Testing the Tolerance Threshold

Kicking off a new year of reviews for Splice, I’ve taken a look at Ashleigh Young’s essay collection Can You Tolerate This?:

The tolerance threshold is four pages. Read just the first four pages of Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? and you’ll know the terms on which to press forward. Those pages belong to a potent work of short prose entitled ‘Bones’. It’s not exactly a story, though it relates a narrative spanning a lifetime. It’s not exactly an essay, though it is informative, associative, and contemplative. It’s tough to read, describing events that are ghoulish and visceral and awfully sad, and yet its sentences have a delicacy of tone which alleviates the work as a whole, lightening the burden on the reader. So, then, what’s the implication of that title? Given that Young’s raw material is self-evidently hard to bear, the question “Can you tolerate this?” seems calculated to prompt readers to consider what makes it bearable. If the subject of ‘Bones’ tests one’s tolerance, Young’s style — her delivery of the material — does a lot of heavy lifting to raise one’s tolerance threshold. Four pages, that’s all it takes. Four pages, and you’ll see that the style inserts an extra word at the end of the title: the default answer to the question is “no”, but foreground Young’s way of approaching her subject and ask again — “Can you tolerate this now?” — and the answer evolves.

Reading Foster’s Letter

Over at The Collagist, I’ve reviewed Tristan Foster’s début collection of short stories and/or prose poetry — let’s call it a collection of “pieces” — entitled Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father:

Foster’s signature move, again and again, is to flag a subject, suggest that it has some sort of meaning, and then deflate or revoke the suggestion. Sometimes he does this by signaling that a piece is “about” something and then carving out spaces in which it isn’t “about” that thing at all. “Stories About You,” for instance, takes form as a series of discrete, inscrutable statements about “you”—”You remember the dead and rest your head in your hand, or against a wall. Then you remember something else”—until the fifth one appears inexplicably to be scrubbed of human presence, containing no “you” to which its meaning could apply. Likewise, in two pieces both titled “Neighbourhood Myths,” accounts of extravagant suburban folklore (“Friend’s dad killed friend’s brother in law”) subside into two paragraphs of pure, stirring description: a tranquil summer breeze, the interplay of shade and light, no scandalous rumors whatsoever.

At other times, Foster bores holes into the meaning of a text by withholding contextual details that would make the piece intelligible. “Alive and Well” takes the form of a letter that starts with these words: “In response to your notice from 04/09: I believe the individual you are referring to is me.” But while the text comprises the letter writer’s reply to the notice, it offers few clues to the references that apparently prompted the writing. Striking a similar note in the collection’s title piece, another letter writer begins: “Dear Sir, I send it anyway, but I hope this letter fails to reach you. A failure here seems only right.” What follows is a letter written in response to an earlier letter intercepted and read illicitly, the interception implying that the original didn’t reach its intended recipient. This letter, then, opens onto a textual hall of mirrors, each text addressed explicitly to readers who are or will be deprived of its meaning.

A Cold Take on Late Essays

I’ve got a new review in the Glasgow Review of Books today, focusing on J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays: 2006-2017 as well as his two earlier essay collections, Stranger Shores and Inner Workings:

The results are mixed. On the one hand, Coetzee’s greatest gifts as a critic are his eye for narrative design and his ability to elucidate why, under pressure from both the intrinsic demands of the artworks they sought to compose and the cultures in which they lived and laboured, classic writers decided to give their work this or that scope, tone, momentum, and design. On the other hand, Coetzee’s view of these writers is never less than enamoured, sometimes almost envious, and it is this view above all that hints at his anxieties. Often he seeks to pinpoint the lodestones of these writers’ legacies, to determine what technical innovations their achievements and their reputations rest on, and when he does this it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s wondering what his own work looks like in the shadows cast by theirs. From time to time, especially when he discusses the novels of Roth and Beckett, Coetzee even gives the impression that he’s trying to trace a literary lineage in which he hopes to place his oeuvre. His recurrent attraction to past masters looks like an effort to measure up to them in fits and starts, a piecemeal strategy for finessing his own position in relation to theirs. There’s nothing amiss with this per se, but Coetzee’s way of going about it comes at a cost. Eyes on the heavens, staking his longevity solely on writers he looks up to, he forfeits the opportunity to take a look around himself and survey those who have gathered in the shadow he casts.

I’ve also supplemented the review with a few Twitter comments in response to Stephen Mitchelmore’s concerns about my discussion of identity politics.

