The Poetry of the Tarn

Although I had some serious reservations about the first hundred pages of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole, particularly regarding its mythologisation of its nativist protagonist, I found the novel taking a more critical turn and I ended up admiring it. I reviewed it at length this week for Splice:

Consider the poetry of the tarn. Does it even exist? Glaciers, waterfalls, windswept moors: these are the features of landscape typically taken up for romanticisation. Tarns tend to be disregarded, ugly black pools fringed with reeds, or else construed as the dwelling places of demons, hags, Grendel’s mother. If there’s any hope for a poetry of such things, it’s to be penned by way of an inverse romance: a celebration of mud and muck, spindles and gorse, the suck and squelch of claggy soil, and an adoration of the guttural language which, in its own peculiar way, breathes a beautiful onomatopoeia into these usually maligned aspects of terra Britannica. But not content with simply pulling poetry from the tarn and its dreary surrounds, Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole is a novel that aims for something more difficult. It trains its gaze upon a group of hardbitten, weatherbeaten men who find the tarn a thing of beauty anyway, regardless of any attempts at romanticisation, and it sets out to give voice to their latent poetic sensibilities.

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

After the End of Point-of-View

Last week I went to an event in London organised by the people behind the White Review: a panel discussion featuring Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and Lara Feigel, on the topic of “Writing Motherhood.” I was struck by most of the things said by Cusk, in particular, and especially one remark she made and prefaced with “We haven’t spoken about literary form yet,” so she could open the doors to a discussion of form. What she wanted to say was this: “Point-of-view fiction has led the novel into a carpark full of overflowing skips, or some such un-aesthetic place.” That’s a slight paraphrase, but the key words were actually spoken by Cusk: “point-of-view,” “carpark,” “skips,” “un-aesthetic” or “not very aesthetic.”Read More »

An Ingress to Egress

Egress is an ambitious new literary journal edited by David Winters and Andrew Lattimer, and it’ss well worth the investment of your time. I reviewed the first issue for Splice:

In their brief preface to the first issue of Egress, the editors claim that we live in “a time of increasing distraction”, a time in which “conventional fiction can no longer detain our attention”, and that, as a result, “the future belongs to those strange outliers, those writers who bend and warp the medium into bold new shapes.” In the journal’s final pages, in an essay entitled ‘Attention and the Future of Narrative’, Veronica Scott Esposito elaborates on this notion: cataloguing fiction that “departs… from the conventions of storytelling” and “relentlessly resists systematization”, she celebrates literature that cannot be appreciated without “sustained focus”, “active attention”. Overall, then, Egress emerges from an aspiration to publish work of such linguistic and/or narrative novelty that the reader’s attention is warranted, held, challenged, and rewarded. How well has this aspiration been realised, now that the ink has dried on the page?

Body/Mind

Kicking things off at Splice today, here’s my review of the recent reissue of Brian Dillon’s memoir of depression, In the Dark Room:

[In the Dark Room] is a work of formidable intricacy, both conceptually and stylistically. Dillon’s thoughts shuttle back and forth rapidly between the abstract and the concrete, between the ethereal and the corporeal, sometimes in the space of just a sentence or two. He unpicks the fibres of the experiences that have impressed memories upon things he can see and touch, and he seizes at spontaneous recollections and sutures them to objects and locales. Moreover, he does all this with great care for both the lyricism of his own prose and the pertinence of words drawn from other sources.

Of particular note are Dillon’s inimitable sentences. They tend to be long, recondite, and elaborate, yet also rhythmic and eloquent: mimetic of the flow of his thoughts. They are also often convoluted, sometimes obscure, packed with digressions and qualifications in subclauses, parentheses, and asides — not in ways that are purposefully opaque or impenetrable, but in ways that strike an unconventional balance between the sense of a statement and the sensuousness of the prose. They string out their substance along syntactical lines that loop back onto themselves, tying into other lines from other works, other pages, threading the entire book with thoughts that are often begun in a place far removed from where they reach their conclusions. To follow each of them all the way through can require real work on the part of the reader — painstaking attention to modifiers, conjunctions, and punctuation — but the reward for the reader’s labours is prose of such fine textures of meaning and prosody that it is actually able to simulate some of the bodily sensations it describes.

Jon McGregor’s Pagan Omniscience

I’ve spent part of this year reading through the work of Jon McGregor, whose latest novel, Reservoir 13, has met with a lot of acclaim here in Britain. It has even become one of those rare beasts longlisted or shortlisted for the more conservative literary prizes (the Booker, the Costa) as well as the Goldsmiths Prize for “innovative fiction.” Now, on the occasion of its publication in America, James Wood has offered an especially perceptive take on the new book in the context of McGregor’s body of work.

“McGregor’s first novel received a lot of excited attention,” writes Wood,

\but in comparison with his later work it seems showy; it glistens with anxious youthful effort. The sentences are self-consciously lyrical, but not quite brilliant enough to earn their inflation. There are moments of subtlety, but they have to be dug out of the style. And the book is uneasily poised on the lip of a conceit: the street, we learn, is being described just before a climactic and terrible moment, withheld until the end of the book.

That was exactly my impression when I read it over the summer. Thankfully, McGregor has improved with age, and Reservoir 13 is his best work to date, establishing certain continuities with his earlier novels even as it breaks with them in its effects.Read More »

The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise.Read More »