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.”

Voices or Ventriloquism?

With the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist making space for Alex Pheby’s Lucia, Will Eaves’ Murmur, and Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, it’s clear that there’s a trend for “bio-fiction” — fictionalised biographies of real historical figures — which raises a number of questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics. There’s a fascinating discussion of these issues on the latest RofC podcast and a welcome defence of more experimental strategies from the powers that be at Galley Beggar Press.

RofC in Retrospect

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the “Love Takes Risks” conference on small presses at UEA in Norwich, and the announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize. I was there to represent Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There, which was published by Splice last year and landed a spot on the longlist back in January. Ultimately, Hang Him didn’t make it through to the next round, but that’s okay; I was honoured just to have Splice represented during its first year of operations, and I also had a great time listening to the plenary session that preceded the shortlist announcement. That session featured the powerhouse trio of David Hayden, Eley Williams, and Chris Power in conversation — and my fingers were flying across the touchscreen as I tried to document it all on Twitter in real time. If you’re interested in following the threads I unspooled, start here and read to the end, then follow up here with a look at a part of the thread that somehow branched off from the first.

Movement Like a Moth

Adam Scovell’s Mothlight is one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve reviewed the novel for Splice, with a focus on the fascinations of its form:

It has been said that moths are drawn to burning candles because they confuse flames with the light of the moon. Moths, after all, use moonlight to navigate a path through darkness, but light from elsewhere reliably drags them off-course. The result is a split in perceptions. From the moth’s perspective, the path remains direct although the destination is unreachable: the creature believes itself to be flying straight on towards its goal, even as it fails to close the remaining distance. From the perspective of an observer, however, the moth has been snared into a spiral with no way to break free; it flutters around the flame in a way that makes a misleading light the centre of an experience, surveying the object of its desire continually from a distance. In his début novel, Mothlight, Adam Scovell has written a book that shadows the movements of the captive moth. Scovell’s narrator takes aim at a very particular objective, albeit one that is hazily conceived, only to end up whirling around in circles, unable to seize his prize, fixating on an ideal in a frenzied pursuit that robs him of his sanity.

I also had the pleasure of speaking to Scovell about the process of writing Mothlight:

What about the prose style, and the way it contributes to the tone in conjunction with imagery and the narratorial perspective? There’s clearly a bit of W.G. Sebald in there, maybe some Teju Cole, but were there other models for Thomas’ voice? Where did it come from?

I think the majority of the voice techniques come from European fiction of the post-war period. Sebald was and always will be the biggest influence on my writing, but the main voice that dictated the OCD recursions in Mothlight was Thomas Bernhard. I don’t think I’d have the bottle to write fiction the way I do without having read him, and he’s probably the closest a writer has come to recreating my own “head voice”. In particular, the way Bernhard uses repetition to lock you into the tics and worries of his narrators is really quite astounding, and you can definitely see what Sebald took from his writing as well. Teju Cole was another influence, generally. I love how he is building on the use of the photographs within prose, as well as his mental and physical meanderings. I loved Open City, and reading one of his essays on Sebald from Known and Strange Things whilst in Strasbourg created one of the most uncanny reading moments of my life, though I won’t say why.