The Purity of Potential

I make no secret of my admiration for Gerald Murnane; I’ve written about him previously on this blog here, here, and here. Now, for Splice, I’ve taken a close look at Murnane’s collected short stories, published in the United States as Stream System, and I’ve attempted to articulate something of a theory of the Murnanian mindset:

The typical protagonist of a Murnane story is a man reminiscing on his younger years, thrown back into memory by an encounter with a woman whose presence he finds enchanting. Note that he is not enchanted by her actions, and rarely by her bearing. He is enchanted specifically by her presence, by her dwelling in proximity to him, because her being there in a shared space is a wellspring for purely potential developments, potential scenarios involving the two of them, as yet untainted by grubby reality. It’s the purity of this potential that enthralls him.

Bluntly put, then, Murnane’s typical protagonist is a man who objectifies a woman. But at no stage is this man under the illusion that the woman he objectifies is available to him. On the contrary. The memories he returns to are drawn from a youth, an adolescence, and an early adulthood spent in the conservative culture of suburban and provincial Australia in the 1950s, and particularly in the repressive atmosphere of its Irish Catholic community. He is a man crippled by the war between his Catholic upbringing and his bodily impulses. Women, for him, by virtue of his cultural background, are objects that inspire carnal desires which he doesn’t know how to answer. At the same time, he is convinced that these women and the young men they spend time with do know how to answer such desires — feeling none of the misgivings or confusions that halt him in his tracks — insofar as they are unhindered by Catholic cultural norms and the limitations imposed upon what young Catholics ought to know of the world.

I’ve also followed-up on the review via Twitter, responding to a few comments by readers on Murnane’s use of parataxis and the infamous idiosyncrasies of Murnane’s life.

Murnane’s Manifesto

Gerald Murnane, "A Million Windows"It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him. Continue reading

Michael Sala’s The Last Thread

Dutch is an awkward language. It sounds humorous to me even now, except when someone uses it in anger. When my stepfather cursed, I imagined dirt in his lungs, old black farming earth from the north of Holland, clotted with blood and bone. God verdomme.

Michael Sala's The Last Thread
Michael Sala’s The Last Thread

On the back cover of Michael Sala’s The Last Thread, the publisher’s blurb hails the book as “[r]eminiscent of the great autobiographical novels of J.M. Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje.” For a publisher to associate those names with a debut work is an audacious move, an attempt to make the book appealing to a very particular readership even at the risk of raising readers’ expectations to heights the book can’t reach. Thankfully, there’s more substance to this association than mere marketing gimmickry. Like Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Sala’s autobiographical novel depicts the tensions of a troubled youth in prose that oscillates between the lyrical and the stilted. Like those novels, too, The Last Thread strikes a balance between the personalisation and depersonalisation of a life story, concluding with an adult’s first-person reminiscence on his boyhood years after he has offered a third-person depiction of his younger self. But are those similarities enough to make The Last Thread worth reading? If troubled youths are a dime a dozen in the age of the misery memoir, and if Coetzee and Ondaatje have breathed new life into a tired genre with various artistic flourishes, is it enough for Sala to follow his masters’ footsteps through such well-trodden territory or does he break away from them to blaze a trail of his own? Continue reading

The Literature of Cities

For a while after I moved to Melbourne, I would sometimes notice the wilderness intruding on the cityscape and immediately I’d feel an urge to preserve the sight in a photograph. A gargantuan gumtree might strangle a street corner, or a palm might spring up between two sets of train tracks, or a pine might peek over a fence at the dead end of a laneway, and in each instance I’d find myself impelled to take a picture. I didn’t set out with camera in hand to hunt down these sorts of sights. I went about my business as usual and looked up every so often to find them in my way, a dash of green against steel and glass, as if waiting there for someone to spy them through the ruckus of human activity that otherwise left them occluded. I’d pull out my cellphone and snap a photo and then I’d set off again. I didn’t know where it came from, this impulse to preserve what I saw; I only knew that on some level I felt an affection for the urban green.

When I saw the green sneaking back into spaces from which it had been expunged, a part of me wanted to cheer it on and even to see it triumph. I enjoyed the thought of watching it slowly reclaim a city whose urgent cosmopolitanism, undisturbed by the wilderness, struck me then and strikes me now as complacent and somehow presumptuous. More than any other city I’ve ever known, Melbourne is exceedingly pampered — the unruliness of the natural world has been arrested and landscaped into submission — and yet in my bones I feel a resistance to such a pampered aesthetic and a reflexive attraction to almost anything that disrupts it. Only recently, however, did I begin to see the source of what I feel towards the city when the Christmas and New Year period gave me some time to read two long meditations on life in Australia’s capital cities. Continue reading