To See With New Eyes

Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood is one of the most vibrant novels I’ve read all year. I reviewed it this week for Splice, in my final review of 2019:

Fatherhood isn’t about [the narrator’s] pursuit of [his life plans] plans in any conventional sense. It is, as above, about the ways in which the travails of raising a newborn child make a glorious, hilarious mockery of a parent’s pretensions to personal dignity. In practice, this means that Klaces surveys two parallel pathwayss and sets out to follow both of them, alternating from one to the other as the novel unfolds. The first path leads him closer to his wife, the second to his infant daughter, so Fatherhood preoccupies itself with both the comedy of post-parenthood intimacy and the profundity of watching an entirely new identity come into being.

Samizdat Goes Mainstream

In Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Denise Riley embarks on an exquisite, excoriating investigation of her own mourning in the wake of the sudden death of her son. The book was more or less self-published several years ago and passed around like samizdat from one small press aficionado to another. Now, though, it has been republished by Granta in a beautiful new hardback edition with an introduction by Max Porter, and I had the pleasure of reviewing it this week for Splice:

What is radicalism in literature, but a redrawing of the usual boundaries of the readable? Find the zone of moderation, which is to say convention, then strike off in one of two directions. Push the boundaries outwards, claim liberties beyond those taken by the average book, and churn out a thousand-page treatise on melancholy or a doorstopper that makes room for every known fact about cetaceans. Or make your space more cramped, more pinched, and draw the boundaries inward. Forgo certain allowances; let your possibilities atrophy. Write a book in chapters of exactly one hundred words each, or in sentences that all take the form of a question. Use only phrases culled from other books, or refuse to use words containing the letter e. And then, if you really want to indulge your radicalism, choose a subject whose emotional freight tilts it in one of these two directions — excessive or aloof — and force your style to take the alternative. Go maximalist, go gargantuan, with a story about office boredom. Or else go minimalist, be ascetic by an act of will, with a counter-intuitive approach to a harrowing situation like the one faced by the poet Denise Riley.

New Perspectives on an Old World

I have cherished the essays of Kathleen Jamie for the better part of five years now, so I was very gratified to be able to review her new collection, Surfacing, for Splice — and to use the occasion to look back at her earlier volumes:

Here, then, is a typical essay by Kathleen Jamie: an off-kilter line of sight is traced and extended by speculative means, and allows for an apprehension of things that otherwise escape the eye. Sometimes, as above, the escape is spatial. A locus of interest might have a position so far above human affairs, or so far beneath, or at such a distance from them, that its very place of being evades any one person’s embodied vantage point. At other times, the escape is temporal. A locus of interest, deeply embedded in the past, makes a mockery of our immersion in the urgency of the present, so that, in effect, we are blinded by the here and now and unable to pierce the surface of the times we dwell in. In each case, though, an essay by Jamie will always find a way for the author to place herself just so in relation to her surroundings, at which point — like a key with a clean cut sliding smoothly into a lock — the author’s eyes align with some aspect of the world that radically expands the horizons of her perception. [Jamie’s first collection of essays] was blurbed by Richard Mabey, while [her second] was blurbed by John Berger, and Jamie’s work often comes across as a synthesis of theirs.

 

Whiteness

This week, Splice is running a two-part essay by me on the very niche subject of white space in prose fiction, with a focus on the uses of white space in two recent “novels”. Here’s how it starts:

What are the uses of white space in prose? A paragraph break prompts a renewal of focus; it asserts, in advance, the significance of some element of a scene or sequence. A section break swallows time, disrupting chronology in ways that sometimes take a leap to another moment and sometimes pause the unfolding action, withdrawing from the flow of things. Chapter breaks combine these effects while also opening up a refuge, a place to rest, offering readers an opportunity to catch their breath and take stock of events before proceeding.

But what about a space that both shatter a tract of prose and encompass its shards? What about those spaces that break a text into fragments and then encase each one in its own carapace of silence? The text appears as a series of disjointed, discrete segments of prose, but the whiteness that runs through it is also a force for its integrity. Its lacunae devour the words that would forge clear connections between its segments — by explication, by causality — and for that reason they become, collectively, the locus of the unity of the prose, the silence from which readers might extract connective threads.

Part one looks at white space in Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak.

