table, I’m going to post here my entry: a review of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Continue reading →

Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible. Continue reading →

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it? Continue reading →