E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World

Despite the stylistic verve of Doctorow’s famously snappy, streetwise prose, the stories are half-baked and half-hearted, rarely developing any complexity from the dramatic tension of their opening pages. If All the Time in the World is at all worth reading, then, it’s worth reading less for the virtues of the stories it contains than for its capacity to underscore exactly what makes Doctorow’s novels so spectacular. The short story form, defined by brevity and compression, is inimical to Doctorow’s sprawling imagination and freewheeling sensibilities. In his novels, he takes a high-concept premise and teases out its implications in painstaking detail over hundreds of pages, relishing the slow burn and the piecemeal disclosure of something insidious. In his stories, though, his high-concept premises are shoehorned into a literary form that doesn’t allow the same indulgence in digression and detail. The reach of their narrative premises exceeds the grasp of their literary form, and so they burn out in an instant, a flash in the pan, left unremarkable because they are implausible, and implausible because they are underdeveloped.

My review of E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World is online at The Critical Flame.

Tripping Over His Own Tongue

So I’ve got a brief essay on David Foster Wallace in the latest issue of Kill Your Darlings — not the digital KYD this time; the formerly arboreal version — which is now in stock at a bunch of more or less independent bookstores in Australia and which is also available for purchase online. I hope my contribution achieves something close to what I wanted it to achieve, although in this instance it’s possible that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I tried to contest the critical reception of The Pale King in the shadow of Wallace’s death and to provide an overview of Wallace’s body of work, and I tried to articulate some sense of what Wallace sought to achieve in everything he wrote — the subjects attracted his interest; the complications he sensed in the process of having his interest attracted; and the ways in which his writings variously honour, bemoan, and revel in those complications — all within arm’s reach of only 2,000 words. Continue reading

Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited

Less appreciated [than Cormac McCarthy’s work as a novelist] is [his] work as a dramatist. Having initially written both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men as screenplays, and having published an earlier screenplay, The Gardener’s Son, as well as a stage play, The Stonemason, McCarthy is no stranger to the dramatic form. Nevertheless, his dramas continue to lurk in the shadows cast by his novels.

To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy’s particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006 — verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, A Novel in Dramatic Form, with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.

My review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is online at The Quarterly Conversation.

Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun

The prose is not remarkable in any conventional sense. It is clear, muted, and even pedestrian — a world away from the exuberance of Roberto Bolaño, the zing of Don DeLillo, and the lyricism of Ian McEwan — and, for that reason, Zeitoun has attracted a number of offhand dismissals from broadsheet critics. Indeed, even those who have praised the book’s narrative have expressed reservations about the prose, as if its lack of conventional beauty were a side-effect of Dave Eggers’ overstretched workload or, worse, a symptom of his inherently underwhelming literary capabilities. But since Eggers has repeatedly proven himself one of the most adventurous stylists at work today, it seems more likely that his prose in Zeitoun is unconventionally remarkable given the deliberation with which he attempts to make it appear unremarkable.

The clarity of his prose entails a stylistic about-face so radical that, far from making the prose inconspicuous, Eggers perhaps inadvertently calls attention to the prose itself and thus calls into question the purpose of its clarity.

My review of Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun is online at The Critical Flame.