Part two looks at white space in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9– Fog.

What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

Beyond the Praise

I’m a longtime admirer of the literary criticism of Daniel Green. I reviewed his essay collection Beyond the Blurb when it came out a few years ago, and I’m honoured now to have him writing on a regular basis for Splice. This week, he has chimed in with a review of Anna Burns’ Milkman, and he’s tackling the question of “difficulty” head-on.

The whole review is full of keen observations, not only about the novel but also about the way the novel has been discussed and praised. Of course, Green himself writes favourably about Milkman, but he also finds something untenable about the critical tendency to praise it for its representation of political turmoil in Northern Ireland while appreciating its stylistic features in an ancillary way, as if they’re intriguing by the by — or, worse, the tendency to simply give a tip of the hat to the style while “ploughing on,” or “working through it,” to reach the political marrow. Green reminds us that Burns’ choice of style is its own political manoeuvre, and argues that not giving pre-eminent consideration to this choice can entail missing out on something significant in Milkman rather than accessing something else in a more direct way.

In retrospect, this review works hand-in-hand with Green’s first review for Splice, focusing on David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On. What I appreciate about both of them is the way they challenge the reductive tendencies of a critical consensus. They’re not necessarily challenging the consensus per se, not breaking with the praise for either of these two books — but once a consensus begins to develop around a book (eg. Darker With the Lights On is “dreamlike” or Milkman is abstracted and digressive) there’s a pressure on critics to move the discourse forward, and this leads many people to adopt certain terms without thinking through their implications. I include myself in this.

In these two reviews, however, Green reminds us to stop, slow down, take pause, think twice. Are David Hayden’s stories really “dreamlike”? Is that the most apt way to describe them? Do we use that word just because they feel like dreams? Is it appropriate if they don’t necessarily follow a dream logic? And do we pre-emptively circumscribe our reading of the stories, their effects, their strategies if we take their being “dreamlike” as our starting point, the basis for our engagement? And then, Anna Burns — her novel is really and ultimately about Northern Ireland, isn’t it? But is it so specifically about Northern Ireland if the author employs strategies of abstraction that remove us from the setting? When we see the specificities of time and place in Milkman, how much do they issue from us, as readers, rather than from the text? How much of what we see of Northern Ireland is due to our habit of reading the specificities into the voids of Burns’ abstractions, supplying Milkman with what the author has removed from it?

In the hurly-burly of publication, prizes, reviews, counter-reviews, and so on, it’s all too easy to take for granted things that adhere to a text — coming to them from elsewhere in the discourse — and appraise a book without questioning them. But Green keeps an eye on them and reminds us to question them, to see through them to the originary text. And to see that a book might deserve praise for the ways it anticipates and challenges the very terms we’re likely to apply to it.

The Difficult Second Novel

For Splice this week, I’ve taken a long, in-depth look at The Large Door, Jonathan Gibbs’ follow-up to his frenetic début, Randall:

It’d be misleading to say that The Large Door is a lesser work than Randall. It’s more the case that it unfolds on a different scale, being self-consciously not a maximalist novel. By comparison, then, it is less ambitious and somewhat more cautious, more inhibited, in picking out targets for full-throated satire. But, taking as given its relative circumscription, it has the same swift narrative momentum and the same propulsive quality to its prose. There’s hardly a page that lacks some sparkling turn of phrase, some energising construction. When Jenny steps into the path of an oncoming cyclist, the cyclist yelps, swerves, then peddles off, “throwing back over her shoulder a no doubt withering and entirely justified kite’s tail of invective.” Just prior to this, when Jenny embraces an old colleague with whom she has regretfully lost touch, Gibbs writes that she breathes in deeply, “hoping to take into herself something of Frankie’s scent, some thread of spoor leading back to the past, but there was nothing, just the sterile residue of hotel soap and shampoo.” Elsewhere, the prose engages in light formal play: lines of text break off suddenly, without a full stop, as characters backspace the messages they’re writing on their phones, and one scene describes a presentation delivered at an academic conference by allowing the prose to devolve into hurried notes: “M wrong about JV … Men use their intelligence tactically, like women use make-up, hair, clothes. Intellect as clothing? … Fundamental beliefs = underwear? Hygiene. Support. For e.g. the woman with JV after coffee break.”